Harlequin's Slash Fic

Arthur: 04 Summer Solstice

Title: Arthur: 04 Summer Solstice
Author: Harlequin
Universe: Merlin
Characters featured: Arthur/Uther, Arthur/Gwen, Arthur/Merlin, Arthur/Merlin/Lancelot… Gosh, well – the prince puts himself about a bit. And there’s some explicit het in there, amidst much slash! Shocking!
Category, Word count: Story; 11178 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: This is a sequel to Innocence, Experience and Winter Solstice, written at the request of my friend Lara. It is set five years after the previous story. Arthur spends the winter solstice at Camelot with Gwen and with Uther, then returns to Merlin and their adventures out in the wider world.
Notes: The stuff about the siege of Caen and the Duke of Normandy and so on is totally fictional, and not really of the right period – whatever that is! I just tried to go for a bit of fighting that fit the feel of the series itself. Also, I don’t know at what point this becomes an alternate universe story. The sequence started as canonical – well, canon plus slash – but has become an alternate version of the characters’ future.
Warnings: Please be warned this includes the death of a main character.

 

Summer Solstice

On the first day of winter five years before, Arthur had sat like this across a fireplace from Morgana, and they had spoken of marriage. But it seemed that one thing after another had changed since then, and Arthur’s plans for the future had been reformed, and reformed, and reformed again. Now he sat silent, pondering, and when he looked up Arthur saw – not Morgana, with her pale beauty and her violet dress framed by the cold light from the window – but Guinevere, with her warmth and her earnest concern.

It was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and Arthur had returned to Camelot for a day and a night as he had promised his father the king that he would. That morning he had spent amongst the people, talking with them, acknowledging them, hearing their complaints, discussing their issues, reassuring them. That afternoon he would have to sit through interminable conversations with the king and other worthies, as they briefed him on all that had befallen Camelot in the preceding year, occasionally asking for his opinion on future decisions or directions – not that Uther wouldn’t simply do as he saw fit regardless of Arthur’s wishes or intentions, but even Uther wanted to ensure that Arthur remained involved in the kingdom and how it was governed. Arthur had infinite patience when it came to his people, but he never looked forward to the afternoons.

For now, though, after the midday meal, he had stolen an hour to catch up with Gwen on the smaller matters. The matters that often seemed far more significant.

‘Have you heard from her?’ he finally asked, his voice low to avoid shattering the silence.

She shook her head. ‘No. Not since that letter I showed you.’

‘Gaius should have contacted us sooner. I might have been able to prevent –’

‘I don’t think you could have changed anything,’ Gwen offered with quiet sorrow.

‘Merlin and I went to see her,’ Arthur said. ‘It was obvious it was too late. I don’t think she’ll be coming back.’

‘You went to the Druids? Arthur! You were taking an awful risk.’

Arthur shrugged. He and Merlin had faced far worse dangers than that together. ‘She and the boy Mordred are thick as thieves. It’s as if…’ He frowned. He couldn’t make out whether Morgana considered the boy as a surrogate son or a surrogate brother or… In any case, it felt as if Mordred had supplanted Arthur in Morgana’s heart, in some untoward way. And Mordred himself made Arthur feel deeply uneasy, for all that he was still a child.

‘How was she?’ Gwen murmured, her gaze on her hands which were twisted together in her lap.

For while Arthur had lost his foster sister and his betrothed, Gwen had lost her mistress and her lover. ‘Beautiful,’ he said. ‘Fierce. Everything you’d expect. Beautiful. Fierce. Mad. Powerful.’

Gwen was silent for a time. Perhaps a tear fell from her lowered face.

‘You didn’t go with her,’ he observed. And he asked gently, ‘Why not? No one would have blamed you.’ After all, Arthur himself had chosen his lover over Camelot, at least for the remaining years of Uther’s reign.

‘I belong here,’ she replied simply. ‘And… she had no need of me.’

‘Guinevere…’ There were times it seemed that the castle was built on broken foundations. Nothing ever quite took a wholesome path. ‘Anyway,’ Arthur continued more brusquely, ‘we obviously have need of you.’ He indicated the room in which they sat; she now lived within the castle, having become steward for the royal household during the past year, an unusual position for a woman. Gwen seemed less anxious these days, and more self–contained. But also rather less happy. Arthur said, ‘I was pleased to find my father had acknowledged your worth in this way. I… don’t always agree with his judgements, as you know, but I certainly admire him for this one.’

‘I hardly feel I have earned such a privilege.’

‘Nonsense.’ Knowing he was treading on dangerous ground, he dared to ask, ‘Does he treat you with respect?’

‘Yes. Yes.’ She looked him in the eye to convey that she honestly meant it. ‘I think, after my father’s death, and then Morgana leaving as she did, he has wanted to treat me well.’

‘I am glad of it. There is no one here more deserving. It will be the first appointment I confirm when I become king – unless you have moved on to something even more fitting, of course.’

She laughed then, sounding more like the carefree Gwen he remembered from years before. ‘I miss your mockery, Arthur,’ she said.

‘I miss your criticisms, Guinevere.’

‘Then we both have something to look forward to in the years ahead.’

He settled back in the chair, feeling really rather unreasonably comfortable and content, and he murmured, ‘Yes, we do.’

The court had always held a feast at winter solstice, but in recent years it had become a celebration of their prince’s return as well. Not that the guest of honour was ever allowed to stay for very long. When he’d been living at Camelot, these feasts had often become all–night affairs, at least for the prince and the knights and their friends. Now the king always had another priority in mind, and after a couple of hours with the court, Uther would retire to his rooms, and Arthur was expected to join him soon thereafter. He didn’t mind. Not any more. This had simply become a fact of Arthur’s life.

Once he’d let himself in, Arthur turned the key to lock the door to Uther’s rooms, and slid the bolt across. His father had only had time to discard his cape and pour two goblets of wine; he looked across at Arthur with an approving smile. ‘You’re looking well, Arthur.’

‘Thank you, father. As are you,’ he offered – though privately he thought that Uther looked horribly tired. Arthur walked over to the king, and before he took the goblet he pressed a kiss to Uther’s mouth. Then they stood there, close together, examining each other with frank concern. Arthur took a mouthful of wine, and then he quietly asked, ‘All is truly well with you, sire?’

‘Yes.’ Uther’s breath caught for a moment, though, and he confessed, ‘Camelot can be… rather bleak without its prince.’

‘I’m sorry, father.’ But he didn’t say it in such a way that allowed for any negotiation. This was how things were between them, and it could not change.

‘It has been an unfortunate year in many ways.’

Huh. Arthur turned away, trying not to give in to the sudden anger. ‘Unfortunate? You’re referring to banishing Morgana, I suppose.’

‘Yes. Don’t imagine that was easy for me.’

‘Right,’ he said with massive irony. And then they were shouting, right in each other’s face.

‘Those visions of hers – I commanded her, but she would not stop –’

‘How could she stop, for God’s sake?’

‘She is a seer! I could have had her executed!’

‘I wouldn’t be here, father, if you had.’

‘I showed her a mercy I’ve shown no one else, and you –’

‘You’ve driven us both away now. Driven away your only family! How the fuck do you think this is going to end?’

Uther stared at him for a long hard moment, eyes focussed wide as if for battle. ‘With my death, I suppose,’ he finally ground out. ‘There’s no need to pretend, Arthur. You are waiting for me to die.’

‘Father,’ he cried out brokenly. He took Uther’s head in both hands, and brought him close so they rested forehead to forehead. ‘Father. I do not want it to be this way. I don’t. But you make it impossible to –’

‘All right!’ Uther protested, as if he couldn’t bear to hear any more. ‘All right. Enough.’

They were silent for a time. Until the worst of it had passed. Then Arthur took Uther’s hand, and led him to the long couch by the fireplace. He went back to collect the two goblets of wine. They sat there together, drinking a little, within arm’s reach of each other, but not touching.

Eventually Arthur put his goblet down again, and shifted closer. He murmured, ‘Father,’ and lifted his hands to Uther’s face. Leaned in to kiss him. A gentle kiss at first, that Uther soon made passionate.

When they broke apart, they were both breathing hard. ‘Undress yourself,’ Uther ordered.

Arthur stood, and did so. Not making a show of it, but letting Uther watch. When he was done, he asked, ‘What now, father?’

‘Come here, and turn around.’

He waited with his back to his father, thinking he knew what to expect. But then felt cold metal slipping over one hand. Looking back over his shoulder, Arthur saw that his father was fastening manacles to him, one for each wrist, with about twelve inches of solid chain between them. He didn’t pull away or resist, but he observed, ‘On these nights I am yours to do with as you will, father. It doesn’t have to be this way.’

‘It does, if this is what I will.’

Arthur let out a heavy breath. ‘Did you prefer it when I really didn’t want to be here? Did that suit you better?’

Uther’s hand wrapped hard around Arthur’s forearm. Twisted nastily. ‘Do you want me to gag you as well?’

Arthur collected himself. ‘No, father,’ he said simply.

‘Good. Then come to the bed.’

At least they did actually use the bed these days, and Arthur ended up considerably less bruised and raw as a result. Uther had stripped himself and lay down, drew Arthur to him, and they kissed and shifted against each other, with Uther’s hands demanding on Arthur’s skin – until Uther was hard, whereupon he lay on his back and commanded, ‘Ride me.’ So Arthur straddled his hips, and with Uther holding his own cock in place, Arthur sank down onto him, and then started off at a walking roll before lifting into a trot. It was just as well he had a good sense of balance and strong thighs, for he couldn’t grasp a hold with his hands secured behind him. But Uther’s hands were on his hips, which helped, with his fingers digging in hard enough to leave telltale marks – maybe the king was thinking about Merlin, and sending a message about exactly who owned whom in Camelot… Uther took a while, longer than he used to, but eventually he gave a hoarse shout, and pushed up hard into Arthur until he was almost unseated. And then – another significant difference to how this had started – he was tumbling Arthur over onto his back, with Arthur’s butt propped up off the bed by the manacles – and Uther was following him down, his mouth fastening hungry on Arthur’s cock. Within moments Arthur was bucking up, and coming, coming, coming with an agonised groan – his father greedily drinking down his seed, and looking happier for it.

Uther was already falling asleep afterwards, so Arthur leaned in close to press a kiss to his father’s greying temple, and he asked, ‘The key. Where’s the key?’

‘Top drawer,’ he muttered, before receding like an ebb tide.

So Arthur was left to scrabble around clumsily with his hands restrained. But eventually he managed to free himself. He snuffed out the candles, and then climbed into bed beside his father. Eased up snug behind him, and held him, and within moments Arthur, too, had slipped away into sleep.

It had been a very long day.

The fire was out in the morning, and everything was cold and grey. Even Uther’s skin looked grey in the harsh light of a winter dawn. That didn’t stop Arthur though – he kissed Uther, and while the old man was still half asleep, shifted over him, driving cock against cock in a slow but relentless dance. Uther gazed up at him, helpless, full of love and need and crushed hope and other unspoken things. Arthur didn’t let up until Uther had come, and then Arthur followed him, and they held each other there, clung to each other, until Uther drifted away again into sleep.

The court and even the castle itself still seemed to be recovering from the winter solstice feast that morning, and the forecourt was empty as Arthur rode into it from the stables, an hour after dawn. But at the last moment he saw that Gwen had come out to see him off. She stood there at the foot of the steps with a quiet dignity he’d never really guessed at before. ‘Guinevere,’ he said as he reined in beside her.

‘Arthur.’ She tried to smile up at him, but it didn’t really work very well. ‘Take care of yourself, won’t you? And take care of Merlin.’

‘Isn’t he meant to be taking care of me?’ he asked wryly.

She closed her eyes for a moment. She knew the truth about them, of course, the whole wonderful ridiculous truth. ‘Take care of each other. Please.’

Arthur leaned down from the horse, reaching for her hand – she lifted it to his, and he kissed the back of it, very properly. ‘My lady,’ he said on a sudden impulse. He pressed a kiss into her palm. ‘Wait for me.’

Gwen drew in a breath, her dark eyes watching him, curious. Surprised. Thoughtful. And then there was a flicker of interest.

‘Wait for me!’ he said again as he tapped his heels against the horse’s flanks, and rode off. He turned in the saddle as he reached the gate. Gwen was still standing there, with her hands at her mouth. Watching him. He lifted a hand in farewell, and she returned the gesture. And then she was gone.

Late that same day, Arthur rode up towards the cave, and saw Merlin standing there outside it, waiting for him. Merlin always seemed to know exactly when to expect him. ‘Hiding yourself away safely, I see,’ Arthur called out with all the irony he could manage. Which wasn’t much, he had to admit.

Merlin just grinned, and called back, ‘Why would I hide myself from you?’

Arthur shook his head, reined in the horse and got down, then led it up the last steep slope. They chose a different place each time for Merlin’s winter solstice sojourn, and they never chose Ealdor, for Arthur wouldn’t put it past Uther to send knights out after Merlin on the one day of the year that he was alone and therefore at his most vulnerable. Not that Arthur thought Merlin couldn’t look after himself, but… Merlin was far too important to Arthur for him not to worry over the man’s safety. After all, this whole exile–from–Camelot thing was about Merlin’s safety, wasn’t it? The only aspect on which Arthur compromised was that he couldn’t bear for Merlin to be more than one long day’s ride away. He had to be within reach, even though it would have been better to leave Merlin far behind in whichever part of the world they happened to be in that year.

‘Any unexpected visitors?’ Arthur asked as he finally drew near.

‘None at all. An inquisitive rabbit or two.’

Arthur snorted, and nodded towards the pot steaming over the campfire. ‘Rabbit stew tonight, then?’

‘Afraid so.’

Then they were together again, and while Arthur simply tried to embrace his love, Merlin was running anxious hands over Arthur along with his searching gaze, both visual and magical, looking for breaks and bruises and misery.

‘I’m fine, Merlin.’

‘You never used to be,’ Merlin reminded him.

‘Well,’ Arthur commented a bit distantly, ‘it’s odd what you become accustomed to.’

Merlin looked at him very directly indeed. ‘You love that old bastard, don’t you?’

Arthur pulled away, and went to fetch his saddlebags, started sorting through one, rearranging things. Merlin didn’t say anything more, and would have let him get away without answering. But eventually Arthur said, ‘Yes. He’s my father, and my king. I wouldn’t have chosen for it to be anything more, but seeing as it is… I make the best of it.’

‘He almost destroyed you during those first months.’

‘It’s different now.’ He knew Merlin wouldn’t want details. Hell, he didn’t want to give him details. But he and Merlin hadn’t kept any secrets from each other, not since the winter solstice five years before when Arthur had found out about Merlin’s magic and Merlin had announced that he already knew about Arthur’s relationship with his father. Back then, Uther had forced him, hurt him, hating himself, and Arthur had been bitterly miserable and resentful. All that had changed. ‘It’s more like love now,’ Arthur explained, ‘me and Uther. An old pledge of love between two worn–down, battle–weary soldiers.’

‘That’s just delightful.’

‘It has its moments,’ Arthur darkly replied.

Merlin just shook his head in bemusement, and turned away. Walked over to the fire, and fed it with another branch or two.

Arthur went to him, and took him deep into his arms. Kissed him. ‘Merlin,’ he murmured against the man’s lips. ‘Love you, Merlin.’

‘Love you, too, you worn old soldier,’ came the muttered reply. And they held each other there for a long while.

Somehow Merlin had heard – on the breeze, Arthur supposed, or through the aether – that there was some kind of snake beast terrorising a nearby village, so they headed there after spending two nights together in the cave. They tracked the thing to the edge of a gloomy forest full of fallen trees and snaring vines and mounds of undergrowth. Arthur considered the prospect of finding his way through all that with very little enthusiasm. ‘Maybe we should just wait here for the damned thing to come out again.’

‘Better to get in there and get this over with,’ Merlin said, sounding keen. It seemed the warlock was spoiling for a fight.

‘How are we even going to find it? It’s midday out here, and it looks like midnight under those trees.’

Merlin shrugged. ‘I’ll light the way.’

‘Yeah, like we want it to see us coming from a mile off.’

‘So, I’ll hide the light from everyone and everything but you and me. Just like I was hiding myself and the cave from everyone but you and me.’

Arthur looked at him. Even after all these years of questing and fighting with Merlin beside him, Arthur hadn’t quite gotten used to all the possibilities. One day he and Merlin were going to have to sit down and have a serious talk about strategies and such, rather than continuing to make it up as they went along. For now, Arthur just muttered, ‘Any self–respecting knight would call that cheating.’

‘It’s a magical beast,’ Merlin replied with a carefree shrug, ‘so it’s fair to fight it with magic.’ Not that he’d be overly bothered if it wasn’t, Arthur surmised. But, then, magic was always going to be Merlin’s preferred form of offense or defence.

‘All right, all right. Come on, then.’

And they found the creature after an hour or so, using Merlin’s bluish–white globe of light and Arthur’s tracking skills. The snake beast was enormous, and its eyes glowed engrossingly red… But after some skirmishing, Merlin managed to stun it with what seemed like a bolt of lightning called down from the sky, which gave Arthur a moment in which to slay it with a finely judged thrust of his sword. Then they had to run to escape a small blaze caused by Merlin’s lightning – which the warlock put out with a torrential rainstorm… And yet another village was safe from harm, for the time being at least.

On the other hand, Arthur suffered from severe chills that night after he’d been completely drenched in Merlin’s rain. Merlin couldn’t magic away the fever, but a decent campfire and a close warm embrace under their shared blankets seemed to eventually do the trick.

Arthur’s intention that year was to fight for the Duke of Normandy, who was supposed to be currently marching to Caen to lift Picardy’s siege of the fortified town. So he and Merlin crossed the sea, and eventually found the duke’s forces still amassed near Rouen. Arthur sighed a little when he realised they hadn’t even gotten underway yet. He’d learned a great deal by fighting for other kings and dukes and barons; sometimes what he’d learned was what not to do. Merlin would smugly lecture him about this being valuable in itself, but Arthur was beginning to run out of patience when it came to dealing with leaders he could not respect. Still, he hadn’t even met the man yet; he must at least start by giving him the benefit of the doubt.

The two of them waited outside the duke’s public hall within the town, and were eventually ushered into the ducal presence. Arthur introduced himself as Castus, and asked for the honour of serving as a knight in the Norman army. Of course he was asked to give an account of his experience, so he dwelt in detail on the past five years and remained remarkably vague about where he’d received his early training.

‘We note –’ The duke spoke of himself thus – ‘We note that you bear no arms, Castus.’

‘No, sire.’ Arthur’s surcoat and shield were, this year, a plain blue. Merlin had told him he looked very fetching in it, as the colour matched his eyes, but apparently that wasn’t furthering his cause with the duke. ‘There was a question of my… legitimate right to bear my father’s arms. I decided to prove my worth on my own account.’

Apparently this story was acceptable. The duke stared at him for a while, but then nodded. ‘You bring your own weapons and armour?’

‘Yes, sire.’

‘We could wish that every man who asks to fight be so well prepared… That man is your squire, we assume?’

‘Yes, sire. His name is L–’

‘Blaise,’ said Merlin. ‘Hi, I’m Blaise.’

Arthur gritted his teeth behind his polite smile. Well, at least Merlin wasn’t heading up there onto the dais, attempting to shake the duke’s hand. And it was always good to establish Merlin’s character as early as possible, so that any oddities could be chalked up to his obvious mental incapacity.

‘He is adequate to your needs? You won’t need someone from the ranks to serve you?’

Barely adequate, it is true,’ Arthur responded. ‘But I won’t impose on your generosity, sire.’

And they were dismissed with a lift of the duke’s chin. The steward of the hall told them to seek out the Master–at–Arms, on the far side of the stables near the eastern gate.

The two of them walked down towards the edge of town, Merlin gawking about him at the buildings and the people as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

‘Blaise?’ Arthur eventually queried through gritted teeth.

‘Yes, sire?’ Merlin instantly responded, grinning like he was mightily pleased with himself for actually  managing to recognise his new name.

‘I thought it was going to be Loholt.’

‘I changed my mind.’

‘Right in the middle of our audience with the duke? You just changed your mind? Do you even have a reason for doing that?’

‘I like it better – and it has to last me all year.’

Arthur growled. ‘You should have warned me. We have to talk about these things. It doesn’t link back to who you really are, does it?’

‘Yeah, that’s good coming from someone who wanted to call himself after his cousin Constantine.’

‘Oh, shut up! All I said was that it’s a fine name.’ Arthur glared at him. ‘Don’t change the subject. How many clues are you giving away?’

‘None!’ Though it sounded very much as if Merlin had something more to say.

‘What?’ Arthur was really getting furious by now.

‘Well, you know, Castus, you’re the one who pretty much blows our cover every time. There’s no mistaking that you’re from Albion; at least I can do a nice lyrical accent from Eire when I need to. And no matter where we are, within the first month or so, someone comes along and starts quizzing me about royalty in exile… It’s right there in the way you hold yourself! Let alone the way you relate to people around you. It takes, like, five minutes to work out you’re not just a regular knight. And there can’t be that many princes from Albion out on the loose. So I don’t think you can blame me if anyone ever figures it out.’

‘And what the fuck are you doing now?!’ Arthur cried.

For in the middle of this long speech, Merlin had suddenly begun rolling his eyes skywards while he talked, grimacing like a gargoyle, and thoughtfully – or moronically, depending on one’s mood – tapping a finger against his lower lip. ‘I just saw someone we know – Don’t look, you idiot! – and I’m telling him not to recognise us, while pretending to make faces at you. Sire.’ And Merlin finished by poking out his tongue at Arthur –

– who promptly chased Merlin into the nearby stables and threw him on the straw of an empty stall. Flung himself after, and pummelled him – or tickled him, depending on one’s interpretation of these things – until Merlin was squirming and screeching with laughter, and Arthur felt somewhat saner. The horses to either side of them whinnied excitedly and stamped their hooves, while the stable–hands kept a bemused distance.

‘All right, you prat,’ Arthur eventually muttered, indulging himself for a moment by staying there, lying half over Merlin. ‘Who did you see?’

Merlin’s eyes glowed, and he whispered, ‘Lancelot,’ like it was absolutely the most exciting news he could possibly convey.

‘Ah…’ Arthur murmured with some misgivings. ‘Yes. Lancelot…’

Lancelot tracked down their tent that night, of course, and didn’t seem overly surprised when he stepped inside and found he’d walked right into Merlin’s arms. ‘Hello, my friend,’ Lancelot murmured, delighted and amused and perfectly genuine – and gorgeous with it, damn him to hell and back.

‘I’ve missed you!’ Merlin leant back to declare, before wrapping the man up in another big hug. Which was exactly the sort of thing that had made Arthur so jealous back in Camelot, in the days before he’d realised Merlin was an innocent, at least in terms of experience.

‘And I have missed you.’

Merlin asked in the loudest whisper Arthur had ever heard, ‘Are you incognito, too?’

‘No. No, I’m not.’

‘We are.’

‘Yes,’ Lancelot replied with a laugh, ‘I gathered that.’

Arthur had to interject at this point. ‘Don’t tell me you actually understood all that grimacing and gesticulating he was doing back there?’

Lancelot grinned at Arthur and then at Merlin. ‘I got the general gist.’ But then he belatedly disentangled himself from Merlin, and came over to where Arthur was sitting. Knelt in respect. ‘Your highness,’ he said in a discreet whisper that wouldn’t carry beyond the tent walls.

‘Call me Castus, Lancelot.’

‘Thank you, sire.’

As Lancelot got to his feet again, Merlin came over and took the opportunity to whisper in the man’s ear – which could potentially deafen the fellow – ‘And you can call me Blaise.’

‘Have a seat,’ Arthur invited, because it was polite to do so, and not because he didn’t like the way Merlin’s arms had wound themselves around Lancelot’s waist, not really. ‘What have you been doing with yourself over the years?’

‘Fighting. In Wessex for a while, then Brittany, and now Normandy.’

‘Good. That sort of experience is invaluable.’

Merlin settled himself on the ground at their feet. ‘Are you a knight now?’ he asked eagerly.

‘Yes. For what it’s worth.’

‘But that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

Lancelot smiled at him gently. ‘I wanted to be a knight of Camelot.’

‘But you can be –’

‘He’s still not of noble birth, Merlin.’ Arthur’s irritation increased tenfold at the blunder. ‘Blaise.’

‘Oh that,’ Merlin airily replied. ‘Castus will be getting rid of that stupid rule when he’s king, don’t you worry about that. Won’t you, Castus?’

Arthur thought he might cheerfully have killed Merlin right there and then if only he didn’t have a witness. ‘Is this how it’s going to be?’ he ground out. ‘You dictating policy to me?’

‘Only on the important stuff,’ Merlin responded with a wink.

Visions of wrapping both hands around that lovely throat and squeezing danced through Arthur’s brain. He could claim it was an accident that happened while Blaise was tacking up. Then he could recruit a real squire from the Norman ranks.

Lancelot tactfully changed the subject, though he raised one just as potentially fraught. ‘Castus –’ and Arthur could hear how this name translated to sire in Lancelot’s respectful tones. ‘Castus – how is it that you have not stayed in… Albion?’

‘How is it, indeed?’ Arthur mournfully echoed. A carefree Camelot, with Merlin banished on pain of death, was beginning to look more and more attractive. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it became impossible. There were circumstances that meant – uh, it became dangerous.’

‘It’s all right, Castus,’ Merlin said helpfully. ‘He knows.’

Arthur’s heart clenched. ‘What does he know?’

‘About the magic.’

Arthur stared at him. Apparently Merlin thought this was a good thing. But all Arthur could think was that Merlin must have told Lancelot his secret months before he’d revealed it to Arthur. Indeed, Merlin had risked his life by telling a man he hardly knew, a man who had wanted so badly to find a way of demonstrating his commitment to Camelot…

‘The king found out,’ Merlin was explaining to Lancelot, ‘and he would have had me executed. So Castus sent me away, and then he came, too, to protect me.’

Lancelot seemed rather awestruck by this tale. ‘That is true nobility.’ And again the silent sire; Arthur could have done with a lot more of that sort of respect.

Merlin rested a reassuring hand on Arthur’s thigh. ‘It’s all right – quit frowning like that! Lancelot kept my secret. We can trust him.’

‘I’m sure we can,’ Arthur responded politely enough, though he suspected his teeth were going to start gritting again any moment now. He was torn between protecting their other secret, or letting Merlin’s casually provocative hand lead him into revealing the fact that Merlin belonged to Arthur, who would take it amiss if much more of that enthusiastically friendly hugging occurred.

After a silence, Lancelot changed the subject again, though once more it only made things worse. ‘And how is my lady?’ he asked low.

‘Morgana?’ Arthur cried, surprised. But then he remembered himself and Lancelot admiring an almost–indecently–dressed Morgana during the celebrations following the short–lived granting of Lancelot’s knighthood. ‘She… she left Camelot. We lost her. She’s living with the Druids.’

‘He means Gwen,’ Merlin said with a wistful smile.

‘Guinevere?’

‘Yes.’

And Arthur blurted, ‘I mean to marry her.’

They both gaped at him, stunned. Of course Arthur hadn’t raised this idea with Merlin yet; he’d hardly even thought rationally about it himself. But ever since that moment in the castle forecourt an hour after dawn, when he had cried Wait for me! the instinct had been growing stronger and stronger. It was the perfect thing to do. The perfect way to express his continuing commitment to Camelot and to his people.

Merlin finally managed, very flatly, ‘You mean to marry Gwen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Make a blacksmith’s daughter the next queen of Camelot?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘Why shouldn’t I? I don’t have to explain myself to you.’

‘Yes, you bloody well do,’ Merlin ground out, ‘especially when you’re mucking around with my best friend!’

They glared at each other.

Lancelot still seemed rather stunned, but he tentatively offered, ‘There is no woman more worthy of every honour you may grant her, sire. I offer you my sincere congratulations.’

‘Thank you, Lancelot.’

‘You must be mad!’ Merlin cried, stumbling to his feet.

‘Despite what you may think,’ Arthur said with taut weight, ‘you do not have the right to address me like that.’

‘Do you really think you can make her happy?’

‘Don’t be such a child, Merlin. Of course she’ll be happy, but that’s hardly the only thing to consider when a crown prince marries.’

Merlin’s glare intensified for a moment, and then became contemptuously dismissive. But for once he didn’t say anything. Instead he turned to Lancelot, who gazed back up at him, distraught. ‘Where can you get a drink around here?’

‘Uh… there’s an inn…’

‘Sounds great. Let’s go.’ And Merlin was already at the tent entrance.

Merlin! Fuck it. Blaise! Get back here.’

But he was gone. Lancelot paused at the entrance, and offered a respectful bow. Met Arthur’s gaze apologetically.

‘God…’ Arthur ungraciously grumbled. ‘Just look after him, would you?’ He found a silver coin and tossed it to Lancelot, who caught it deftly. ‘He’s never had a head for – well, for anything fermented or distilled.’

‘Lance!’ Merlin cried from outside. ‘Come on!’

‘Sire,’ Lancelot murmured. And he slipped away.

Arthur was alone.

A moment later he realised that Merlin must have raised their tent with the help of rather a lot of magic, for it suddenly collapsed around him as all the warlock’s support was summarily withdrawn.

The soldiers who hauled Arthur out from under the pile of canvas were surprised to find him laughing. But, then, he was surprised himself. And he was still chuckling by the time they’d finished putting the tent back up for him in the rather more usual way. Even as Arthur distributed a few copper coins, he could see them assessing him, and agreeing with Merlin. You must be mad. No doubt they were right.

Merlin eventually showed up early the next afternoon just as Arthur returned from training with some of the other knights. Merlin looked so fragile and regretful that Arthur merely nodded a welcome, and didn’t insist on being helped with his armour. Instead, he watched as Merlin carefully stretched himself out on his bedroll and pondered the canvas ceiling. Perhaps the idiot had forgotten that he’d let it fall on Arthur’s head not so many hours before.

After a while Arthur quietly observed, ‘It’s times like this you miss Gaius and his potions, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ Merlin replied in a hoarse, heartfelt whisper. ‘Yes.’

The Duke of Normandy’s army eventually moved out and started its long slow rumble towards Caen. The travelling itself was pleasant enough, for spring had arrived, and Arthur’s horses were easily capable of bearing himself and Merlin and their gear a mere ten miles a day. Lancelot would usually ride with them, of course, talking away with Merlin as if they had five decades to catch up on rather than just five years. Arthur would lazily listen in, and occasionally offer his own opinion, but mostly he would just mull over his own thoughts, making and remaking his world to suit his notions of what was right and good. Contemplating Guinevere, one of his own people, as his queen, and Lancelot as one of his finest knights despite his lowly origins, and Merlin as… Merlin as whatever he would be. There was never any neat place in which to slot Merlin. And yet it was necessary that he be there. There was no neat place any more for Morgana, as things had turned out, but Arthur would write to her, perhaps send Merlin to talk with her, and see if they couldn’t at least rekindle a friendship. And Camelot would be… his kingdom would be… as perfect as he could possibly make it.

One afternoon the three friends rode on ahead, and then lazed in the grass by a river, waiting for the rest of the army to catch them up. And Merlin and Lancelot were still talking away, despite the softly dappled sunlight and the soothing ripple of the water. Lancelot and Arthur lay parallel with their feet to the river, a yard or so apart, while Merlin was sprawled across the space between them with comfortable presumption, his head on Lancelot’s stomach and his calves resting on Arthur’s hips and thighs. Arthur was in too mellow a mood to mind about anything much, but he did eventually grumble, ‘Don’t you two girls ever shut up…?’ He was repaid for that a few quiet moments later when Lancelot’s hand settled on Merlin’s hair, and stroked it gently. Merlin moaned contentedly under his breath, and turned into the caress, his eyes closing and the most wonderful sense of peace on his face. Arthur watched as they each drifted off into sleep. He sighed. And then he thought some more, and remade his world yet again, with a rather more generous cast to it.

That night, as the two of them got ready for bed, Arthur murmured, ‘Merlin…’

‘Yeah?’ Merlin finished tying off the tent entrance, and came over to stretch himself out on his bedroll.

Arthur used his foot to shove his own bedroll up close against Merlin’s, then lifted the lantern to snuff out the last candle. He settled beside his incredible, infuriating love, though he was careful not to touch him.

‘What is it?’ Merlin eventually prompted.

‘Look…’ Arthur sighed. ‘You really like Lancelot, don’t you?’

‘Course I do.’ He tried and failed to stifle a yawn. Shifted over onto his front, settling into the position in which he usually went to sleep. ‘He’s my best friend. After Gwen, and Gaius. There was Will, but he’s gone now…’ Another yawn, before Merlin offered, ‘And there’s you, of course.’

Arthur smiled wryly, glad to know he at least made the list. ‘Thank you. But, Merlin, I meant… I mean, you’re really attracted to him, aren’t you?’

Merlin pressed his face into his pillow and groaned an ardent, ‘Yes!’

Exactly so, thought Arthur. He didn’t deign to feel pain about hearing the expected answer to his own question.

Then Merlin turned over onto his back and added in surprisingly reasonable tones, ‘Anyone with a heartbeat would be, though, wouldn’t they? He’s gorgeous!’

‘Well, yes,’ Arthur agreed.

‘You probably fancy him, too.’

Arthur shrugged. ‘That’s not the point.’

‘What’s the point, then?’ Merlin sounded wide awake now.

‘The point is… I wouldn’t mind, not very much – I wouldn’t mind very much… if you – if you wanted to do something about it.’

Merlin had raised his head and was staring at him hard. Arthur was glad that the tent was quite dark. Eventually Merlin said in a rather harsh tone, ‘What?’

‘You heard me.’ But Arthur heard himself unaccountably start blathering on again. ‘If you want to… Fair’s fair, after all. You haven’t complained about me continuing with Uther. You understand I have to marry. I, uh… I won’t pretend I’m madly happy about it, but if you want to have a bit on the side with Lancelot, then I won’t get in the way.’

Merlin was glaring at him. As if he were trying to bore a hole through Arthur’s skull. If those blue eyes even took on a hint of gold, Arthur decided, he was going to make an undignified break for it. He’d cut his way out through the canvas wall if he had to.

Eventually Merlin said, ‘There are times when I could quite happily kill you, Arthur.’

‘The feeling is mutual, I assure you,’ he stiffly replied.

‘I love you, you know. You’re pretty much everything to me.’

‘Also mutual.’

Merlin growled. ‘I thought I would go my whole life through without making love with anyone but you!’

Arthur sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I –’

‘We’re not all so sophisticated and… and continental, you know!’

‘Merlin… I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.’

But he retorted, ‘I will not!’ And Merlin was on his feet, shrugging on a coat, untying the tent entrance. Arthur’s heart plummeted, and he struggled up to reach for his love – but Merlin jabbed an imperious finger towards him. ‘Stay there! Wait. I’ll be back in a minute.’ One last glare and he disappeared.

Arthur collapsed back onto his bedroll, wondering what on earth was going on. His initial fear, of course, had been that Merlin was intending to spend the night in Lancelot’s tent, but that couldn’t be right if Arthur was expected to wait. A long minute passed. A very long minute.

Then there was a scuffle of canvas, and a figure stepped inside the tent. Lancelot. More gorgeous than ever with his smouldering excitement evident in every line of his body. He was surprised to see Arthur there, though. Dismay followed. Confusion. He turned back uncertainly, and whispered, ‘Merlin?’

‘Yes.’ Merlin was just behind Lancelot now, refastening the entrance. Trapping them all inside.

Arthur sat up again, and dropped his face to his hands. This wasn’t anything like what he’d meant to suggest. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ he demanded, muffled.

There was no reply. When he looked up again, Arthur found that Merlin had re–lit the lantern, and was now approaching Lancelot with loving intent.

‘My dear friend…’ Lancelot demurred. His hands welcoming at Merlin’s waist as Merlin closed in; his mouth welcoming as Merlin kissed him; but it was merely an accepting kind of welcome, not an unreserved one nor a generous one.

Despite himself, Arthur was fascinated for a moment. His beautiful love and his love’s beautiful friend… But Lancelot was obviously still confused, and Arthur himself sure hadn’t signed up for this. ‘Merlin,’ he said very clearly. ‘I did not ask to watch. I do not want to watch.’

Merlin broke the kiss in his own good time, and advised Arthur, ‘Shut up. You won’t be watching. Just give me a minute for myself, would you?’

Lancelot glanced at Arthur, and it finally dawned on them both just what Merlin intended. Lancelot’s eyes drifted closed as he surrendered himself to Merlin’s will. And Arthur didn’t argue about anything else for the rest of the night.

Merlin and Lancelot kissed again; a long, involving, deep kiss. And then they began undressing each other. Arthur didn’t mind watching that. He knew what every square inch of Merlin looked like by now, of course – what it felt like, too – and he’d received a pretty good impression of what Lancelot looked like, through training with him. But that was nothing to seeing him entirely and directly for the first time. A good strong build, with a healthy sun–kissed skin, a virile arrangement of dark hair, and surprisingly few scars. He was perfectly formed to be a knight: agile, but with weighty shoulders, forearms and thighs.

He was suitably humble, too, and not inappropriately bashful as he stood there naked, letting Arthur gaze upon him. He somehow managed to find exactly the right balance between a man’s proper pride and a knight’s proper humility. When Arthur lifted his gaze to Lancelot’s face once more, the man let a respectful heartbeat pass before lifting his head and returning his regard directly. The way Lancelot looked at him – with awe and devotion – made Arthur feel that the knight was pledging his allegiance and the man was swearing faith.

Merlin leaned in close to Lancelot and whispered in his ear. After a while, Lancelot nodded his agreement or understanding. And the two of them approached Arthur, as his heart thudded strong, and knelt either side of him. Then while Lancelot tentatively leaned in for a kiss, Merlin began taking off the last of Arthur’s clothes.

Merlin made Arthur feel like a man. He was stretched behind Arthur, body pressed against him, cock pushing into him, making him whole. His lower arm cradling Arthur’s head, and lifting it occasionally so he could kiss Arthur’s mouth. His other hand tender at Arthur’s waist or rubbing at his nipples. His delicious low moans thrumming through Arthur as if he were caressing every nerve. Knowing precisely what to do and how to do it and for how long without tipping him over the edge.

Lancelot made Arthur feel like a prince. He had explored Arthur with his lips and his teeth and his tongue, from Arthur’s mouth down his throat to his chest and his stomach, and then down further still to his cock and his balls. Lancelot was still there now, sucking and gnawing and licking, and using his fingers and palms to heighten the experience – until Merlin warned him that Arthur was getting close once more, and they both backed off a little, before starting all over again and driving him to delirium.

Caught between the two of them, and nearing the end yet again, praying this time that he’d be allowed to achieve it, Arthur felt completely powerless and utterly powerful at the very same time. A precious sacrifice, to be worshipped and revered and then lost.

Finally, finally, Merlin had mercy on him – and gold circled Arthur’s temples, and a white hot light sliced through him, and his body bucked and buffeted as if he’d grown wings.

Then they gentled him and held him, and he slowly returned to himself. And he found that he wasn’t an angel nor a king nor a prince, but simply flesh and blood. And he was loved. He wasn’t lost, but was re–forged, born anew. And that made him the most powerful creature in the world.

The three of them made a terrific fighting team. Arthur had long grown used to having Merlin at his back in a fight, even though his initial instinct all those years ago had been to keep Merlin as far away as possible from causing further danger or receiving grievous harm. Now the warlock stayed close, within arm’s reach, where Arthur liked him best. Merlin carried spare weapons, provided an extra pair of eyes, and used his magic when he could, to defend or attack. He was even getting a bit handy with a sword.

Within the first hour of fighting at the Caen city walls, Lancelot became an integral part of their team. They already knew they shared the same purpose, and they already recognised their shared and their complementary skills. But now the three of them began working together as if they also shared the same instincts.

Which was just as well, for as Arthur spun to his left, following through a lethal swing of his sword, he was aghast to find that Merlin had straightened up from his protective crouch and was gazing back towards their camp, paying no attention to the battle, as if he were all alone in a peaceful meadow listening to distant birdsong. Arthur spun further round, blocked a blow from a cudgel that would have smashed into Merlin’s shoulder. Lancelot in turn shifted to protect Arthur’s back from a Saracen knight wielding two curved blades. And then it seemed that Merlin wasn’t quite as distracted as Arthur feared, for he absently sent a burst of lightning into the chest of that knight’s companion before he could attack Lancelot.

In the midst of the mayhem, as Lancelot watched over them, Merlin’s gold–tinged eyes met Arthur’s gaze. ‘Gaius is calling to us!’

He must mean the crystal sphere; presumably Merlin could sense it even at a distance. Gaius had only used it once before, and that had proved too late. Arthur heaved a sigh. They were two or three weeks away from Camelot; a few hours wouldn’t make much difference. ‘Whatever it is, it’ll have to wait,’ Arthur said.

Merlin nodded. And they returned to the fight.

Uther is dying. Bring Arthur back as soon as you can, was all Gaius had said via the sphere; he hadn’t burdened the message with details. Arthur told Merlin they’d set off at dawn, though he guessed he’d be too late this time as well.

Then he went to explain to the Duke of Normandy who he actually was, and why he had to leave immediately though they had yet to lift the siege. ‘We are sorry to hear your news,’ the duke announced. ‘Uther Pendragon has been a fine king.’

‘He has, sire, and I trust he is still.’

The duke considered him for a long moment. ‘The price of your freedom, Arthur Pendragon, is the story of why you wear a plain blue surcoat, and not the red and gold of Camelot.’

Ah. Even here on the continent, Merlin wasn’t entirely safe from potential persecution. So instead of telling a tale about the need to protect his lover, who happened to be a warlock, Arthur spun a story of a disagreement with Uther over policy, and Arthur’s own desire to learn both knightly and princely skills from the finest leaders available in Albion or across the sea. The duke was not immune to such flattery. Arthur finished with the low and honest plea that he wished to be reconciled with his father before such a thing became impossible.

‘Of course. We will be the first to grieve with you if the worst occurs, and the first to honour you. We thank you for your services to Normandy.’

‘Thank you, sire. Your generosity is legendary.’ Arthur bowed as low as he could, and then got out of there.

Lancelot was at the tent, helping Merlin pack up his and Arthur’s gear. There was a look of strain on the knight’s face, containing strands of anxiety and sorrow and hope and love. ‘I am sorry, Arthur,’ he said very simply and very genuinely. ‘I am very sorry for this news. King Uther is a great man.’

‘Thank you.’ Arthur took a breath. ‘Follow us when you can, if you still want to. When I am king, I will make you a knight of Camelot. We will have need of you.’

Merlin grinned at his friend, but Lancelot asked, ‘The code?’

‘I will make an exception to it for those of outstanding talent. For now, that’s you. I trust there will be others, in time.’

Lancelot bowed his head. ‘Thank you, sire.’

Arthur turned to see to the packing of his swords and daggers, even though these days everything could be trusted to Merlin’s care. He became aware, however, that Lancelot still had something to say. ‘Yes, Lancelot?’ he asked.

‘Forgive me, sire, but do you still intend to marry the lady Guinevere?’

Arthur looked from Lancelot’s cautious face to Merlin’s sudden foreboding; it seemed that his answer would bring either joy or despair to the knight. And at last he understood. Arthur turned away, and took a moment to consider. But he could not change what had already happened; he had already said enough to Gwen to commit himself.

Eventually Arthur turned back to face his friend. His two best friends in all the world. And he gave them the answer they least wanted. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘Of course, sire,’ Lancelot murmured.

‘It is a matter of honour now. I have already spoken with her. Apart from which, she’s the best choice for me.’

‘Of course. I wish you all the happiness that will naturally come your way with such a wife.’

‘Thank you.’ Arthur went to sit down, thinking hard. In earlier times, when he had proposed to Morgana, he had talked to her quite explicitly of his love for Merlin and of hers for Gwen. He had been frank about the kind of love and faithfulness and discretion she could expect of him. No doubt she had discussed all of that with Gwen, and it would not need saying again. And, frankly, he wasn’t about to give leave to any man to pursue his wife, no matter how much he loved them both and cared for their happiness. Still, perhaps he could say something to indicate his potential understanding. ‘Lancelot –’

‘Yes, sire?’

‘An honest devotion to the queen is no bad thing in a knight.’ He met the man’s eyes. ‘You will be welcome in Camelot, my friend.’

‘Thank you, sire.’

And there the matter rested.

Arthur’s heart broke apart as he saw Camelot again: the flags on the turrets were lowered to allow room above for the invisible flag of death, the one force over which even Merlin had no power. Merlin reached to grasp his hand and convey his sympathy, but they rode on.

The homecoming was a confusing mix of joy and grief. It was the first time he’d seen Camelot in springtime for years, and Arthur could not be unaffected by the blossoms and fresh pale–green leaves which spoke of new life. Neither could he be unaffected by the delighted welcome given him by his people, many of whom followed the two of them up through the town and into the castle forecourt. Arthur was honest enough with himself to know that Uther Pendragon wouldn’t have been mourned for very long by any but the few who really knew him; and Arthur was proud to be considered a decent replacement, even if only because he was better than no replacement at all.

Of course, Merlin hadn’t been back to Camelot at all, so he couldn’t damp down his delight at seeing Gaius again, and Gwen, and neither should he. This was life, and death was a part of it, and Arthur’s heart was broken in one moment and mended in the next, only to be re–broken and then re–mended – but this indeed was life.

When Merlin finally let Gwen go, Arthur stepped close and took her hand in his, and he looked at her carefully, trying to read her response to him. She was a blend of nerves and dignity, the old Gwen and the new. They were still in the forecourt, at the bottom of the steps where he’d last seen her. Merlin watched, just as carefully as Arthur. People around them grew still as they realised that something was happening, and the stillness rippled out through the crowd as on the surface of a lake. ‘My lady,’ Arthur murmured.

‘Your majesty,’ she said with a curtsey.

‘So, Guinevere, what say you…?’

She shook her head in disbelief – she didn’t do him the disservice of doubting him – and she said, ‘You could do so very much better, sire.’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I really don’t think that I could.’

Her eyes closed as if she had to draw on all her courage. But then she nodded, and said, ‘Yes. If you really think – Yes.’

And he took her in his arms and kissed her – a proper kiss, passionate for Gwen’s sake and dramatic for everyone who witnessed them – and the people’s cheers echoed through the forecourt, and re–echoed, and became a roar that resounded in the blue skies above.

Arthur managed to slip away in the early evening, and he found a lit torch and went down to the crypt. Ever since he’d heard Gaius’s message – Uther is dying – Arthur had been remembering how the king was when he last saw him. How tired he’d been, and how grey his skin had seemed in the cold morning light of mid–winter. He remembered how Arthur had perhaps driven the king to more than he’d wanted, arrogantly assuming that Arthur’s late–blooming passion for the man would be forever welcome.

The tomb had a plain lid still; there had been no time yet to carve an effigy. Uther’s name had been chiselled into it, and the year, that was all. Arthur left the torch in the sconce by the door, and wound his way through the other close–packed graves. Ran his hands over the rough stone. And then climbed up onto it, stretched himself out on his father’s tomb. Lay with Uther once more, and for the last time.

Bitterly grieving that the last words they’d exchanged had been something trivial to do with manacles and keys and sex, when the words should have been I love you or at least Fare well, father. For the first time since he was a boy, Arthur wept.

Eventually Merlin found him, of course, and reached his arms towards him. Not to take Arthur away from here, as any sane person might, but to lie there with him on the tomb, and hold him near. ‘I love you,’ Arthur said through his tears. ‘I love you.’

And Merlin just held him closer still, and murmured, ‘He knew it. And the old bastard loved you, too.’

The wedding took place on the morning of the summer solstice. It was a simple and humble ceremony, celebrating the union of Arthur and Guinevere, two people of Camelot. The coronation that afternoon was a far more formal and extravagant affair. And then of course there was feasting.

Everyone was having a terrific time. Arthur sat there on his throne – on his father’s throne, with Guinevere on the throne to his right – knowing that he was the only person who still felt a blend of joy and sorrow. On a day like this, however, Arthur could believe that Uther had found peace, at least, and was perhaps even now in heaven.

The only other person to still be grieving was Gaius, who had been Uther’s closest friend in the royal household. Gaius was now approaching Arthur, though, with a shine in his eyes that Arthur hadn’t ever seen there before. ‘The magic is awakening, your majesty,’ the old man said, voice low enough not to carry. ‘The long winter is over. Can you feel it? It is so strong today; it responds to the vows you have made. I can sense the magic rising throughout the whole kingdom.’

Arthur shrugged a little. It was true he felt something, but nothing that couldn’t be explained by love answered or beneficence granted or ambitions fulfilled. Merlin had lately been madder than ever, though, so there was probably something to what Gaius said.

‘We’ll need to talk, sire. Not today, of course. But we’ll need to be sure of where we all stand before it comes to the test. Because we will be tested.’

‘Of course. Soon, Gaius.’ Arthur had already quit executing people for the use of magic, though he had imposed a few banishments. He had yet to feel entirely sure of the right path.

‘And Merlin?’ Gaius pressed.

Arthur’s gaze sought him out; he always knew instinctively where Merlin was. In this instant, he was in a distant corner of the hall, barely visible in the shadows, talking with another dark–haired figure, their heads bent close together. ‘What of him?’

‘He will still serve you, Arthur? He’ll still be part of the household?’

‘Yes, of course.’ As if he could ever do without Merlin.

‘And perhaps… a more formal position in the court…?’

Arthur cast a wry glance at Gaius, and snorted. ‘Court Magician, perhaps?’

But Gaius was perfectly serious. ‘Yes, exactly.’ Then he read Arthur’s surprise, and he laughed. ‘Forgive an old man, sire. I presume too much.’

Arthur grasped the man’s shoulder to reassure him. ‘You and Merlin will always be among my closest advisors, Gaius, and you know Merlin is my dearest friend. Let me work out with Merlin how best to honour him.’

Gaius bowed his head. ‘You are a great king, sire.’

‘If I am, my friend, then I owe a good deal of it to you.’

Once Gaius withdrew, Arthur’s gaze sought out Merlin again where he was still deep in conversation. The man had tactfully kept his distance after helping Arthur dress that morning, and after his initial outburst back in Normandy he hadn’t once questioned Arthur’s decision to marry Gwen. He was so different now to the callow clumsy creature who’d first arrived in Camelot. He’d always had confidence, of course, and a cockiness that Arthur had immediately recognised. But perhaps now Merlin was more contained. Certainly more powerful, and a valuable ally for a king. Arthur wondered whether Merlin’s transformation was a result of real change or whether over time he’d simply been stripped back to the essentials.

Eventually Merlin ended his conversation with an ambivalent shake of his head, and he straightened a little, crossed his arms, pulled away from his companion. And Arthur finally saw who he’d been talking to. Lancelot. Lancelot was standing there propped against the wall with one shoulder, having mirrored Merlin’s own stance. He must have arrived that very afternoon.

When Lancelot saw the king looking at him, he stood up properly, and bowed his head in respect.

Arthur nodded in acknowledgement, and then turned to Guinevere as if drawn to her. She had seen Lancelot, too. She didn’t frown or anything, and she didn’t look upset – for that matter, she didn’t look overjoyed, either. She simply grew pensive. And Merlin’s words echoed uselessly, mockingly around Arthur’s head: Do you really think you can make her happy?

Arthur went to the queen’s chambers that night, rooms that hadn’t been used for twenty–six years. He found Guinevere there alone, sitting near the table brushing out her long dark hair. She was dressed in a simple white shift that suited her perfectly. Arthur found himself wondering what kind of exotic, extravagant item Morgana would have worn for their wedding night, and decided that he was better pleased with how things were than how they might have been.

Gwen had stood and was honouring him with a deep curtsey, murmuring, ‘Your majesty.’

‘No,’ he protested, too late, walking closer with his hand palm–out. ‘Not when it’s just the two of us, Gwen.’

‘Yes, sire.’

He took her hand and kissed it, indicated she should sit again. Then sat down himself in the next chair along, just within arm’s reach; he sat comfortably, while she kept her back straight. Arthur added, ‘Call me by name. I want us to be friends.’

Which was maybe an odd thing for a new husband to say, but she smiled softly, and said, ‘I want that, too, Arthur.’

‘It’s been a long day,’ Arthur observed. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘I’m fine, thank you. And you, Arthur?’

‘Fine, thanks.’

Gwen looked away, gazed at the floor, and lapsed into a pensive silence. Arthur watched her for a time – admiring her, as he was now perfectly entitled to do, with her warm brown skin and her pleasant features and the lovely figure hinted at under the thin fabric of the loose shift. She wore nothing under it, or not that he could see. And it had been so very long since he’d last had a woman – ridiculously long, now he thought about, after years of no one but Merlin or Uther, and latterly Lancelot – but the old instincts hadn’t died. Certainly they hadn’t died. The passion was stirring within him, and the gentleness, too.

He remembered his first time with Merlin, and how Merlin had been such an innocent in terms of experience, though not ignorant and certainly not shy. Arthur had been gentle then, for as long as he needed to be, and he could be gentle now. Despite the fact that his new wife was actually far more experienced than Merlin had been, having been Morgana’s lover for – well, he didn’t know how long, but no doubt for years. And he assumed that Morgana had been as thorough and passionate about that as about all else she did… Arthur sighed. It wasn’t good for a man to be left wondering how he’d measure up as a lover alongside his own foster sister.

Gwen had heard him sigh, of course, and she now tentatively began, ‘Arthur, I know that…’

But she shouldn’t have to say anything. She shouldn’t be the one to make the difficult declarations. ‘Gwen, I know that I’m not the person you would have chosen to be with like this. I know that… it’s not just the two of us in this room. Not really.’ In fact, the place was crowded with thoughts of their other loves, their other passions, their other loyalties, most of whom they shared in various ways: Morgana, Merlin, Lancelot, Uther. How could they find something for themselves alone in the midst of all that? ‘But I want to be your friend, in every possible sense.’

She was considering him long and carefully, with a slight frown on her face. But eventually she declared in a more heartfelt way than she’d made any other vow that day, ‘I choose you to be my husband, Arthur.’

He smiled, and responded with perfect sincerity: ‘And I choose you to be my wife, Gwen.’

She stood and came to him, and he tugged her down onto his lap. Kissed her with a tenderness that became passion as she responded in kind. Soon he lifted her cradled in his arms, and carried her to the bed. Sank carefully deep into her sweet wet cunt, rediscovered old skills, old configurations, and remade them anew as she guided him, opened to him, touched him. She cried his name when she came, she called him husband, her hands hard on his shoulders – and he yelled ‘Guinevere!’ like it was a battle cry.

And they were wed.

The King of Camelot rode out with his warlock as summer turned to autumn. It was one of those perfect crisp, clear days that made one think of apples. They found the dell where they’d first made love almost six years before, and they lay there together staring up into the infinite blue sky, ignoring the tumblers of wine and the food that Merlin had haphazardly packed.

After a while Arthur turned to his friend, his love, and lazily kissed him. Then he observed, ‘Life is pretty perfect, you know.’

‘It’s pretty wonderful,’ Merlin agreed. But then he added, as he was occasionally wont to do, ‘It won’t last, Arthur.’

‘I don’t suppose so, no.’ Though Arthur couldn’t possibly worry on a day so glorious. ‘How long do we have?’

Merlin scrunched up his beautiful face. ‘Gwen said you’ve got to be back for that court thing tonight.’

‘Idiot,’ he said fondly. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘Twenty years, maybe, give or take.’

‘That’ll do me.’ Twenty years was forever. ‘And the whole uniting–Albion thing?’

‘It’ll work. Until it comes apart again.’

‘Good enough.’

‘You’ll be sorry when it’s over.’

‘I know.’ Arthur took the man into his arms, and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s temple. He wasn’t going to think about all that doom and gloom yet – at least, not now, when he was a king, a good king, and he had love, and he had a wife and friends, and the finest knights in the world, and Camelot was so very beautiful. ‘The way I see it,’ he explained: ‘I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got while I can.’

Merlin laughed appreciatively. ‘Life is perfect, then,’ he murmured. And he lifted his head to kiss Arthur some more, and his hands slipped under Arthur’s clothes, and he very obligingly let Arthur enjoy him.

Miles away, in the midst of the Druid camp, Morgana woke howling whilst Mordred picked coldly through her visions.

Posted in: Merlin, Slash fic

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13 responses to “Arthur: 04 Summer Solstice”

  1. avatar Lara says:

    HOLY CRAP!!!

    This story is amazing! Harley, you always know how to floor me.

    First, you had Uthur/Arthur, Arthur/Gwen, and Arthur/Merlin forever in this story. Also, You had Arthur/Merlin/Lancelot! You are seriously made of win.

    I love the detail that you included. You not only focused on the little things (like the fact that they actually had to un-enlist in the Normandy Forces), but you also focused on tactics and contingency plans that made the story so much more realistic. This gave the story such an epic feeling and a great texture. I love to read stories like this that just take me away, and I am just along for the ride.

    I love that you went into how Arthur and Merlin were a team not only on the battlefield, but that they came to rely on each other in every way. They would be so lost without each other, and the way that you wrote that was beautiful.

    I love that you focused more on how the characters changed mentally in the last five years than physically. I love stories that do that, it makes everything have so much more depth to me. It is so hard to portray, and you did this wonderfully.

    You spoil me so! I am trying to be coherent but my mind keeps going back to “Harley wrote me 11,000 word fic!!!” I will try to be coherent tomorrow after I get some sleep.

    Lara

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      Hey, Lara! I am of course blown away that you enjoyed this so much. I wasn’t relying on my ideas successfully meshing with your requests, so it’s a delight and a relief to find that we’re at least fairly close. :-)

      Thank you for all your detailed feedback. If this is you ‘trying to be coherent’ then obviously you would… be able to think of a really good metaphor here, which I am spectacularly failing at. Obviously you would be the bee’s knees of reviewers!

      I am so glad that you felt Arthur and Merlin were such a solid team. I meant their relationship to be the core of the whole thing, and something to be relied upon forever, but afterwards I wondered if I underplayed it. Easy to lose the bedrock when Arthur’s so busy relating to and loving all kinds of other people as well!

      Anyway, I’m really just so glad you enjoyed this…

  2. avatar Lara says:

    Harley,

    I just wanted to say thanks again for this! Reading this story was the highlight of a very hectic weekend. You brought a huge smile to my face and made me literally squee. It has made my life so much more pleasant, and that was the best gift that I have received for quite some time. Thank you so much!

    Your friend,

    Lara

    ps Are you going to crosspost this to merlinxarthur?

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      No probs, mate. I’m glad it hit the spot so well. :-)

      I wasn’t going to cross-post any futher, but of course I will if you think it’s worthwhile, master.

  3. avatar Lara says:

    Oh course it is worth while! Silly minion, what is the point of writing stories if you don’t share them?

  4. avatar Jenny says:

    OMG… I’m speechless…. Very good…,

    LOVED IT!

  5. avatar eboniorchid says:

    How had I missed this last part? Even without it the series was amazing, but this last bit just makes this tale truly epic and epically perfect. This is the story as I would want it told forever, even though that’s probably really twisted and wrong of me. You’ve made my heart ache with despair, you’ve made me laugh loud enough to wake the neighbors, I’ve sniffled and grinned and felt like I was right in the midst of absolutely everything. This is such a real and living story, so much so that I can hardly describe my love of it. It may very well be that you’ve ruined me for other authors, my dear. But now I can die a very happy Merlin!fan death!

    ~D

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      Thank you so much! I am delighted to know you can die fannishly-happy, but please make sure that won’t be for decades yet… :-D For a start, I very much want you to keep reading and responding to my fic! XD

      The way you have responded to this series, and especially to this last story, is just so perfectly all I could want as a writer. Sometimes a story actually works so well that you feel it’s not really a part of you, it has an existence on its own. Does that sound odd? But that’s how I feel about this one. So I can stand back and think, yes, eboniorchid is feeling the story just the way it should be, and that’s wonderful, and it almost has nothing at all to do with me! It’s the nicest feeling. :-)

      I know I can’t have really ruined you for other writers, as there is so much excellent ‘Merlin’ fic out there… but thank you so much for enjoying mine, and for letting me know in such wonderful terms. Thanks, hon! You’re very kind.

  6. avatar Alz says:

    I’ve been meaning to leave you a comment for a while now. I love this series, and I really just love your Merlin writing in general. I love how you write them and I’ve just been finding myself constantly re-reading all these stories and running through the scenes in my head in daydreams.

    I sadly have no awesome feedback to give, since I have no idea what I want to say that isn’t simply me just fangirling the heck out of you.

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      Alz – Thank you so much! I’m sorry I haven’t managed to reply before now, but I’ve been away with very limited internet access.

      I really appreciate your comments about my ‘Merlin’ writing in general – but also about this series in particular, as (you may be able to tell!) this kind of grew into my own take on the ‘Merlin’ canon – at least as far as season one! It’s wonderful to know you enjoy the fic so much that you re-read it, and re-imagine it. That’s just the coolest! Your feedback is awesome to me, don’t worry about that! But feel free to fangirl away at any time, girlfriend. I can take it. :-D

  7. avatar E.A. says:

    Wow, that was a very satisfying read. I love this series, and my favourite part was definitely when Arthur and Merlin went to fight as Castus and Blaise. All the sex scenes were great and emotionally fulfilling (ha! I never thought I could read Uther/Arthur)… and you’ve made everyone’s characterizations real and believeable. I’m sorry we couldn’t have the Arthur/Gwen/Merlin/Morgana OT4, but at least we have the Arthur/Gwen/Lancelot/Merlin OT4. Heee!

    Really loved this, thanks for sharing :)

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      E.A. – Oh, I’m so glad to find you here! If I had to choose the one ‘Merlin’ fic I was proudest of, it would be Summer Solstice. I’m not sure why, but it feels like it has a depth and solidity beyond anything I could have consciously crafted – it was one of those fics that feels like a gift direct from the Muse. Almost like it had nothing much to do with me at all.

      I’m delighted that you liked the adventure in France – I had such fun writing that! And of course I’m very glad that all the sex scenes worked, including the Uther/Arthur. And, yes… OT4 FTW!

      Thank you again. It’s great that you loved this one in particular. I am really stoked! :-D

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