Harlequin's Slash Fic

Arthur: 03 Winter Solstice

Title: Arthur: 03 Winter Solstice
Author: Harlequin
Universe: Merlin
Characters featured: Arthur/Merlin, with Uther/Arthur (and a bit of Arthur/Morgana)
Category, Word count: Short story; 8758 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: Arthur’s plans for his future with Merlin as his lover and Morgana as his queen are shaping up nicely. He even manages a stilted reconciliation with Uther now their sexual arrangement is firmly in the past. However, discovering the truth of Merlin’s secret changes everything.
Warnings: Please be warned this contains some father/son incest and memories of non-consensual sex. The foreground still belongs to Arthur/Merlin, though.
First published: 16 December 2008 on Harlequin’s Slash Site

 

Winter Solstice

Arthur finally spoke with Morgana on the first day of winter. They sat opposite each other, before the fire in her rooms, and she was calm and still, dressed in violet and ice blue with the cold afternoon light from the window framing her. He talked for a long while of how he imagined his reign, and their future, while she received him coolly, listening closely. They were both quite formal, quite earnest; the first time they had talked thus in years. Finally Arthur concluded, ‘You’d be magnificent. The people already love you. You’re absolutely the best queen Camelot could ask for. If you’ll consent.’

She pondered him for a long moment. ‘If I do consent… when do you think we’d marry?’

‘Oh, not for years yet. Give me time to grow up a bit first, eh?’ He gave her his most winning cheeky grin.

Morgana smiled in response, though she tactfully tried to hide it.

‘Might be a while,’ Arthur continued. ‘Though to be honest, I think I’ve grown up more in the last half hour talking with you than in the whole previous year.’

She didn’t hide her amusement then. ‘I don’t think that can be true,’ she demurred with that lovely chime in her voice. ‘It’s been a good year for you, though some of it has been… difficult.’

Arthur looked at her, wondering if she knew or had guessed anything of the worst of it, or even the best of it. ‘Well,’ he allowed, ‘you couldn’t call it an uneventful year.’

‘If you want my answer now, Arthur, I –’

‘No, wait. Not yet. I’m sorry. There’s one more thing I must say.’

She waited.

‘If you’ll consent, I will give you all that a husband should. I’ll love, honour and respect you. As a king, I will seek your counsel. As a man, you’ll be my friend and companion. We’ll have fine children. You know there must be children, Morgana, if we marry. You’ll be held in the highest esteem throughout the land, and I will lead the people in that before anything. But there is one thing I will not be able to give you.’

‘You promise me riches, Arthur. In my position… You know that I am very much alone. The king might have me marry elsewhere to further Camelot’s interests. And I would not expect to find anything of what you describe in such a match.’

Arthur leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. ‘Then, forgive me for being blunt. You might think it’s the most important thing in a marriage, I don’t know. And if you tell me you can’t accept this, I’ll understand, believe me. But the problem is – I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fall in love with you. I love you dearly, you know that. And I will love you as my wife and my queen. But I am already in love, the kind of love that lasts a lifetime, the kind that won’t change. Or if it does, the kind that will only deepen.’

Morgana was considering him carefully. Intrigued rather than surprised. Not mortally offended, thank God. Eventually she asked, ‘Who is it that you love?’

He shrugged, a little embarrassed; of course he hadn’t spoken of this to anyone else at all until now. ‘God help me, perhaps the last person you’d suspect. I do sometimes wonder at myself.’

She thought for a moment, and then smiled. ‘Perhaps it’s no coincidence that you and Merlin both became so much happier at much the same time this autumn…’

‘There it is,’ he confirmed, trying to restrain a smirk. Trying to be utterly serious, though he felt full of good will, and expansive with it. Despite the fact he had just admitted to a crime himself, and was about to accuse his future wife of not being entirely chaste. ‘Look – Merlin and Gwen are thick as thieves. I trust them both, but they share their secrets with each other. And Merlin seems to think you might actually understand such a thing.’

Unseasonable pink roses bloomed in her pale cheeks, betraying the truth, and she did not attempt to deny it. She remained silent.

‘You tell me, then, whether it’s a desirable thing in a husband, that he will happily accept the continuation of such a relationship. That he will ask you to grant his own continuing as well.’

The silence stretched, and he was content to let it. Finally she murmured, ‘It is an unexpected thing in a husband, but not undesirable, if as you say you will treat me with honour. If you will treat Gwen with respect.’

‘Excellent.’ And he went on to talk of the four of them being fast friends, and working together for the good of the kingdom. And the children, the wonderful children; a blessing on all of them. Merlin had once called his plans marvellous, and Arthur had to agree. It was going to be incredible.

Eventually Morgana said, ‘If you want my answer, Arthur, then it is yes.’

And he belatedly got down on one knee, and bent to kiss her hand. ‘I will be the happiest man and the best possible king, with you and Merlin and Gwen beside me.’

She shook her head at him, happy yet bemused. ‘We must be crazed, to dream that this may work.’

‘Of course it will work,’ he briskly assured her. ‘I am your king, and I say it shall.’

That evening after supper Arthur visited the king in his rooms for the first time since… Arthur dared a glance at the solid oak table, trying not to remember himself bent over it, his wrists secured. The king looming behind him, filling him, bruising him. Relentlessly claiming him as his own creature.

Arthur turned away. ‘Father,’ he began – and his voice cracked and failed.

Uther also seemed beset by memories. ‘Arthur,’ he said, his tone freighted with emotion, rough with restraint. Every interaction between them since that last assault had been scrupulously proper. They had rarely been alone together. ‘What is it that I can do for you?’

‘I have spoken with Morgana.’ The very topic that heralded the first assault. ‘She has consented to be my wife.’

‘I am pleased,’ the king coolly replied.

‘There’s no call for the fuss of a formal engagement. Not yet. But if that is ever necessary for the sake of her honour or protection, then I will enter into it with a full heart.’

Uther nodded gravely.

Voice cracking again, he asked, ‘Do we have your blessing, sire?’

‘Yes.’

‘Thank you.’ And he gave a slight bow, and turned to go.

‘Arthur.’

He stopped, and kept his back turned while his face fell. ‘Yes, sire?’

A long pause, as if Uther was gathering himself. Eventually he said in low tones, ‘Will you ever be able to forgive me?’

Arthur felt pain crash through him, with anger following hard after. He’d almost preferred it when his finer feelings had been dulled by the constant hurting. Once he could steel himself, he turned to face Uther, and he said very evenly, ‘Of course I forgive you, father.’

Uther was struggling. For a moment it seemed he would accept the reassurance. But then his better self won out. ‘Of course you do not. And why should you? What I did was unforgiveable.’

‘Father –’

‘It has not escaped my notice how much happier you’ve been since we ended it. How very much happier.’ Uther grimaced in pain. ‘I could try to explain, I could tell you of the practices that were accepted when I was a boy at a court riddled with corruption. But that I should visit these matters upon you remains inexplicable.’

‘Father, we needn’t talk of it.’

‘I could tell you again and again of how greatly I loved your mother –’

‘Please, father. The memories are receding. One day it will be as if none of it ever happened.’

But Uther didn’t seem to like that. Perhaps it remained all too vivid for him. He declared, ‘You are my son – my only son – and my heir. You are the most important person to me in the world.’

Arthur could live with that.

‘Is it any wonder that I have loved you in every way there is to love?’

But not that. Outrage surged through him. ‘Love?!’ Arthur cried. ‘When time and again you took your pleasure with no thought of mine. When you thought nothing of my comfort. When you quite deliberately hurt me so that I carried the pain of it with me for days, and when I finally healed then you sent for me again.’

‘Arthur –’

‘You talk of love, when you were never once kind to me. Did you think I needed toughening up, father? I can think of no other purpose this might have served.’

‘No. No. I was… struggling within myself. And so I struggled with you.’

‘If you are trying to explain, that will not serve. A king must know when not to abuse the power he wields.’

‘It was a madness,’ Uther confessed.

Arthur growled his disgust. ‘You cannot blame it on anything but yourself and your selfishness and your lusts.’

Uther insisted: ‘My loves.’ And he drew nearer.

Arthur watched him warily.

‘Will you forgive me, my son?’

‘I don’t know.’ Now that he had finally expressed his disgust, the righteousness dwindled. He wanted to be able to forgive Uther. He knew it would do Arthur himself good if he could. But he couldn’t. Not yet.

And Uther was approaching, and Arthur suspected that his father wanted to take his son into his arms, hold him. An innocent embrace, perhaps, such as they used to share. Arthur could imagine himself returning such a gesture. Even offering a gesture of his own. They had never once kissed. He could imagine himself kissing Uther in an acknowledgement of the complete love his father declared, as a tangible token of forgiveness, as a final farewell.

No! Arthur shook himself. Then shuddered involuntarily. He did not want to be touched. The two of them hadn’t touched since Uther had unbound Arthur’s wrists at that last meeting in these rooms, and Arthur was not yet ready to be touched again.

He had stood his ground, but now he turned away, took a few shaky paces towards the fireplace. ‘I can never trust you again,’ he announced, not caring that his voice betrayed his heartbreak. ‘My own father!’ He had kept his back turned, but now he faced Uther squarely. ‘You were my bedrock, my foundation. Now I have nothing. Nowhere to stand. Nowhere to build.’

Except for Merlin… The thought calmed him. And now there’s Morgana and Gwen as well. The future we’ll share. Of course he and Merlin were already creating a new foundation on which Arthur could build his own kingdom. Arthur took a breath. The assaults had been truly awful, but he mustn’t over-dramatise their effects.

Uther was looking shamed. Utterly reduced. ‘The madness… I feel it still.’

Arthur was stronger now. He could deal with this. He could end it. ‘You must never act on it, father,’ he said with all his dignity and authority. ‘Never again. You must never hurt me as you did.’

Shame and silence. But acceptance, too, perhaps.

‘You must find someone else to be your companion.’ And he insisted, ‘Someone whom you can treat well.’

‘I will try,’ said the king, oh so humbly.

‘Look, I can’t talk to you about this stuff. Not after – Talk to Gaius about it. He might think of someone appropriate.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘You might take another wife. You’ve been alone too long.’

Uther’s eyes flashed, and he stood somewhat taller. ‘That I could never do. Your mother was the only woman I will ever love. And I owe it to you, Arthur. There will never be other children, legitimate or not. There will never be any question as to who is the rightful heir.’

‘Thank you, father. But I can take care of my rights. I can claim what is mine.’ God damn it… Enough is enough. Arthur concluded, ‘Now, there’s an end to it. But I would be glad to know you weren’t… lonely.’

‘Thank you, Arthur.’

And finally Arthur could feel pity enough and strength enough to make a gesture of conciliation. He walked over to his father, and offered his right hand; when Uther returned the gesture, Arthur clasped his father’s hand with as much goodwill as he had in him. Though his skin crawled.

And yet… as he slowly walked back down to his own rooms, Arthur pondered. At some deep level he felt horribly conflicted about what Uther had done to him. He had hated it. And yet, if it had been anyone else – though it couldn’t have been anyone else – then Arthur couldn’t deny that he would have liked being possessed. He would have liked the roughness. Being claimed, and giving himself over to another. The series of assaults, if he wanted to name it honestly – or the tawdry affair, if he wanted to dignify it to the extent that such could be dignified – had forced Arthur to see himself more clearly.

He wanted to be in charge. He was in charge. He always took the lead. He adored being crown prince. He loved that one day he would be king. So it made sense, didn’t it…? Sense of a perverted yet undeniable kind. Of course it would therefore be thrilling to let someone else take charge of him. Just briefly. Within certain bounds. Arthur figured he could love that, too. And maybe no one but the king could have shown that truth to the prince.

The best thing about winter was that everyone shared their beds for the sake of warmth. Once the winds changed and came tearing off the snow–covered mountains sharp as knives, no one cared a straw that his man servant slept every night with Arthur. In fact, it would be considered a gross dereliction of duty if Merlin didn’t. Arthur occasionally spared a thought for who Gaius might have to warm his bed, but the old man didn’t seem suffering or disgruntled, so Arthur left well enough alone.

Warm nights spent hidden away under a pile of blankets, wrapped around his disconcertingly delightful lover… Arthur had nothing left to ask for. They had sex at every opportunity. Only fairly simple stuff – but even the simplest act was incredible with Merlin. And they had years to explore the rest as thoroughly as they might want. Decades. So it had been hand jobs, and occasional blow jobs, and frottage…

Merlin had frowned when Arthur first mentioned the word. ‘You want to do something to me involving cheese…?’

‘Yes, Merlin. Yes. I want to cover you in cheese and then toast you over an open flame until you melt and bubble.’

Merlin snorted with laughter, though his mouth was also twisting awry as if he were imagining that quite literally. Eurgh!

‘All right, now you must distract me,’ Arthur commanded. ‘I think I just totally grossed myself out.’

Apart from which, Merlin had never shown any distaste for anything they might do together. He seemed to have no hang-ups, no lines which could not be crossed, no reluctances. And yet Arthur kept it simple. For now at least. Arthur kept it light.

Perhaps it was time to take a step towards the dark.

By the time Arthur returned to his rooms, Merlin was already snuggled deeply into the bed. Despite the fact that various bits and pieces remained strewn across the floor. Despite the fact that the candles were all still alight, and Arthur was fully dressed. ‘Merlin! Get out here. What makes you think your duties are finished for the night?’

One bright eye peered over the coverings. ‘Oh, but I’m warm!’ he protested. ‘And it’s so cold out there.’

‘I am aware of it.’

‘Arthur…’

‘I’m going to sack you one day, you know.’ Arthur began undressing as he walked or hopped about the room, snuffing out the candles. ‘You think you have some job security now you’re my companion, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ came the smug reply.

‘Well, you don’t!’ Arthur declared. It was a lie, of course. They both knew it. Arthur almost tripped as he tried to free a foot from his breeches which were down round his ankles.

Merlin giggled at Arthur dancing about trying to regain his balance. But then made up for it with a promise. ‘I’ll warm you up as soon as you come to bed. Cold feet and all!’

‘It’s my cold hands you have to worry about,’ Arthur muttered. ‘I’ll let you guess where I’m going to put them to warm them up!’

An odd gurgle came from Merlin that somehow expressed utterly blissful contentment. Arthur smiled. So few of the infinite variety of noises that his man servant made could actually be described. Yet they were all delightful. All pure Merlin. And they conveyed his meaning far better than words ever could.

Arthur didn’t bother putting anything away, including his newly discarded clothes; Merlin could deal with it all tomorrow. Finally Arthur was ready to clamber into his bed. Despite the cold he had taken his linens off so that he was completely naked. Merlin received him into a haven of warmth with eager hands, a happy little moan, and kisses pressed to his forehead.

For once, because Arthur needed warming up, Merlin was the one to wrap himself around his lover. Arthur lay there on his back, and Merlin obligingly moved over him, embraced him, wound arms under his neck and lower back, stretched his legs down along Arthur’s, pressed his warm feet against Arthur’s, as good as his word. Well, Arthur hadn’t been that cold, and was already thawing nicely, but he didn’t complain. He spread his hands on Merlin’s back, then slid them slowly down, down, until they cupped Merlin’s buttocks. Merlin sighed contentedly, and pressed his warm lips to Arthur’s cheek.

Arthur was rarely passive, so he wondered for a moment how to make happen what he wanted, if he wasn’t directing them both. Well, first things first: he turned his face an infinitesimal amount towards Merlin, gazed at Merlin from under half–lowered lids, let his lips part yearningly. Merlin picked up on all that immediately, and began kissing him. Arthur parted his lips further, then when a tongue-tip explored he welcomed it with a moan, tilting his head back on the pillow, miming surrender. And that worked, too, or Merlin was a mind-reader, for suddenly his tongue was boldly penetrating Arthur’s mouth, and he had shifted up a little, one leg pressing between Arthur’s, some of Merlin’s weight shifting onto his knees and elbows. Christ, they were halfway there already.

Merlin was excited, perhaps sensing the possibilities. He tore himself away when the kiss was done – though not far. He just fell back beside Arthur so he could strip off the last of his clothes and toss them out of the bed. Arthur bent his further leg, shifted up onto his side a little so he wasn’t lying entirely on his back. Then Merlin landed in his arms, pressing against him, kissing him again. Enthusiastic, but not pushing for anything he hadn’t already had.

So when his mouth was freed again, Arthur murmured, ‘That hand…’ Indicating with a tip of his head the one Merlin had placed in the small of Arthur’s back. ‘Down further.’ It shifted down a little to where Arthur’s buttocks curved outwards. ‘Further still,’ Arthur murmured. ‘And if you haven’t guessed yet, just keep going until I tell you to stop.’

An eager moan as Merlin complied, while kissing Arthur’s mouth, nibbling his earlobes, biting down his neck. Fingers slowly trailed down the crevice between Arthur’s buttocks, kept going, at last teasing across the entrance to him. ‘There,’ Arthur whispered against Merlin’s lips.

Another complex moan conveyed Merlin’s understanding, his surrender to Arthur’s wishes, his own desire to possess his love.

It took what seemed like half the long winter night. Merlin teasing with his fingertips until Arthur felt hollow with the need to be entered. Then a careful finger easing inside. Slowly, slowly infiltrating him. Then fucking him like that, with just one finger, while Merlin moved over him, matching the rhythm, bringing Arthur off with that finger and the echoing thrust of his hard cock against Arthur’s, making the pleasure of it last forever. And then he still wasn’t done, for Merlin started to shift behind him – Arthur prevented him with a hand and a knee. ‘No, like this,’ he murmured. And he opened his thighs, tilted his hips so he could encircle Merlin’s waist with his legs. Arthur wanted this face-to-face; he didn’t let himself think about why, about what that contrasted with.

‘Arthur,’ came a whisper. Merlin was gazing down at him from elbow height, with yearning devotion. ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’

‘You won’t. And if you do, I don’t care.’

I care. I’m meant to be looking after you, remember?’

‘Gentle’s nice,’ Arthur said. ‘Gentle’s incredible, with you. But someday, if you wanted to do this rough, that will be incredible, too.’

A fraught groan, and Merlin didn’t make him wait any longer. He shifted up to arm’s length, while Arthur lifted his hips. They found the necessary configuration by instinct, as if it were entirely natural to them both, as if they were made for this. And Merlin was pushing inside him, filling him, completing him. Arthur let his arms fall down to lie along the bed at his sides, then shaped his hands to Merlin’s thighs, feeling the play of masculine muscle under the skin against his palms as Merlin fucked him… fucked him… God… Anything of Arthur that he hadn’t already given to Merlin, he gave now, as Merlin gazed down upon him, devouring him with those eyes, claiming him body, heart and soul.

‘Merlin!’

Suddenly Arthur was shifting, arching his back and opening his thighs still further as if his body knew better than his mind exactly what he needed and how to get it. He dug his heels in, demanding. Sensation pooled down to one spot deep within him. Merlin’s cockhead hit it. And again. A third time – and then pleasure exploded through Arthur, he let out a hoarse barely-muffled yell, and his seed splattered wild across his chest.

Merlin watched him through it, his warm eyes glowing – in charge, completely in charge – and then finally when he willed it, when there was no more of Arthur to be had, Merlin came as well, head back and mouth parted. Beautiful, so weirdly beautiful. Another of those delicious moans of his thrumming through him to the ragged rhythm of his thrusts, thrumming through him and vibrating through Arthur, sending him to the edge of consciousness. Until at last Merlin quieted, and lay down to gather Arthur into his arms.

And all that dark night, Merlin held him, cradled him, possessed him. And for that time, until the sun rose again, the crown prince of Camelot was nothing and no one but Merlin’s love.

On the shortest day of the year Arthur and Merlin walked out through the snow, escaping the preparations for the winter solstice feast. When their duties allowed, they often walked or rode for an hour or more during the day; it was exercise, and a change from the enclosure of stone walls, and during the warmer weather it was almost the only time they could spend alone together. On this day, for no particular reason, they headed for the dell in which they’d first made love. Not that there was any question of that today. Arthur observed that it was almost too cold for a kiss, but that didn’t stop them. Merlin’s breath warmed his lips, and they stood there, clutched together with a hard passion.

On their way back to the castle, they heard the relentless beat of hoofs on the road coming from the east: galloping, Arthur knew; perhaps four or six of them, he guessed. They found somewhere to stand out of the way but in clear view. Here, within the kingdom of Camelot, they should have nothing to fear.

Arthur was proven wrong when he spied the blue cloaks of the knights of Mercia. Five of them. They saw him, and hesitated for a moment, and it seemed they might thunder safely past. But this intrusion could not go unchallenged.

Arthur stepped forward and cried, ‘Who goes there?’ He drew his sword. To Merlin, over his shoulder: ‘Stay behind me.’

‘Maybe I can help,’ Merlin said.

‘Don’t be an idiot,’ he retorted. When would Merlin realise that Arthur didn’t need another variable in an already tricky situation? And what could he do? He was so useless with a sword that he’d endanger Arthur himself.

The knights had settled into a semicircle before Arthur, perhaps two sword-lengths distant. The one on the far right dismounted and stepped forward, hand on his sheathed sword. The two sides contemplated each other. It was obvious from the shrewd interest in their eyes that the Mercians knew who Arthur was.

‘What is your business in Camelot?’ Arthur asked, his voice ringing. He had the right to demand an answer.

The one who’d dismounted replied, ‘Just passing through, prince.’

‘Then your intention must be to go to the castle, and explain your business to the king.’

‘I think not.’

‘You wish to deliberately break the agreement between my kingdom and yours?’ Arthur lifted a brow, giving him one last chance to change his mind. He did not.

Arthur! On your left!’

He was already aware of it; the man’s sword had glinted as he’d silently drawn it during the distraction of the conversation. Arthur swung around, and landed a good glancing blow against the man’s sword arm; he dropped the weapon; he was out for a few minutes.

Meanwhile the one on the right had closed in; Arthur managed to dispatch him, the bastard, with a slash down the throat exposed just above his cuirass.

Another one had dismounted and now engaged Arthur, trading blows. The fourth was circling carefully to Arthur’s left, looking for an opening, not caring that made it two on one. Arthur edged around, keeping an eye on him. The fifth had ridden off a short way –

But he was not running. The fifth turned his horse and was coming back at a hard pace, sword arm lifting – expertly driving between the loose horses – a battle cry sounding – the third man flung himself out of the way –

Arthur twisted into a crouch, and held his sword ready to thrust up into the fifth man’s shoulder through the gap in his mail under his raised arm –

He heard more hoof–beats from the east, caught a glimpse of red cloaks – his own knights –

And suddenly there was a blast of bright bluish light – the fifth man flew off his horse and back through the air – landed heavily on the road – did not move again –

The fourth man, likewise, was blasted back into the trees behind Arthur –

The third man fell to his knees, terrified. Staring in gibbering fear not at Arthur, but beyond him.

Arthur’s gut clenched. He knew already. He could not have put it in words yet, but he knew already what he would see. It was perhaps the very last thing he could ever have wanted.

He took a moment to survey the scene. Three Mercians dead or as good as, and the other two on their knees, praying for mercy. Their horses scattered.

Three knights of Camelot drawing up behind them after a hard chase, shocked. Their initial shame at letting their prince bear the brunt of this attack was slowly turning into gaping confusion and fear. They, too, were gazing beyond Arthur.

He finally turned to look. His world was ending.

Merlin stood there, trembling. His right hand still outstretched, as Arthur had sometimes seen it when Merlin had worked his will, when something had gone just as Merlin wished.

Only it wasn’t his will, was it? Nor a simple wish. It was…

Merlin was looking back at him with an endless plea in those warm glowing eyes. He slowly lowered his hand. Stood tall, though he still shook like a leaf. That gaze never once shifting from Arthur’s. A long moment passed. Arthur would not let himself be moved.

He turned around. Took charge. ‘You,’ he said to two of his knights, ‘round up those horses. You,’ he said to the third, ‘secure these two men.’ Everyone was on edge, as if Merlin gave them chills, though he did not move. He did not even blink.

When those tasks were done, Arthur supervised the three knights in getting the Mercians, dead or alive, back onto their horses. ‘Take them to the castle. Tell the king what has happened.’

One of them dared to ask, ‘What about him?’ A fearful nod towards the prince’s servant.

‘Leave him with me.’

‘But, sire –’

‘He will not harm me. Will you, Merlin?’

‘No,’ came a whisper.

The knight ventured, ‘But the king will expect to –’

‘He’s my servant, and I want to talk to him first.’ Arthur said over his shoulder in a hard voice, ‘Merlin. Once we’ve talked, you’ll do what I tell you, won’t you?’

‘Yes,’ he immediately responded.

‘You’ll come back to the castle with me if I command it?’

‘Yes.’ Though it would mean his death.

Arthur nodded at his knights. ‘Take this lot to the castle. I’ll meet you there. Leave us now.’

And with massive reluctance, the three of them rode off with the Mercians in tow. Arthur stood there waiting until the hoof-beats faded into silence. Then he stood there a while longer.

Eventually Arthur drew himself up, and wiped his sword clean. Sheathed it. Walked across the road to sit on a fallen tree trunk that was sheltered from the snow.

Looked across at his servant. His friend. His love. His world was ending.

Merlin hadn’t moved at all.

‘So,’ said Arthur, ‘this is your secret.’

‘Yes.’

‘You are a sorcerer.’

‘Warlock.’

‘What’s the difference?’

Merlin withdrew further into himself. ‘There’s no difference, if you despise both.’

Of course he did. But Arthur gestured impatiently. ‘Tell me, then. Talk. I promised you I would listen.’

Merlin shook his head, and a sceptical grin stretched his face; it made him look quite ghoulish. ‘What can I tell you? What can I possibly say?’

Arthur shrugged. ‘No other sorcerer ever received this privilege. You don’t have to use it. I can take you back to my father right now, if you’d prefer.’

The man took a moment to gather himself, though surely he must have anticipated pleading his case to Arthur one day. Eventually he said, ‘It’s not something I chose, Arthur, it’s –’

‘Don’t use my name.’

‘My prince. It’s something I was born with. I didn’t choose it; it chose me.’

Arthur shook his head. ‘So, it’s not something you’ve deliberately studied or learned.’

‘No! Well…’ Merlin tilted his head, quibbling. ‘I have tried to learn more about it, sire, how to use it. How to focus it. But the power was always in me. I was using it by instinct. It’s why I had to leave home.’

‘Why do you think that would make a difference to me?’

‘What?’

‘The distinction you just made. It was already in you, it’s not something you set out to learn. Why does that make any difference to me at all?’

‘Would you have me killed for something I can’t help being? You might as well kill me for having black hair!’ Merlin took a step or two closer.

‘Stay there,’ Arthur commanded while the width of the road still divided them. Not that it would hinder Merlin, if he decided to unleash that power on Arthur. Not that fifty miles would keep him safe, Arthur sourly reflected.

‘Sire,’ said Merlin, ‘I am still the same person you knew this morning. Nothing about me has changed.’

‘Everything has changed,’ Arthur said heavily. His world – recently brimming over with pride and joy and love and the brightest of futures – had already ended. This was merely the grim aftermath.

‘Sire, please –’

Arthur cut him off. ‘I grew up with my father’s tales ringing in my ears. Stories of the chaos and lawlessness and misery that reigned in Camelot before he banished the magic. Since then, whenever magic has tried to return, it has brought great evil with it.’

‘Not all magic is evil,’ Merlin argued. ‘Not all those who use magic are evil.’

‘Why should I believe you? It has done me nothing but harm.’

I have never harmed you. I have used my powers to protect you! To defeat your enemies.’

‘I can defeat my enemies honestly, thank you.’ It was cold out, bitterly cold. Arthur folded his arms across his chest. He thought back over the months, wondering if he ought to have worked out Merlin’s secret long before now. Had he been paying so little attention? Despairing, he shook his head. ‘I underestimated you, didn’t I? I thought you were just some simple, innocent country boy.’

‘What did you think my secret was?’

‘I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it. I assumed you were… mostly harmless.’

‘I am not,’ Merlin declared with an easy pride. ‘But I would never do you harm, Arthur.’

‘You already have. The greatest possible harm. You are my lover – you are my love – and my father will execute you. What greater harm than that could ever befall me?’

Merlin stood there staring at him mutely. His heart was breaking, too.

‘I still love you, Merlin.’ It crushed him to say it, but he had promised. And it was true, God help him. It was true! Arthur stood, and again lifted a hand to keep Merlin at bay. ‘You have bewitched me, haven’t you?’ he accused. ‘Like that blasted witch Sophia.’

‘No. Never.’

‘I never quite understood why we were all so besotted with you. You seemed like such an odd choice for me to love. Now it makes sense.’

No, Arthur.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘How did it feel to be under Sophia’s spell? Nothing like it feels to love me, I am sure of it. Nothing like it at all.’

Arthur just shook his head. Reason wouldn’t sway him on a such a point, nor the vagaries of memory.

‘Oh, come on!’ cried Merlin, at last showing signs of exasperation. Anger. ‘Why can’t you think for yourself, when you have the proof of it already in your own experience? Why do you have to echo Uther? You think for yourself on other matters. And he is wrong about this, Arthur.’

‘Shut up, Merlin.’

‘He might have had his reasons twenty years ago, but he is wrong now.’

‘Shut up, damn you! You are not helping yourself.’

They both took a moment. They each stood there, separated by so much. Breathing hard as if this were a physical fight. Furious. Grief-stricken. Heart-broken.

Finally Merlin said in reasonable tones, ‘You came to love me of your own will. I never made you love me. I just waited for it. I waited for months, Arthur, and I did nothing to encourage it that anyone else wouldn’t have done. Actually, I hardly did anything to encourage it at all, except for loving you first.’

Arthur huffed, realising what an idiot he’d been. ‘I underestimated you there, too. I didn’t think you even knew about love. Not the kind of love we had, anyway.’

‘Don’t say had,’ Merlin miserably protested.

‘Have you ever used magic on me?’

He looked shamed then, and confessed, ‘Yes.’

‘I see.’ Arthur looked away, bitterly. There was no one left he could trust. Not his father. Not his lover. Morgana and Gwen and the future they would have shared were lost to him. He was alone.

‘Not like you’re thinking,’ Merlin was urgently insisting. ‘Not for anything bad. Only to help you.’

‘How the hell could magic help me?’

Merlin struggled for a moment, and then blurted, ‘When you were so unhappy in autumn. When you came back to your room late at night from… whatever it was you were forced to do. I gave you time and space in which to heal. I gave you sleep and I gave you health. I kissed away your bruises, when you finally let me. That wasn’t evil.’

‘I wouldn’t have consented to any of it, if you’d asked.’

‘I don’t care,’ Merlin cried. ‘You wouldn’t still be Arthur if I hadn’t helped you through that.’

‘Yes, I would. I’d be Arthur. Without the magic, I’d be the real Arthur.’

‘No, you’d be some twisted, broken thing. I know what happened in autumn, and with whom. I know where you went each of those nights.

Arthur stared at the man, horrified. His own most awful secret – and the king’s worst shame – known by a sorcerer.

‘And that is the man,’ Merlin continued calmly, ‘whose judgement you rely upon. That is the man you call good, while calling me evil. I have never deliberately harmed you, Arthur. You cannot say the same for your king. Your father.’

Arthur sat down again. He leant his elbows on his knees, and let his head drop into his hands. His mind strangely blank on the surface, and turbulent in the depths.

Eventually Merlin came over and sat beside him, a tactful twelve inches distant. Waited patiently, easily. His tall inelegant frame utterly familiar to Arthur. His companionship utterly reliable. As it had always been.

Arthur considered him carefully from the corner of his eye. This was still Merlin, wasn’t it? This was still his friend. His love. ‘You are still you, aren’t you?’ he asked, stupidly.

‘Yes.’ Merlin cast him a tiny smile. ‘I’m still me. And you know everything now. No more secrets, for either of us. No more surprises.’

He almost laughed then. ‘Oh, I’m sure there’ll be surprises. You’ll still be perfectly capable of surprising me when I’m old and grey, when I think I’ve seen it all.’

Merlin looked at him then. Not asking. Not assuming. He didn’t seem overly anxious as to whether he’d be free the next day, or cleaved in twain by an executioner’s axe.

‘I’m not taking you back to the castle,’ Arthur said.

‘I see,’ said Merlin, echoing Arthur’s own phrase.

‘Let me think for a bit.’

And he did. Merlin sat there in silence while Arthur decided his fate. Arthur’s old world had ended. And now he had to make it anew.

‘Go to your village,’ Arthur eventually said. ‘Go to Ealdor. You’ll have to walk. I’ll give you what I’ve got on me. You’ll be safe for tonight. But if my father sends a force after you, try not to kill my knights, Merlin. Mystify them. Whatever. Can you do that for me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Say farewell to your mother, for you cannot stay there. Leave tomorrow. If I have not caught up with you, leave me word where you’ll be. But leave it in such a way that only I can find it. Don’t let your mother know anything, for they will sense that she’s hiding something and they’ll hurt her. Uther will tell them to stop at nothing. Go. If all is well, I’ll see you tomorrow. And then I will protect you.’

‘I don’t need your protection.’

‘No, for you are a mighty warlock.’ He said it with the lightest irony. But he meant it.

Merlin quirked a forlorn smile at him. It was true.

‘I will protect you,’ Arthur vowed.

Arthur walked back to Camelot alone. Cold without his cloak, and vulnerable without his sword. Bereft. He felt the most awful absence. The most ghastly emptiness. And the land around him seemed bleak. Was that the sudden lack of love beside him, or the withdrawal of intoxicating bewitchery?

But he did not have time to search for an answer that perhaps could never be found. Instead he walked on steadily, pondering again his hastily re-made world, and how he would make it work.

He strode into the main hall, where Uther was in the centre of a group of knights, urgently conferring. The solstice preparations had been abandoned, with ivy twisting around half the pillars and the rest of the tendrils piled haphazardly on the table amid stacks of candles. ‘Father.’

Uther turned to stare at him hard, took a step towards him. ‘Where is he? Where is this sorcerer?’

‘He is safe. We must talk about that. But tell me first – what action have you taken?’

‘None regarding that damnable boy of yours. The knights of Mercia are in the dungeons.’

‘We must talk, father.’ Then Arthur gestured to the knights. ‘None of you must commit to any action until my father and I have decided what to do. And then you will only take orders that come from both of us.’

The knights glanced at each other uneasily. Looked to the king with grave misgivings.

‘Do you presume, Arthur, that –’

‘Yes, I do. In this matter, I presume a great deal. Come, sire, where can we talk in private?’

They strode up to Uther’s rooms, shoulder to shoulder, but each walking in different worlds.

Once they were alone, Uther turned to his son, his face turbulent with emotion. For a moment he could not speak, but then it came bursting forth with all the king’s authority: ‘You are protecting this boy – still protecting him. You knew all along!’

‘I didn’t know, father.’

‘How can I believe that?’

Arthur shrugged. ‘I won’t lie to you. Not today. It’s up to you whether you believe me or not.’

‘Why protect him when you know now that he’s evil?’

‘Merlin is not evil, father.’

Uther’s face contracted in bitterness. ‘He has you bewitched.’

‘He has not.’ Arthur took a breath. ‘Look, father, I would be a good king on my own. You have raised me to that. You have raised me well. But with Merlin at my side, I will be a great king. That is my future. That is Camelot’s future. If you truly care for the kingdom and our people, you will do nothing to prevent that happening.’

Uther stared at him bleakly. It was almost as if he were aging before Arthur’s eyes. ‘I have lost you,’ the father whispered. ‘You will destroy everything I have achieved,’ the king cried.

‘No, father, I will build upon it. But just as you brought change to Camelot, so will I. The kingdom is stronger for your rule, and it will be stronger again for mine.’

Uther turned away. ‘What do you ask of me? I cannot have that boy living here at Camelot! It would undermine everything I have stood for.’

‘No, I would not ask that. I will go away, father. I will leave Camelot and stay with Merlin. I will protect him.’

‘Why?’

He said it hard: ‘Because I do not trust you not to try to kill him.’

A miserable, yearning plea was visible on Uther’s face, somewhere behind the twisted horror. ‘You will leave Camelot?’ he whispered, his heart obviously shattered.

‘Yes. We will tell our people that I am going on a quest.’ Arthur huffed. ‘Who knows? That may end up coming true. I will travel, I will learn. I will fight in a righteous cause wherever my skills are required. And I will never leave Merlin’s side.’

‘No!’

‘I will come back, father,’ Arthur said, meeting Uther’s gaze directly. ‘On this day, every year. For a day, the people will have their prince. For a night – the longest night of the year – you will have your son, do with him as you will. But otherwise I will be with Merlin, and I will protect him – with my life, if I must.’

‘You choose that boy, that sorcerer, over me? Over Camelot?’

‘I will always belong to Camelot, and so will he. But until the time comes when I claim the throne, he is not safe here.’

Uther turned away again. Walked unsteadily over to a window. Leant his weight on the sill. Stared sightlessly out. He murmured, ‘Must you punish me so?’

‘Yes. And yet for one night a year – for tonight, father – you will have what you most want from me. I grant you that. I could not grant it if I still lived here in Camelot.’

‘What a God-forsaken bargain!’

‘Yes. But you cannot tell me it does not meet your needs as well as mine.’

‘You make my kingdom a living hell.’

Arthur responded very evenly, ‘Then you will be prepared for hell when you die, old man. For there you will stay until my mother sees fit to admit you to heaven.’

Uther sagged, lay his head on his arms. Collapsed, finally, to sit on the floor, propped up against the wall. ‘Then it is as well she has a more forgiving heart than you do, my son.’

‘If that is so, then it is as well.’

There was no reply.

Arthur watched the king for a while. His point had been won, though at an awful cost. Arthur could afford to be magnanimous after such a hard-fought victory. He walked over to the window, and sat down on the floor beside his father. Took the man into his arms. Uther sagged further still, lay his head in Arthur’s lap, clung to Arthur’s waist. Arthur soothed him.

That night after the feast, Arthur would return to these rooms with his father. He could imagine it now without fear, without rancour. He would take Uther to the bed, and strip them both naked. They would make love. It was possible now. And in the morning he would go. ‘One night a year,’ Arthur murmured. ‘Is that enough for you? Will you leave all else alone?’

‘Yes. One night in which my life will not be a living hell.’

‘When I die, father, if you have not yet been forgiven, I will forgive you.’

‘That will not be for an eternity. You must live a long life, Arthur. You must take care of Camelot forevermore.’

‘I will. But when my time in this world is done, I will pass the kingdom to my eldest son, of whom you’ll be even prouder than you are of me. And I will meet you in heaven. I will come and get you from hell, father, if need be, and take you to heaven myself.’

Uther looked up at him, broken and old now. And yet still loving. Arthur bent his head, and blessed the man with a kiss.

Arthur skipped that detail when he told the story to Merlin. And yet he knew that Merlin was well able to fill in all the tactful blanks. ‘So at the winter solstice feast,’ Arthur continued, ‘with all the court gathered, I announced that I’d be going on a quest early the next morning. And I figured I was pretty much grown up after all that happened that day, so I asked Morgana to stand there beside me, and I plighted my troth to her in front of everyone… Plighted: is that a word?’

‘It is now,’ Merlin murmured, still looking a little stunned.

‘I mean, I didn’t know how else to protect her and Gwen, other than by letting the court know how important she is to me. She’s strong, but I need everyone to know that she also has my strength in her service.’

Arthur mused on this for a while. One of these winter solstice days, he would marry Morgana. It was probably better that it happen sooner rather than later, given all that had come to pass. He would ask her in a year’s time, ask her what she thought best. So perhaps the year after… a wedding during the day. Then the king claiming his droit de seigneur that night with the groom rather than the bride… Arthur softly snorted – and then grinned to himself, pleased to find that he hadn’t after all lost his sense of humour.

‘Then before I left in the morning,’ he continued, ‘I went to see Gaius.’

Merlin suddenly tensed. ‘You didn’t – You don’t blame him, do you?’

‘For keeping your secret? For protecting you? No. Of course not. I might be a prat, Merlin, but I’m not a hypocrite.’ Arthur smiled. ‘He told me that one day you’d be the greatest warlock there ever was.’ That drew a grin from Merlin; he hardly even bothered being bashful any more. ‘And Gaius said I’d be the greatest king.’ He gave Merlin his best smirk. Although it was probably undermined by sentiment: I only hope I live to see the day, Gaius had concluded. I hope so, too, old friend, Arthur replied, clasping his hand.

‘I’ll miss him.’

‘Me, too.’ Arthur reached into his satchel and rummaged about; tossed a crystal sphere in a high arc over the fire to Merlin, who caught it deftly. ‘He sent you this. He said you’d know what it is. We mustn’t use it except in the direst need. But if my father needs me, or Morgana, or any of my people, Gaius will contact you with it, no matter where we are. And likewise, you can contact him. But only if we are in the worst peril.’

Arthur lapsed into silence again, pondering. Eventually he murmured, ‘Pray God we never have cause to use it.’

Merlin was watching him across the fire, those careful warm eyes eerily reflecting the flames. Eventually he said very quietly, ‘You have given up everything for me.’

‘No, I haven’t. Well, not everything.’ Arthur glanced at the dark woods that surrounded them. ‘Though I am going to miss my soft warm bed tonight.’

‘Arthur, I can –’

‘No. No magical beds. No conjuring of fantastical feather mattresses. Even if I beg you to.’

Merlin pulled a wry face, obviously trying not to laugh. ‘I was just going to tell you that this simple country boy knows how to make a half-decent fern bed.’

Arthur grinned at him. ‘All right, then. I can live with that.’

‘All right…’ Merlin softly echoed. And he said again, ‘You have given up everything, Arthur. And all I can do is promise to try to make it worth your while.’

‘You will,’ Arthur said confidently. ‘Anyway, I am doing my very best to have everything exactly as I want it when I’m king. I’ve worked hard to make sure my plans will still come true. I just won’t be quite so… comfortable in the meantime.’

‘No, you won’t.’

‘But we’ll travel. See something of the world. Find a quest or two. Serve other kings as a knight and squire, and learn from them.’ Arthur lifted a brow. ‘That sounds rather good, actually, doesn’t it? Don’t know why I didn’t think of doing it before.’

‘Arthur,’ Merlin murmured. He got up, and came around the fire. Sat beside Arthur. They hadn’t touched yet. They hadn’t touched since Arthur had discovered the truth.

After a moment, Merlin put his hand on Arthur’s arm. Even through the layers of cotton and wool and leather, Arthur felt the tingle of sensation. Was it love or magic? There was no denying that he’d felt the most remarkable sense of wellbeing as soon as he’d found Merlin again. Arthur looked into those warm glowing eyes, so very open to him now. There was devotion there, and utter trust. And Arthur knew he returned that and more in kind. He slowly leant in closer, met Merlin’s lips with his own. They kissed, and it was as if gold-dust danced in the air around them. Danced in Arthur’s veins. Perhaps there wasn’t a line to be drawn within Merlin. Perhaps the magic permeated everything he was, everything he did. And Arthur found that actually he couldn’t feel less anxious about that if he tried. He belonged with Merlin; Arthur was a better man for it, he would be a better king. There was no downside.

Arthur pulled away a little. Looked at his lover, let his eyes wander over that eldritch beautiful face. And then he murmured, ‘Let’s make up that fern bed, then, shall we?’

Merlin smiled with the profoundest happiness, and led Arthur into their shared future.

Posted in: Merlin, Slash fic

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4 responses to “Arthur: 03 Winter Solstice”

  1. avatar ravenflight21 says:

    Just read all 3 parts – you manage to stir up so many emotions. Wonderful story, wonderful writing.

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      Thank you so much! :-) I was taking a bit of a risk with that one, so it means a lot to get such positive feedback. Thanks again.

  2. avatar eboniorchid says:

    I just reread this series and I’m still stunned and enthralled by its beauty and realism. The mix of idealism and despair, joy and angst, brings all the characters into view sharply and complexly. I will definitely be reccing this to my f-list in my next rec post! :)

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      Thank you so much! I must say when I look back over my Merlin fic, it’s this sequence that I’m proudest of. So of course I’m delighted to hear that you liked it, too. Did you catch the 4th one, Summer Solstice, BTW? (I only ask just in case, seeing as you’re commenting on the 3rd…) Anyway, thank you again – hearing that I have managed to mix beauty and realism in my writing… well, that’s just the bee’s knees of praise! :-D

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