Title: Let Us Dare
Pairing(s)/Character(s): Arthur/Merlin, background Balinor/Hunith, ensemble cast including: Morgana, Ygraine, Lancelot, Gwaine, Nimueh, Gwen and others
Summary: Uther dies instead of Ygraine when Arthur is born. Balinor helps Ygraine secure her position as regent, magic isn’t banned, and Merlin and Arthur grow up side by side. Camelot is different but not cloudless, destiny is still a troublesome thing, and Arthur is still charmingly oblivious when it comes to things that matter most in life.
Warnings (if any): minor age gap (21/18 when it comes to that)
Total word count: ~ 29,800
Original prompt number: 165 - Submitted by loveelf
Disclaimer: This story/artwork is based on characters and situations created and owned by the BBC and Shine TV. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's/artist's notes (if any): Dear OP, I fell in love with your prompt the moment I saw it. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed writing this story, and I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful time I had working on it. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping you’ll like it.
Betas: nahara and secret_chord25 who are both utterly magnificent. All remaining mistakes are mine.
Let Us Dare - Part I
Hunith was at the far end of the corridor when she heard her two-year-old’s infectious laughter. It was pouring out of the room the queen generously let them use as a nursery into the sunlit gallery of the Camelot castle. Hunith smiled to herself, shaking her head. Merlin was just a baby, but he was already a handful. She could barely leave him out of her sight for a moment.
And she probably shouldn’t have done so now, not even for a brief visit to Gaius, because there was another, unfamiliar tone mixed in with Merlin’s giggles. There was another child in the room, and it was laughing, too. Worried, Hunith hurried her steps to a run, and froze in the doorway.
Merlin, obviously dissatisfied with sitting in his crib, was instead sprawled on the stone floor, giggling and pointing his finger at an older boy, who was hovering three feet above the ground and grinning at him. Hunith’s hand flew up to cover her mouth in horror – the shiny blond hair and steely blue eyes were unmistakable.
“Prince Arthur,” she breathed, torn between the instinct to catch him and caution not to interfere with Merlin’s instinctive fits of magic. “Merlin, put him down this instant.”
Her son gazed at her sunnily. “Look! I can do!” he proclaimed proudly, and flicked his chubby wrist.
His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince of Camelot and adjourned lands, rotated in midair, whooping in surprise and delight, and demanded, much to Hunith’s frustration, “Do it again! Do it again!”
Merlin was happy to oblige, though the motions of his hand were sloppy and ill-coordinated. Hunith bit her lip.
“Merlin, stop,” she asked again, softer. “Look, you’ve had your fun, sweetheart. Let Prince Arthur down now, please?”
Merlin’s eyes, huge on his tiny face, turned onto her trustingly. He blinked, taking in her expression, and Huntih saw it – the moment he realised that Mummy was not happy. The corners of his mouth drooped, and he reached for her, without thinking.
Hunith, despite her relatively recent status as a noble woman, had been brought up in the country, and five years of life in Camelot couldn’t rid her of her instincts. She threw herself to the floor below Arthur and caught him, just as the boy was about to smash into the unyielding stone.
“Merlin!” Arthur growled, struggling to free himself from Hunith’s arms.
Merlin’s eyes turned impossibly bigger as he realised what he’d done. His face registered open fear, and he squeaked, “Sorry, Ahfur!” before promptly vanishing into thin air.
Hunith blinked. She was aware, of course, that her child possessed the Gift, but invisibility didn’t seem nearly as harmless as opening cupboard doors at will to get sweets.
“Merlin,” she called, panicking. “Merlin, please come back.”
Arthur finally managed to shake her off and sprung to his feet, his too-long, too-heavy tunic twisted all around him, and called with petulance and anger, “We’re not playing hide and seek, Merlin!”
Merlin appeared with a pop not three feet away from him. Arthur made to grab him immediately, and Merlin disappeared again, only to materialize a second later behind Arthur’s back.
“Come back, you little coward!” Arthur demanded, but a grin was spreading irresistibly on his lips as he tried to catch a laughing Merlin again and again.
“Merlin,” Hunith sighed, amused and worried. “Please desist, child.”
But Merlin didn’t hear her; he was too busy playing the newly invented magical variation of tag with Arthur. Laughing and whooping, they ran out of the room and into the unsuspecting castle corridors faster than Hunith could get back to her feet.
She ran after them, trying unsuccessfully to appeal to their good conscience or common sense, as amused servants, guards, and courtiers watched. Merlin could hardly outrun Arthur on his short chubby legs that still stomped more than walked, but he was constantly popping in and out of sight, making Arthur grab at air and laugh harder.
“Stop, Merlin!” Hunith cried, exasperated. “Oh gods, what have I done to deserve you?”
Arthur, learning the game on his feet, realised finally that Merlin was alternately appearing at either side of him, and moved in counterpoint, catching Merlin by surprise and finally grabbing him. Merlin yelped and tripped, tugging Arthur down with him, and they rolled together in a laughing and screaming ball straight through the half-opened doors of the council chambers. They came to a stop at the very centre of the room in full view of the queen and her advisors.
Hunith, who had lost track of her surroundings in her desperate pursuit, had fallen through the doors a moment later, and froze in horror.
There was a long, heavy silence as the queen and the councilmen stared at the unexpected display. Arthur went completely still, his arm still holding Merlin in a headlock, and didn’t quite dare to look at his mother. Merlin, who finally seemed to catch up on the fact that he was really in trouble now, promptly vanished, eliciting several shocked gasps. Almost immediately, though, he appeared again, as if ashamed to have left Arthur to deal with this alone.
“Well,” the queen intoned in an unnaturally even voice.
“Your Majesty.” Hunith curtsied hastily. Her eyes found her husband’s, who was standing to Ygraine’s right, and begged him wordlessly for help. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t catch them.”
“I can see that,” Ygraine replied, her lips twitching, as she gazed down at the boys.
Merlin looked at her, and sidled closer to Arthur clumsily, just in case.
“Well, well, well, Balinor,” Nimueh drawled, stepping forward. “It appears you have drastically misrepresented the power of your son’s Gift. Vanishing at will at his age – and he’s not even casting a spell.”
“It was an accident!” Arthur said suddenly, scowling at Nimueh and stepping in front of Merlin. “He didn’t mean to!”
“Calm down, Arthur,” the queen chastised him, with a mild frown. “Since you decided to speak out of turn, perhaps you could explain why you were playing with Merlin at all instead of studying like you were supposed to?”
Arthur bowed his head, mumbling something under his breath.
“I didn’t quite hear you,” Ygraine told him dryly. “You’re the crown prince. Speak up so people can hear your voice.”
Arthur’s chin snapped up as he declared mulishly, “I said, arithmetic is stupid!”
Ygraine’s eyebrows arched elegantly. “I can see we’re due to have another conversation about discipline and duty,” she remarked. Arthur bowed his head again. “Now return to your classroom. I’m certain Maitre Dorin is looking for you.”
In retrospect, Hunith thought, they should really have foreseen what happened next.
Dejected, Arthur jerked his arm free of Merlin’s clutches and trailed back for the doors. Merlin looked after him forlornly, then looked back, and it dawned on him suddenly that he was to be left alone with these scary, strict-looking people, who were all staring down at him with expressions that did not bode well. The corners of his mouth drooped down, huge eyes full of summer sky innocence welled up with tears, and he started to cry – at first hesitantly, as if not quite believing life was being so cruel to him, and then louder and louder.
Arthur froze. So did everyone else, because something was happening in the room. The glass of the windows began to rattle ominously, threatening to shatter in the frames. The trembling grew steadily louder and more intense, filling the chamber with liquid menace.
“Somebody stop this!” Ygraine demanded, raising her voice over the sound of rebelling glass.
“I’m trying,” Nimueh hissed through gritted teeth. “It’s coming too strong!”
“Merlin, don’t cry,” Arthur said plaintively, walking back quickly to the distressed toddler. He was the only person in the room who paid no heed to the ominous cracks spreading their web rapidly along the walls. “Oh, come on, don’t. Don’t.”
Merlin stared at him, betrayed, and cried harder.
“Look,” Arthur said desperately digging his hand into his pocket. “Look what I’ve got! Look, it’s got wings and everything!”
Merlin stopped for a moment, peering down at Arthur’s outstretched palm. There was a dead beetle lying there, with tiny legs crooked helplessly upward. Arthur grinned encouragingly. Merlin looked more betrayed and hurt than ever, glancing up at Arthur’s face as if to express his incredulity that something as horrible as a dead bug was shoved under his nose. Arthur’s grin vanished.
“Hey, hey, don’t, come on,” he muttered, as Merlin’s tears began to fall again, heavy as rain.
Above their heads, a glass pane gave and shattered with a loud clang, showering the room in pieces that were fortunately too small to hurt anyone. Gasping, the adults retreated to the relative safety of the walls as another window exploded, then another.
“Arthur, get back!” Ygraine shouted above the noise. “Somebody protect the prince!”
The guards that stepped closer to try and snatch him were pushed back against the walls, but, in the middle of the room, the two boys stood unharmed, the deadly shards dissembling to sparkling dust before they could reach them.
Merlin was wheezing, consumed fully by his grief as only a two-year-old child could be. Clearly desperate, Arthur grabbed at him then, pulling him against his body awkwardly, squashing Merlin’s tiny face against his chest.
“Stop crying, Merlin, please,” he repeated, his free hand sliding up and down Merlin’s back. “Please, Merlin, please. Hey.” Arthur nudged the other boy away slightly to get into another pocket. “Look, I got some fudge left from last night. It’s your favourite.”
Hiccupping, Merlin managed, “Sawberry?”
“Er.” Arthur peered at the crumbled sticky mess in his hand dubiously. “I think so? Here, you can have it.”
He smeared the remains of the fudge against Merlin’s mouth more than fed it to him. Merlin frowned thoughtfully, licking his lips, his tears slowing down.
“Not sawberry,” he mumbled.
Arthur beamed at him. “You can have all my fudges ever – just don’t cry anymore, okay?”
“Okay,” Merlin agreed easily, grinning through fudge and tears, eyes trained on Arthur, happy. “Not go?” He curled his fingers around Arthur’s belt for good measure.
“I won’t,” Arthur assured him. “I’m not going anywhere, Merlin. I’m right here, see?”
Merlin sighed – a contented, quiet little exhale, heard all too loudly in the sudden silence of the room.
The shuddering stopped; pieces of broken glass were glinting on the floor innocently.
Hunith was looking down at her son with mixed feelings of dread and awe, but the queen’s gaze was clear and curious. Balinor seemed concerned; Nimueh was smiling in a menacing sort of way; and Gaius was muttering softly.
“Arthur,” Ygraine said at last, stepping away from the wall and smoothing the fabric of her dress. “Please go to your classroom. Take Merlin with you,” she added, before he could object. “I’ll ask the kitchens to send you some sweets.”
“Sawberry?” Merlin asked, emboldened, peering at Ygraine from the safety of Arthur’s arms.
The queen chuckled. “I think we can arrange that.” She shot a glance at Hunith. “He’s not allergic, is he?”
“No, Your Majesty,” Hunith breathed, mortified.
“Good, good. Off you go then, boys. And Arthur?”
The queen gave him a stern look. “Make no mistake – we’ll be discussing your behaviour later.”
Arthur’s face dimmed as he turned to go, pulling Merlin after him by the hand. “Come along, Merlin. Move your little feet.”
Merlin grinned, entirely too happy for someone who was mostly being dragged out of the council chambers, his feet only barely touching the floor.
“Well,” Nimueh said as soon as the doors were closed. “This was certainly interesting. The boy is Gifted beyond any known precedent.”
“You don’t say.” Ygraine’s tone was dry. “This is the first time I’ve heard my son voluntarily use the word ‘please.’ Clearly, Merlin is the most powerful person in the kingdom.”
“Body! Shield! Body! Shield! Come on, Merlin! You could at least try!”
Clumsily, Merlin pushed the too big helmet back with sweaty hands and glared at Arthur, barely managing to lift his own blunt sword in defence.
“Would you stop that?” he yelled, trying to catch his breath. “Ow! Arthur, I said stop!”
With an exasperated sigh, Arthur poked him one last time in the ribs with the tip of his sword. It was enough for Merlin to lose his shaky balance and fall back, yelping and dropping his own weapon and shield as though they burned his hands.
“Don’t get too cosy,” Arthur grunted, dipping his own sweaty brow. “We’re doing it all again.”
“What? No way!” Merlin shook his head emphatically, hair plastered to his forehead. “I can’t move my arms or legs. Your swords are stupid.”
“Yeah? Well, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t so damn nosy,” Arthur told him petulantly, kicking Merlin’s shin lightly. He made a face and donned what he thought to be Merlin’s voice. “‘Stop bullying Morris, Arthur. He’s your servant, Arthur. He can’t reply to you in kind, Arthur.’”
“Shut up, Arthur,” Merlin muttered under his breath, grinning.
Arthur’s eyebrows flew up. “Oh, you’re going to regret this.”
“Ow, stop it!” Merlin yelled, laughing, as Arthur launched at him, tickling him mercilessly, as they rolled around in the sweet-smelling summer grass. “Stop it, stop it! Come on, you big prat, let go of me!”
“What did you call your prince, Merlin?” Arthur taunted, knocking away Merlin’s feeble attempts to defend himself with obnoxious ease and advantage that an athletically inclined eleven-year-old would have over a skinny boy eight years of age. “Did you just call me a prat?”
“Yes!” Merlin shouted rebelliously, even as he wheezed with laughter, desperately trying – and failing – to get away from Arthur or respond in kind. “Because you are – a giant – prat!”
“Oh really, Merlin?” Arthur tickled him pitilessly. “Is this the way to talk to the crown prince, Merlin?”
“Augh... Arthur, stop, enough!”
“Beg for your life or I shall bestow death upon you by means of—”
“Tickles,” Merlin finished, laughing harder and more hoarsely now as he managed to knee Arthur in the stomach.
“Oh, you little—” Arthur grunted and spun the boy around, twisting his arm behind his back and pressing his face into the grass. “Beg for mercy!”
Arthur twisted his arm a little harder, and Merlin wailed, “Fine! Fine! Mercy! Now let me go!”
Arthur didn’t budge. “No; you must say, ‘I beg you for mercy, Your Highness’!”
“Or Sire. It’s not that hard, Merlin, even you can remember.”
“No, Arthur, really.”
Arthur realised suddenly that Merlin was no longer laughing, nor paying him any heed. Merlin’s eyes were glued to the edge of the forest, where the river made a soft turn as if licking around the trees. From the shadow of the old oaks and elms, five black-clad riders were emerging.
“What the—” Arthur muttered, sitting up abruptly and pulling Merlin with him automatically. “Who are they?”
“Where’s Geraint?” Merlin asked in a small voice, eyes trained on the rapidly approaching figures.
“I don’t know,” Arthur said, frowning. Sir Geraint was supposed to watch them, but it wouldn’t be the first time he took a detour to the tavern in the middle of the day to ‘wet his whistle.’ It looked like they were alone.
Arthur sprang to his feet, Merlin following him unsteadily. “Maybe they’re friends?”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed as he saw the first rider spot them and draw out his sword. “I don’t think they’re friends, Merlin,” he muttered, his heart hammering tightly in his throat. “I don’t think they’re friends at all.”
He picked up his blunt training sword and stood firm, as Sir Kay had taught him.
Arthur scowled at him. “Are you daft? They’re going to kill you!”
Merlin made what Arthur had long learned to recognize as his stubborn face. “I’m not leaving you.”
Arthur sneaked another look at the riders, all of whom were brandishing swords now, before half-turning toward his clearly mental friend. “Merlin, I’m the future king; they’re obviously after me! If they want ransom or something, they’ll kill you on sight!”
“Then you run!” Merlin snapped angrily, fear and resolve warring in his eyes. “Maybe they won’t even touch me at all.”
“God, but you’re an idiot,” Arthur muttered. “Get behind me at least, you clot!”
Merlin did take a step back, and Arthur turned around to meet their attackers, who were close enough now that he could see their eyes. He locked gazes with the head rider and shuddered.
The man’s eyes were cold. Determined, focused, and cold.
They weren’t after ransom, Arthur knew just then. They wanted him dead.
Quickly, he thought of all the things he dreamed he’d do and never would now. The tournaments; the quests; the adventures. He thought of his mother, and of how not even a Dragonlord’s protection would be enough for her to remain queen-regent without an heir.
He thought of Merlin, and something clenched in his chest. He squared his shoulders and gripped his sword tighter. He would not die a coward. And he would not die before Merlin did.
Something was happening.
Just as Arthur raised his sword to meet the first (and likely last) blow, an unexpectedly strong gust of wind tugged at his hair. It was strong enough to feel like a physical blow, and Arthur tensed his knees to remain standing.
The wind rapidly grew stronger, forming a whirlwind if dust and leaves in front of Arthur, spinning faster and faster like a hungry baby hurricane, impatient to touch the sky. It moved steadily onwards, away from the boys and towards the riders, who were now having trouble controlling their horses.
The wind sang and span triumphantly, angrily, as it crushed the first bandit, knocking him off his horse and lifting him high in the air before dropping him back to the ground heavily. His leg got caught up in his reins and soon, the panicking horse was dragging him away in a mad gallop, his head bouncing off the ground.
His comrades tried to turn around, but the wind got to them first, brutal and vengeful, throwing them off and scattering them away like twigs. The men were screaming, horses were whinnying pitifully and racing away in a panicked haze – and above all, the wind roared madly, furiously, chasing away the threat.
Enthralled as he was by the sight, Arthur glanced back at Merlin – and froze.
Merlin was standing not two feet away, his arm raised high, fingers outstretched commandingly. His eyes were brimming liquid gold.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Merlin was shaking with tension; he looked like he could barely stand on his feet, his head falling backwards helplessly, as if someone was pressing it down. But he maintained the spell until the very last rider lay motionless on the ground.
Arthur barely had the time to catch him when the other boy collapsed.
“God, Merlin,” he breathed, sinking to his knees, cradling his friend in his arms, gazing down at his face in horror and wonder. “Merlin.”
That was exactly how Geraint found them some half an hour later, with Arthur gripping his sword belligerently in one hand and holding a wan, unconscious Merlin close to his chest.
No one was telling him anything.
Arthur hunched in on himself, cold and uncomfortable in the damp alcove he had been sitting in for hours. Hours. It had been so long since Merlin was carried into the chambers he occupied with his parents; since Gaius and the Lady Alice had rushed in; since Nimueh had come around snooping.
Everyone ignored Arthur, even the servants. This wasn’t something the crown prince was used to at all, but he didn’t care for etiquette or propriety at the moment. If only someone would spare a minute and tell him that Merlin was alive, Arthur wouldn’t dream of asking for anything further.
Finally, at long last, the door opened, and Arthur jerked up, hoping it was the Lady Hunith or Gaius. But it was Balinor who stepped out, and Arthur froze in his place.
He had never felt at ease around the Dragonlord. It was strange, because Arthur knew perfectly well that the man was loyal to the core. It was he who had helped Ygraine secure her position as queen regent in the chaos that followed King Uther’s death. She had named him Lord Protector of the realm, and he had worked hard alongside Nimueh and the queen to defend Camelot’s borders and to make the kingdom a prosperous, wealthy land.
Arthur didn’t know what disturbed him. Maybe it was that Balinor wasn’t of noble blood, and he never acted as if he was comfortable with his status. The Lady Hunith was the same way – always too humble, always too quiet, as if constantly afraid that someone would show her her place.
Merlin was the only one who showed no deference at all to such matters, but, then again, Merlin’s head was full of insane ideas that all people were equals and should be treated with respect and kindness according to some mad concepts of universal justice. It amused Arthur to no end to listen to his ramblings, and he didn’t even bother arguing with Merlin except to rile him up, and just laughed at him fondly. If Merlin wasn’t the son of the third most powerful person in the kingdom, he might well have been a village idiot.
And this was probably the crux of the matter, for it was seeing Merlin and Balinor together that made Arthur the most uncomfortable.
Aside from being a Dragonlord, Balinor’s Gifts were rudimentary at best, and Merlin spent most of his time with Gaius, who mentored him in the Art of magic alongside other Gifted children. Yet sometimes, Arthur would catch father and son talking – Balinor explaining something to Merlin with a patient smile, Merlin’s eyes wide and trusting, or telling him off for some prank, or ruffling his hair.
There was fierce pride in Merlin’s eyes every time he mentioned his father, and Arthur felt humbled by it. His own relationship with his mother was one of tender affection, but Ygraine wouldn’t wrestle with him in the tall, summer-soft grass behind the castle, or carve little wooden figurines for him, or take him to short trips across the kingdom – just the two of them, a campfire, and the legends of the past lulling him to sleep under the stars.
Arthur started, realising suddenly that Balinor was standing right in front of him, studying him with an unreadable expression on his face. He looked tired and worried, and Arthur felt his heart begin to beat madly at the sight. He jumped to his feet.
“Merlin,” he blurted out, words racing each other out of his mouth. “Is he – how is he – better, isn’t he? What’s wrong with him – he wasn’t hurt – I swear he wasn’t hurt!”
Balinor was peering down at him, still saying nothing, and, to his horror, Arthur felt a hot, wet stinging in his eyes. He started to blink rapidly.
“I told him to run,” he went on, in a tone that was half petulant, half guilty. “I told him to run, but he wouldn’t listen! He never listens to me!”
“Arthur.” Balinor’s hand was suddenly clasping his shoulder, warm and reassuring, as the Dragonlord crouched down beside him. “Merlin is going to be all right.”
Arthur blinked, not daring to breathe. “… Really?”
“Yes.” Balinor smiled, relief obvious and sincere in his face. “The spell was too powerful for him; he doesn’t yet know how to balance his magic properly. He shouldn’t have even known it, but I’m afraid he and the Lady Morgana have made it a habit to – read ahead.”
Arthur nodded. He’d lost Merlin as his fulltime playmate about four years ago, when Merlin had learned how to read. He pursed his lips tightly at the thought of Morgana, that insufferable, friend-stealing witch.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Balinor. “I didn’t mean for him to—”
“Do not concern yourself, my Lord. Merlin is more than just a friend to you,” Balinor told him in a graver tone. “He has magic. It is his duty to protect you. It may well be within his duty to die for you. Merlin knows this, as do I.”
“But he’s a child!” Arthur protested hotly. “He’s not one of my knights – he’s bloody eight years old!”
“Nevertheless.” Balinor’s eyes were dark and serious. “He did what he had to today, and he will do it again. You must accept that. You are the future king. People will give their lives to protect you.”
Arthur jerked out of his grip and stomped around angrily. “That’s unacceptable! That’s – I don’t need – I can defend myself! I’m not some—”
Balinor watched calmly as Arthur seethed. “Not Merlin!” he declared finally, with as much royal arrogance as he could muster. “I won’t let anything happen to Merlin – I’d bloody kill him first!”
Balinor’s lips twitched, even as he tried schooling his features back to sobriety as quickly as he could. “It is gratifying to hear you say that, my Lord.”
He studied Arthur quizzically for a moment. “I know that you already show great mastery with the sword.”
Arthur blinked at the abrupt change of subject, then shrugged. He had made it through basic training two years ago, and Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere had constantly been on his back ever since, their lessons sometimes painful but effective.
“I probably wouldn’t best a knight in swordplay,” the Dragonlord mused out loud. “But I bet I could have any of them on their backs with a staff.”
Arthur knew that. He’d seen Balinor beating the crap out of whoever challenged him on the training grounds when he had the time. The knights had never spoken of his fighting skills with anything but respect.
“Would you like me to teach you?”
Arthur stared, his jaw dropping. “You would?” He blushed suddenly, realising he sounded like a simpleton. “That is, if you would grant me that honour, Lord Protector?”
Balinor chuckled. “Call me Balinor, Arthur. There’s no room for privilege in battle. It’ll be a pleasure to teach you; I fear my lessons are wasted on Merlin, anyway. He relies on his magic too much.” Balinor’s smile dimmed. “One day, it might be his undoing.”
Arthur jutted is chin up, determined. “Then I will teach him myself. And if he tries to weasel out of it, I’ll make him clean Gaius’s leech tank again – without magic.”
Balinor laughed heartily, clutching at his sides. He rested a heavy hand on Arthur’s shoulder and nodded. “My Prince, I wish you the best of luck with that.”
Arthur grinned, glancing at the closed door. Merlin’s fate had thus been sealed, and he didn’t even know it.
“I said no, Merlin. Go braid Morgana’s hair or whatever it is you two do locked up in that tower all day.”
Merlin blushed to the tips of his ears. “I never touched her hair!”
Arthur snorted. “I bet you want to. You fancy her.”
“I do not!”
“You filled her bathtub with rose petals.”
“It was her birthday! And at least I didn’t give her a dagger.”
“It was sparkly!”
“It was a dagger. She’s a girl, Arthur, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Arthur sneered. “Looks like you’ve noticed for the both of us.”
Merlin looked as if steam would come out of his ears any moment now, and Arthur ruffled his hair, laughing. Merlin scowled and ducked away.
“I’m coming with you,” he said stubbornly.
Arthur sobered at once. “Merlin, which part of the word ‘no’ do you not understand? I can’t take you with me; I can’t allow the distraction of looking over my shoulder every two minutes to check if you’ve fallen off your horse yet.”
Merlin’s fists clenched. “I’m not a baby! I can take care of myself!”
Arthur gripped his shoulders, leaning down to bring their eyes at an even level. He sighed. An eleven-year-old Merlin didn’t look that much different from a four-year-old Merlin, in Arthur’s view, but he had a point. If Arthur’s childhood had been cut in half by the responsibilities he had to assume as the future king, Merlin had barely managed to snatch a third of his own. Growing up by Arthur’s side, with the kingdom struggling to hold its own against magical creatures and hostile armies, meant becoming mature much faster than nature had intended.
“I know you’re not a baby, Merlin. I know you’re powerful.”
“But the last time you wanted a glass of water, we ended up having a flood in the lower town.” Merlin bristled, but said nothing. “Oh, and the hangovers everyone had after your ‘good-mood’ spell wore off? The snow at Beltane? The time you accidentally magicked away all our swords?”
“I helped you get rid of that griffin!” Merlin snapped. “And you’d never have shot that ghoul if I hadn’t made it visible! And—”
Arthur shook him. “Merlin. You’re. Not. Going.”
Merlin stared at him, eyes hurt and accusing. It was unbearable. Arthur let him go, turning away.
“I have to do this on my own, Merlin. I killed that unicorn.”
“It wasn’t your fault! You didn’t mean to!”
Arthur glared. “Maybe, but it still unleashed the curse, didn’t it? How long do you think we can survive on water? I need to take care of this right now, and Anhora said that no one could aid me.”
“Well, Anhora is stupid.”
But Merlin’s head was bowed, and Arthur knew that was it. He shoved an extra pair of riding gloves into his bag, checked that his water skin was full, and clasped his sword to his belt.
“Take care of everyone here, okay?”
Merlin tilted his head to the side stubbornly, avoiding Arthur’s hand. Arthur sighed, dropping it.
“I’ll see you when I’m back.”
Merlin didn’t deign to answer.
When Arthur stepped out of the labyrinth, he didn’t expect to see Merlin sitting tensely at a crude wooden table under Anhora’s watchful gaze. Unfortunately, Arthur couldn’t say he was surprised, either.
He yelled and ranted at and berated Merlin until the boy looked guilty, though stubbornly unrepentant. Deep down, though, Arthur was glad he wouldn’t have to do it alone.
Merlin solved the riddle, that brilliant mind of his ever sharp, but he still fell so easily for Arthur’s simple ploy as Arthur snatched the goblet. Merlin’s wide-eyed, terrified stare was the last thing he saw before the heavy, slippery-warm darkness pulled him under.
When he opened his eyes, the first things that came into view were the seagulls, circling high in the skies and crying out shrilly to each other. The second thing was Merlin.
“I bloody hate you,” the boy told him, without ever turning away from watching the sea. “I thought you died.”
So had Arthur; it hadn’t occurred to him to question Anhora’s claim that one of the goblets contained poison. His mouth tasted funny and was kind of tingly, just as it did when Arthur swallowed some of Morgana’s sleeping draught by mistake.
Arthur pulled himself upright gracelessly, hissing at the discomfort caused by lying motionless for hours in his armour. Merlin was sitting beside him, leaning against a rock, thin shoulders hunched and a frown on his face.
Arthur reached towards him tentatively, and Merlin whirled around, glaring.
“You’re an idiot, you know that?” he yelled. “You’re the single most stupid person I know!”
Arthur contemplated him for a moment. An apology would likely do him no good, especially since Arthur wasn’t sorry.
“Don’t be so melodramatic, Merlin,” he drawled, careless and taunting. “God, you really are a giant girl, aren’t you?”
Merlin growled and launched himself at Arthur, his fists smashing into whatever part of him he could reach. Arthur caught his wrists before Merlin could split his knuckles raw against Arthur’s chainmail. Merlin struggled against him furiously, kicking and screaming more insults, while Arthur mostly tried to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.
Finally, Arthur managed to throw him off. Merlin landed on his knees, hitting them hard against the rock. He cried out in pain, and turned away from Arthur, his shoulders quivering.
Arthur winced in sympathy, but didn’t say anything and didn’t move to help. Merlin’s tears, on the rare occasions that Arthur happened to witness them, had always made him feel incredibly awkward. His first impulse was to offer comfort, but Merlin wasn’t a girl, no matter how often Arthur teased him about it.
If it was another boy, another young knight in training, perhaps, Arthur might have laughed. Might have even said something cruel, because boys weren’t supposed to do that. But this was Merlin, and Merlin was...
Merlin was different. Arthur couldn’t understand how or why, but he felt it all the same. He hated the feeling of undermining helplessness that tugged at his gut unpleasantly every – blessedly rare – time he saw Merlin cry.
Merlin didn’t make a sound, obviously fighting to get a grip.
“Merlin,” Arthur called after a while. “Help me out of the chainmail, would you? I want to go for a swim.”
Merlin stared at him incredulously, his cheeks mercifully dry, even if his eyes looked suspiciously puffy.
“A swim?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Arthur, that’s—”
“What?” Arthur lifted his eyebrows innocently. “Do you think an enchanted path will lead us to the ocean every day? I’m not losing this chance to catch a mermaid.”
Merlin snorted. “You won’t catch a mermaid. You’re too ugly.”
“Oi! Not as ugly as you.”
Merlin stuck out his tongue at him. “Morgana thinks I’m cute.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, cute, like a baby deer.”
“You shut up!”
“Baby deer. Baby rabbit!”
“I’ll turn you into a rabbit!”
Merlin’s eyes glinted gold menacingly, and Arthur ducked. “No fair!”
Merlin giggled, springing to his feet and chasing after him along the seashore.
Two hours later, they were both drenched, ribs hurting from laughter, salt drying in their hair. No mermaids were caught, although Merlin did have a rather memorable encounter with a jellyfish that Arthur teased him mercilessly about all the way back through the labyrinth. It wasn’t nearly as exciting, as it turned into a straight alley that led them back to where they’d left their horses, but Arthur wasn’t complaining.
Merlin fell asleep in his saddle, lulled by the steady rhythm of the ride, and nearly did fall off, proving once and for all that he really was an idiot. Arthur caught him just in time, rolling his eyes. Merlin, unbelievably, didn’t even wake much, just snuggled closer as Arthur settled him in front of himself, pulling his cloak around them both and tying the reins of Merlin’s patient, quiet horse to the pommel.
“I don’t wanna be a rabbit,” Merlin murmured suddenly in his sleep, before dropping his head back on Arthur’s chest.
Arthur grinned into the night, and rode on.
It was close to midnight when Arthur stepped into his chambers, swaying slightly and grinning still as he remembered a rather raunchy evening he had just spent with his knights at the tavern. He wasn’t drunk, though; nothing on poor Pellinore, who had to be carried back to the castle. Chuckling quietly, Arthur pulled the door closed, and froze, realising that he wasn’t alone.
Merlin was sprawled inelegantly in Arthur’s favourite chair, his long, scrawny legs resting on the table, a thick volume in his lap. At the sight of Arthur, he snapped the book closed and stood up.
“Good night?” he asked casually.
“Um, yes,” Arthur said, confused. “What are you doing here?”
Merlin’s eyebrows rose, and Arthur immediately felt guilty. He hadn’t been seeing much of Merlin lately.
The past few years had been eventful for Arthur. He’d been knighted at fourteen, shortly after they returned from the Labyrinth of Gedref. He had been constantly training ever since, going on patrols, even leading a short winter campaign last year. He was now expected to take part in every council meeting alongside his mother, though he tried to skip those as often as he could. He was also spending a lot of time with his knights, many of who were as young as Arthur or close enough to him in age to become his friends.
Then there was Lancelot, who practically burst into Camelot’s regimented life not two years back. It helped that the first thing he did was save Merlin’s life when the unfortunate warlock happened to be ambushed by a stray pack of serkets. That immediately earned Lancelot Arthur’s good graces. When Lancelot demonstrated exactly how skilled he was with a sword not a few days later, their friendship was cemented good and firm.
Arthur liked Lancelot, and Lancelot admired Arthur. Soon enough they had become inseparable, and Arthur was happy. Merlin was great – he was funny, and cheeky, and brave – but Merlin wasn’t a knight, nor was he a hunter. He just didn’t understand certain things – the best things in life, in Arthur’s view. Besides, he was still a child by looks and manners, while Arthur was rapidly becoming a young man.
Arthur didn’t know what Merlin got up to most of these days. For some reason, he didn’t spend as much time with Gaius as he used to, nor was he seen as often in Morgana’s company. Morgana was undoubtedly still mad at Merlin for unleashing a goblin on the unsuspecting castle. The creature had caused a lot of mayhem making the ladies of the court act very un-lady-like (Morgana included) among other things. Arthur himself wasn’t happy with Merlin, having ended up with a pair of donkey ears. Nimueh had laughed herself stupid over them before spelling them away.
Arthur suspected, though, that the distance between Merlin and Morgana had a more serious reason. Morgana, while a powerful Seer, was not nearly as strong an enchantress. From what Arthur understood, having once overheard Gaius, few people could compare with Merlin where sorcery was concerned. It was therefore stupid to be jealous, but Arthur understood. He didn’t like it when Lancelot made him land on his arse during training, either.
Merlin could be seen conversing with Guinevere, Morgana’s pretty maid, sometimes. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and Arthur felt sorry for his friend – Lancelot made no secret of the admiration he had for Gwen. Poor Merlin stood no chance against the dashing young knight, who made the ladies of the court sigh dreamily every time he walked past.
Most of the time, though, Arthur had far more important things to do than think about Merlin’s misfortunes.
He had entered his first tournament at sixteen and won it, and had been giddy over his victory for weeks. His confidence boosted, he found himself chatting more freely with the ladies, offering Lancelot tough competition. Now that he was old enough, the neighbouring kingdoms stopped sending portraits of young princesses over and began sending the princesses in the flesh instead. It was immensely flattering, even if Arthur had no intention of marrying yet – the feasts were fun, and the favours the girls bestowed upon him sometimes even more so. Between that and planning campaigns to defend Camelot should Cenred or Bayard attack, Arthur was happily busy most of the time.
Throughout it all, Merlin had always been there, lurking in the background, never too far away, but never exactly close, either. It was disconcerting to suddenly realise how long it had been since they had spent any time together, just the two of them.
“Here,” Merlin said, making a vague gesture with his hand. “Let me help you out of your armour.”
Arthur frowned. “I’m sure Morris—”
“He wasn’t feeling well.” Merlin shrugged. “I dismissed him. Come on, don’t just stand there. I know how to do this.”
Arthur walked over towards him, surrendering to Merlin’s direction as the boy worked efficiently to rid him of his armour.
“This is unexpectedly kind of you,” Arthur said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You’re welcome,” Merlin grunted, pulling the mail off of him.
Arthur turned around to look at him as he finished. “Seriously, Merlin. What’s going on?”
Merlin was straightening the chainmail he laid out on the table, his long fingers sliding over the rings of steel absently.
“You’re a great warrior, Arthur,” he said, not lifting his eyes. “I’ve seen you fight. You’re – you’re good. Really.”
Arthur’s frown deepened. “… Thanks?”
“Yeah.” Merlin pursed his lips. “Just – try not to think with your sword, yeah? You’re going to be king one day. You’ll need brains as well as brawn.” He smirked, glancing at Arthur. “Try to read a book or two every now and then, okay? Contrary to what you’ve heard, they don’t actually bite.”
“Merlin.” Arthur was staring at him in ever-mounting confusion. “What are you talking about? Why do you—”
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“I don’t understand.” Arthur blinked. “Leaving where?”
Merlin peered at the fire pensively. “Gaius has taught me everything he knows. I’m going to the forest of Ehdrina to study with the Druids.”
Arthur spluttered. “But – Merlin, that’s not till you’re at least fourteen!”
Merlin lifted an eyebrow in a fair imitation of his mentor. “Arthur, my birthday was two weeks ago.”
Arthur stared, shocked. “Oh God. Merlin, I’m—”
Merlin shook his head. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t have remembered yours, either, if there wasn’t a yearly feast in its honour.” He was lying, and they both knew it. “Really, Arthur, it’s fine. I know you’re busy with Lancelot and the knights.”
Arthur leaned against the table, guilt twisting his stomach. Despite Merlin’s words, he was clearly hurt, though he was doing his best to hide it.
He’d make it up to Merlin, Arthur decided instantly. He’d throw him a surprise party when he returned – one that Merlin would remember.
“How long will you be gone?” Arthur asked quietly.
“It’s hard to be certain,” Merlin replied. “But probably no longer than four years.”
Arthur’s mouth fell open. “What?” Merlin looked at him. “Four years?”
Merlin shrugged. “I’m a fast learner, but you never know.”
“But—” Arthur couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “But you’ll miss everything! The – the summer tournament, and the melee, and all the challenges, and—”
“I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly.” Merlin’s smile was soft, if sad. “Just don’t be an arse about it.”
His thoughts a chaotic, panicking jumble, Arthur stared at Merlin as if seeing him for the very first time.
Merlin was thin, thinner than Arthur remembered. With another pang of guilt, Arthur realised that he couldn’t recall when he had last ambushed Merlin at odd times of day, like he used to, bringing him snacks and forcing them down his throat. Merlin, immersed in his damn spellbooks, often forgot to eat. Arthur used to tease him for being a baby and fed him sweets.
They’d sneak out of the castle for an impromptu picnic, often in league with Morgana, who’d sometimes bring Gwen along. Arthur would insist on training Merlin in swordfight, which would inevitably end with Merlin sprawled on the ground and Morgana defending his honour, Gwen laughing at their antics.
It had been years. Arthur blinked. How could it only seem like a week?
He looked at Merlin sharply, taking in his awkward posture, his dark clothes. Merlin had always loved bright colours – when had he started wearing black?
And what was it he tried to tell Arthur the other day, probably months ago? Something about a Druid girl and a lake? Arthur had thought at the time that it was just one of Merlin’s stories, and waved it off. It seemed now like a horrible kind of callousness.
Abruptly, guiltily, Arthur realised that he had completely missed the moment when Merlin stopped being a child. He was someone Arthur knew so well and yet didn’t know at all – a mysterious, unknown being trapped inside an awkward teenage body, bits and pieces peeking through, confused and beguiling.
“Anyway.” Merlin shrugged uncomfortably, failing at seeming casual. “I don’t really have much time; I ride at first light.”
“Oh.” Arthur didn’t know what to say. He felt like not only he’d missed something, he was still missing something – something huge by the looks of it, something vital.
“Yeah. I just came to say goodbye. And – if you manage to get yourself killed while I’m not here, just know that I’ll raise you back from the dead and kill you myself.”
Merlin was aiming for a joke, but Arthur couldn’t bring himself to smile. Instead, he walked over and gripped Merlin’s shoulder hard enough to bruise.
“You’ll be back, right? Merlin?”
So damn thin. Arthur could feel the bones shift under his fingers.
Merlin winced, his arm jerking in Arthur’s hold. “Trust me, Arthur, you won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“Yeah, I will.” Arthur exhaled heavily. “Merlin, listen, I’m—”
Merlin pulled himself up on his toes suddenly and pressed a kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth, warm breath ghosting over Arthur’s cheek for an instant.
Arthur froze in shock, mouth opened helplessly, as his brain refused to process what had just happened.
“Take care,” Merlin whispered, giving Arthur another sad smile, before slipping out of his hold easily and walking out of the room without glancing back once.
It was a long time before Arthur moved from where Merlin left him. He didn’t get any sleep that night at all.
The May Queen was ginger and ample, an abundance of freckles on her nose, lips stained dark with wine, a white glimmer of teeth beckoning as she laughed. Her whole body shook with it, ripe breasts threatening to spill out of the low cut of her blouse, as she batted away the May King, who was drunk, laughing, and handsy.
Arthur smirked, shaking his head. He wasn’t exactly sober, either, standing under the dome of a dignified oak and looking at the bonfires and dancing people.
“Here.” Lancelot appeared by his elbow, handing Arthur another tankard of ale. “Quite the night, huh?”
“That it is,” Arthur agreed.
He didn’t think he would actually enjoy himself, and only went because Morgana threatened to evict him from the castle.
‘Arthur, in three years’ time, you’ll be wearing an awfully heavy crown on that thick head of yours and won’t be able to have any fun at all. Seize the moment while you still can.’
There was undeniable truth to her words, Arthur admitted, though he tried not to dwell on his twenty-first birthday too much. His mother carried her duties as queen with poise and dignity, but Arthur could see she was tired. She was never meant to lead troops into battle or solve famine crises, and the years of ruling the kingdom hadn’t been kind to her. Arthur often wished he could relieve her burden, but the idea of bearing the full weight of responsibility frightened him. He felt himself neither wise enough nor ready.
“Percival heard a rumour,” Lancelot said suddenly, “that Hengeist has the Shield of Sir Braenegan.”
Arthur looked over to where Percival was blushing furiously and trying to explain to a pretty village girl that he didn’t dance.
Arthur smirked, enjoying the view. He had been raised among men. The physical reality of a life spent training and fighting, tending to each other’s injuries and massaging sore muscles, had taught him to appreciate the aesthetics of the male body without shame or false modesty. He never thought, however, that he could be actively attracted to men until Percival entered the picture.
It wasn’t forbidden, nor was it frowned upon, but it still took Arthur by surprise how calmly he accepted the discovery. Almost as if he had long been ready.
Arthur smiled at Lancelot apologetically. “Sorry. Hengeist, did you say? The warlord from Fyrien?”
“Yes. If he has the Shield, it’s clear why our patrols can’t catch him. It makes him invisible and invincible.”
Arthur shrugged, taking a long swig of his ale. “Sounds like a good quest to me,” he said, clapping Lancelot on the shoulder. “Why don’t you and Percival take care of it?”
Lancelot was clearly surprised. “But don’t you want to go, Sire? I thought you and I—”
“I don’t think I should leave Camelot right now.” Arthur stared into the dancing flames of the nearest bonfire. “Besides, I trust you. And Percival could use some fame to bring back to the ladies.”
It wasn’t that Arthur didn’t want to go. However, what he said was true – his knights deserved a chance to earn some fame and glory of their own. But this wasn’t the main reason he refused.
He didn’t want to spend the whole time thinking about how it was not the same without Merlin, who’d never missed one of Arthur’s excursions in the past. He’d whine or chatter happily the whole way and would inevitably get into the kind of trouble that even a two-year-old child could avoid, like stepping into a swamp or falling asleep in a fairy ring.
Later, as they sat by the fire, Merlin would tell them one of the legends he’d found in the ancient books he was so fond of, his eyes shining a deep, mesmerising blue as fascination made his whole face glow. He’d fall asleep curled up at Arthur’s side, because he was nothing but a twig with big ears and was always, always cold. For some unfathomable reason, Arthur never slept as well without a sharp knee or elbow digging into him uncomfortably through the night.
Arthur sighed. He wasn’t about to tell Lancelot any of that.
But Lancelot’s hand settled on his shoulder, warm and heavy. When Arthur glanced at him, there was a look of sympathy on his friend’s face.
“Arthur, it’s been a year. You miss him that much, do you?”
Arthur blinked. Apparently, he was an open book – unforgivable in a future king. He shook Lancelot’s hand off abruptly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he uttered testily. “I think you’ve had too much ale, Lancelot.”
Before Lancelot could respond, Arthur jumped quickly into the dancing circle, wrapped his arm around the May Queen’s generous waist, and allowed the drunk, merry crowd to twirl him away.
Some weeks later, Arthur woke up to find his window open, the sun streaming down freely across his face and making him wince.
“Morris,” Arthur mumbled, still half-asleep. “Did you forget to close the curtains?”
There was no response. Arthur groaned, rolling off the bed, his neck creaking. The sun wasn’t high yet, and the early morning air was a little chilly. Arthur sauntered towards the window with the intention of closing it and having another half an hour of a lie-in until Morris showed up with his breakfast.
Suddenly, Arthur stopped.
Something was lying on the stone windowsill – something too odd to be there by accident.
Frowning, Arthur picked it up. It was a single, peculiar-looking feather, a couple of inches long. It was resilient but soft, of a colour that was caught undecided between grey and brown, with a thin white edging. There was some kind of unassuming elegance about it as it lay benignly on Arthur’s palm, oddly warm even when taken out of the sunlight.
Arthur didn’t know much about birds, except those used for hunting. The feather looked like it could have belonged to a bird of prey – a falcon, perhaps, if it hadn’t been a little on the small side.
One thing was certain, though: it had no business lying on Arthur’s windowsill, and Morris was far too competent to have forgotten the curtains, let alone leave a window open.
In the end, Arthur didn’t know why he didn’t simply throw the weird quill out the window. He locked it securely in a box he kept in the cupboard by his bedside before his manservant showed up. Morris’s face was completely devoid of expression, save perhaps for deference, and Arthur decided there was no point in asking him.
Throughout the day, the thought of the strange gift – if it was indeed a gift – churned at the back of Arthur’s mind, making him puzzle over it during the council meeting and the knights’ training. Finally, after landing flat on his back for the third time in a row and waving off increasingly concerned knights, Arthur gave up the pretence.
He stomped into the library. It gave Geoffrey of Monmouth the fright of his life, for he had never seen Arthur anywhere near that part of the castle before. After the initial shock wore off, Arthur was set with several volumes on birds and beasts of Albion. He looked through the pages impatiently, until finally, just as his eyes began to glaze over, he found it.
Falco columbarius (aesalon subaesalon) called by the Norsemen Smyril or Smyrill, commonly known in Albion as Merlin.
Arthur couldn’t help a grin that broke over his lips if he tried.
Sir Tristan De Bois had never been Arthur’s favourite person. Ygraine had nearly died in childbirth, and Tristan blamed Arthur for it. He probably would have blamed Uther, but the king was dead, so his son naturally inherited the burden of the accusation.
Tristan had never made a secret of his feelings towards Arthur, barely being civil to him even when Arthur was still a small child. Thankfully, his visits to Camelot were few and far in between, as his own, considerably smaller land had always been at war with one neighbour or other. Privately, Arthur thought that it was no wonder that Tristan couldn’t make peace with anyone, being as stubborn and single-minded as he was. For the sake of his mother, though, Arthur tried to maintain his end of a healthy uncle/nephew relationship.
Ygraine had worshipped Tristan ever since they were children. Arthur didn’t really know why. His old nanny once told him that Ygraine had very nearly turned Uther down, despite being passionately in love with him, because marriage meant separation from Tristan. Arthur couldn’t quite fathom it, but he also didn’t have siblings.
He imagined having an older brother, sometimes – someone to share the burden of rank with, someone to protect him and take care of him. It never seemed real, too good to be true, but if it were possible, Arthur thought, he would have had a hard time giving it up, too.
The queen seemed to agree, because to this day, Tristan remained the one person in her life who could do no wrong – the perfect brother and the perfect knight. It was amazing and alarming how blind she was to his flaws, how deaf towards what others thought of him. Her own son even didn’t enjoy such a privilege, even though Ygraine loved Arthur dearly.
It would have been less painful, perhaps, had Tristan been a better man. But Arthur had no wish to turn a blind eye to the way chambermaids tried to blend in with the castle walls when Tristan was approaching. He couldn’t miss the broken appendages and bruises the stable hands were nursing whenever Tristan stayed too long. And Arthur heard the rumours of what transpired whenever Tristan decided to visit the countryside, pieces of whispered conversations deemed too unsavoury for a young prince’s ears.
Arthur tried to bring these things to his mother’s attention for as long as he could remember, but the only result he had ever achieved was making the queen angry at him. If everyone had a weakness, Tristan was hers, and there was nothing Arthur could do about it.
He loved his mother too much to make her choose between her brother and her son, so he gritted his teeth and bit his tongue in the face of Tristan’s insults, even as he shook with anger.
This time, however, Tristan had gone too far.
Within the three months of his unusually prolonged stay, he was treating the castle like his own domain, much to Arthur’s irritation. Meal times were rearranged, servants were reassigned, and when Tristan decided he would head the knights’ training – something Arthur had been doing for four years now, ever since he won his first tourney – he met no resistance, aside from Arthur’s heated protests. But Ygraine was used to indulging her brother, and Arthur was chastised for being too proud.
‘Tristan has won many battles,’ Ygraine told him, reproach clear in her voice. ‘You should welcome an opportunity to learn from him, Arthur. You are talented, but your experience can’t rival his yet. This is too important to let your arrogance get in the way. I’m surprised at you.’
Arthur swallowed the insult and pulled back into the ranks, ignoring his friends’ concerned glances. Tristan was a great warrior but a bad teacher, and Arthur began to hate the training sessions with the passion he used to love them.
Tristan also made a habit of walking in on the council’s meetings, talking over all the court advisors, and forcing decisions on his sister. Arthur argued vehemently but uselessly, as Tristan had a way of making Arthur look like a capricious, attention-seeking child. Arthur seethed and fumed and was finally relieved of council duty by his angry mother, who grew progressively more disappointed by Arthur’s poor behaviour.
Arthur had stormed out of the castle then, going off on a weeklong hunt to clear his head. When he returned and walked past Balinor and Hunith’s chambers, he found them empty. That was the last straw.
“Where is Balinor?” Arthur demanded, bursting into the throne room without so much as a greeting. The time for pleasantries was over.
“Mind your manners, Arthur,” Tristan told him coldly. “You’re in the presence of the queen.”
Arthur didn’t look at his mother, glowering at Tristan. “Where. Is. Balinor?” he repeated through gritted teeth.
“Where a Dragonlord’s supposed to be,” Tristan replied arrogantly. “Your western border lies on the edge of the Perilous Lands. It needs to be protected.”
“There are other Dragonlords to do that.”
“Well, Balinor’s the best, isn’t he? He had no business staying here all this time anyway. He’s just a commoner who thinks too much of himself because of his Gift.”
Turning away from Tristan’s sneer, Arthur glared at his mother. “You named Balinor Lord Protector. How could you have let him do this?”
“Arthur, it’s not – I did not take away his privileges,” Ygraine said uncertainly. “But you know he had never been content at court, and—”
“He made you queen!” Arthur had never allowed himself to raise his voice at his mother in his entire life, but he simply couldn’t control himself now. “Balinor risked his life to protect yours and mine! He stood up against warlocks and lords to protect your right to the throne – you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him! He’s always been loyal to you – and this is how you repay him?”
“How dare you speak to your mother like that?” Tristan pushed him away roughly. “It is my duty to protect the queen – not some peasant’s!”
“Your duty?” Arthur spit incredulously. “Then where were you, Tristan, when she stood alone against every lord in the kingdom? Where were you when we needed protection from Dagmar? When Bayard attacked our borders? You speak of protection, but you can’t even bring order to your own land! Your peasants are running away; your knights desert you! What kind of leader are you if you can’t even command loyalty of your own people?”
“You little brat,” Tristan hissed under his breath so that only Arthur could hear him. “You’ll pay for this.”
“Arthur, that’s enough!” Ygraine glowered at her son in anger. “I am still your queen, and you will apologise to your uncle. Immediately.”
Arthur looked at her, looked back at Tristan who was sneering. Flatly, he said, “No.”
Ygraine gasped. “Arthur!”
“I will not apologise to him,” Arthur repeated, fiddling with a clasp on his wrist. “I should never have let him walk all over us in the first place. I’m sorry, Mother, but I should have done this a long time ago.”
He pulled his glove off and threw it, forcibly, to the floor at Tristan’s feet. It wasn’t exactly a gauntlet, but it would do.
“I challenge you.”
“Arthur, no!” Ygraine paled, grasping her brother’s arm imploringly. “Tristan, please, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s just a boy; he’ll come to his senses, you’ll see! Arthur, stop this! Apologise—”
Arthur ignored her. He was staring expectantly at Tristan, who smirked haughtily at him and shook off his sister’s hand, before leaning down quickly to pick up the glove.
“Tristan!” Ygraine’s voice shook.
“Don’t worry, my love,” Tristan reassured her, watching Arthur mockingly. “I won’t kill your little princeling. His offence merits a fight to the death, but, for your sake, I will show mercy. First blood will suffice.”
“You will leave if you lose, Tristan,” Arthur demanded. “You will leave Camelot, and you will never come back.”
Tristan’s eyes narrowed. “So be it. Single combat. Noon tomorrow.”
Arthur nodded at him curtly. “I’ll be there.”
He didn’t look back at his mother once as he left the room.