[personal profile] new_kate
Men for all Seasons, Part 2

Masterpost



Something had happened to Merlin in the last years of Arthur's reign. It started with the nightmares, and at first Arthur had thought that was all it was, bad dreams caused by too much rich food at supper. The dreams didn't even make sense.

The first time Arthur was woken up by Merlin's screams he panicked, thinking they were under attack. He'd reached for his sword, grabbed Merlin and shoved him back, shielding him from danger, before he opened his eyes.

But they were alone in the bedroom, and Merlin was drenched in sweat, his eyes unseeing and wet with tears.

"I killed my parents," he muttered.

Arthur put down the sword and roughly shook Merlin fully awake.

"It was a stupid dream," he explained. "Just a dream."

Merlin's face was still a white mask, and Arthur gave him another shake.

"You didn't kill your parents, you moron," he said. "You've never even met your father. And you certainly didn't kill your mother. She died because she was seventy eight."

When Hunith fell ill they'd brought her to Camelot, to live with them. She was so well looked after; she passed away in her sleep, with her son curled up at the foot of her bed. It was a good, long life, a good death.

"Not that time," Merlin muttered nonsensically. "I should never have dragged them into this. It was my fight, my destiny. I shouldn't have done that to them."

Arthur kept hitting him with a pillow till he'd knocked his odd mood out of him, and then they had a very satisfying tussle followed by an even better tumble, and the dream was forgotten.

But the nightmares kept happening. Merlin would jump awake, wheezing in panic, or stay asleep and writhe on the bed, moaning "Will, Will," or screaming Morgana's name. Soon he was afraid to go to sleep, and spent whole nights sitting up against the headboard, blindly staring into the darkness.

"Oh, it's only right," he said after that's been going on for a while. "I've done a lot of horrible things in my life. Would be weird if I never had to pay."

"Everything we did was for the good of our people," Arthur said. "All you've done, you've done in my service. Because I'd ordered you to. The responsibility is mine, not yours."

"You don't know about most of the things I've done."

"Then tell me," he demanded. Merlin needed to unburden himself, then Arthur could laugh at him and make light of all his terrible secrets. But Merlin ignored him, and when Arthur tried to get his attention by tickling sensitive spots on his ribs he got up and left the room.

Arthur had got a sleeping draught from the court physician and forced it down Merlin's throat on schedule, whether he liked it or not. That stopped the nightmares, but instead turned them into waking dreams, and that was a lot worse.

They'd just come back from a ride, and were dismounting in the courtyard. Merlin looked flushed and content; his hair was a cheerful mess with crushed leaves caught in the curls. They'd stopped in a forest before and lain in the grass under the trees, and Arthur had kissed Merlin's smiling sunlight-dappled face, pressed him into the forest floor and moved over him, slid between his slim thighs, feeling young and loved.

Merlin got off his horse first and moved to Arthur's side to hold his stirrup, as he still did sometimes out of force of habit, or just because he liked to. Arthur smiled at him and leaned down to pluck a leaf out of his hair, and dropped his riding glove.

Merlin glanced at it and it stopped mid-air, hanging by the horse flank. Arthur had just started reaching for it when Merlin suddenly crashed to his knees and let the glove fall to the ground.

"Sire, please, no," he moaned, bending low, raking his fingers through the dust.

Arthur jumped down and picked him up. He dragged Merlin inside the castle, trying to shield him from the onlookers with his body. People were staring; servants, grooms, guards, they were all staring at their court sorcerer, white and shaking, stiff with terror in his king's arms.

Once there were inside, safe from prying eyes for a moment, he hugged Merlin tight and tipped his face up, stroking his cheeks, hoping to soothe him.

"What is it?" he whispered. "What's wrong?"

"It's all right," said Merlin, loosening against him. "I... I forgot magic wasn't banned."

"What? Merlin, it hasn't been banned for decades."

"I know that," Merlin closed his eyes. He looked very tired. "I just – I thought for a moment that it was still banned and I'd forgotten that it wasn't. I thought you were going to have me executed."

"That's nonsense."

"It is, yes. I know it is, Arthur. It's fine."

"I wouldn't have had you executed. Not even back then, I'd never have let that happen," Arthur said. Merlin smiled at him weakly, as if he didn't believe it even though it was the truth. At least, there had come a time when Arthur would have sheltered Merlin from Uther's wrath at any cost.
But there had been time, in the beginning, when things had been different, when he would have dragged his traitorous peasant servant to the chopping block himself if he'd discovered his magic. Even after Merlin had drunk poison for him. Maybe especially after that, when the betrayal would have hurt all the more.
Merlin had a lot of wine at dinner that night and slept soundly, snoring. Arthur lay awake beside him and thought what it must have been like for him all those years, to live in secrecy and fear, like a spy in his own home, always waiting to be discovered.

"You wouldn't have been executed, anyway," he told Merlin at breakfast. "You're a sorcerer. You'd have escaped or something. It's stupid to worry about it now, when it's all in the past, but even back then you were never in real danger. Right?"

Merlin glanced up from the sausage he'd been idly disemboweling for the last ten minutes. For one moment there was real anger in his eyes, something Arthur couldn't remember seeing before.

"It's all in the past," said Merlin, probably mocking him, but his voice was so tight it was hard to tell.

But the past kept creeping into their present, taking hold of Merlin till he barely paid attention to anything that was happening around him, lost in his memories. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation he'd been sluggishly following he'd flinch and press his hand to Arthur's chest or his belly.

"You're bleeding," he'd say, his voice shaking.

"I'm not," Arthur would answer as calmly and patiently as he could.

"Right, no, no, I just thought, trick of the light," Merlin would agree and drop his hand.

Merlin had his own set of rooms, spacious and richly decorated. They stood empty for decades, but recently Merlin had started spending time in them. Once, after he hadn't shown up for a council meeting, Arthur found him there, sat on the floor, fixing a bandage on his hand. The bandage was made of a ripped up pillow cover, and Merlin had wound it sloppily, twisted and loose, and was now trying to tighten the knot with his teeth.

"What happened?" Arthur batted his protesting hands away and unravelled the cloth. Merlin's knuckles were torn and bleeding, badly swollen.

"Nothing," said Merlin. "Just... being clumsy."

"Let's take you to have this healed," Arthur said. They had a druid healer now, working alongside the court physician. She could make an injury like that melt away in hours.

"No, I want a bandage," Merlin said petulantly, like a stubborn child.

Arthur relented and bandaged his hand properly. Merlin sat there listlessly, flexing his fingers as if he wanted to make the cuts smart.

"I know what I should have told Morgana," he said quietly. "There was a moment when I should have said just this one thing to her, and none of that would have happened. I should have known it back then, all the right words. I probably did, I should have said it. I don't know why I didn't say it."

"Her choices were her own," Arthur said. Merlin shrugged and stayed in his room for three days, till Gwaine dragged him out and into the Rising Sun where they'd both got disgracefully drunk, got into a brawl and saddled the Royal Treasury with an enormous bill. To his last days Arthur never found out what they did with all the pickled eggs.

"I made Mordred what he is," Merlin told Arthur a few months later, out of the blue. "I set him on his path that day, when I decided his life could be forfeited for the greater good."

"Stop talking drivel, Merlin. We make decisions like that every day. In every battle it's us or them, and it's not about the value of any given life."

"It was, though," Merlin said. "I decided his life was worth less than yours. And it is. I should have killed him right then, when he was still a child. I shouldn't have hesitated. You can't make a decision like that and still think you have a heart. It was cowardly to let myself – I had no right to feel pity, or compassion. No right. Not after making a choice like that. You can't do that kind of thing by halves, and hope to keep your hands clean."

"You can't just stop feeling because you had to make some hard choices," Arthur said. "And we shouldn't. That's what happened to my father. He thought that to be a good king he had to be ruthless, above remorse and regrets. And you know where that led him."

He's never spoken ill of his father, and wouldn't allow anyone else to do so. This was a huge concession on his part, and he'd thought Merlin would appreciate that. But Merlin dully stared past him; he's not even heard. That wasn't the first time he'd lost interest in the conversation just as Arthur had found the way to explain, with logic and facts, why there was no reason for Merlin to beat himself up.

Arthur decided it had to be a spell, some kind of dark curse that'd been put on his sorcerer by their enemies. He could almost feel its will, as if it was a separate being, a monster lurking somewhere in Merlin's mind. It hated Merlin and worked against him, methodically cutting off every source of joy in his life till all that was left was sadness. It kept Merlin deaf to words of encouragement, ruined his enjoyment of food, made him too tired to go on walks and horse rides, and often chased him away from Arthur's bed. It made him shun feasts and company of friends and shut himself in his rooms, alone and miserable. So Arthur had gathered the best sorcerers Albion had and ordered them to find the evil magic and destroy it.

They all stared at him in confusion.

"Nobody could bespell Emrys like that," they said. "Nobody has the power. If someone did, he'd break it quickly."

"Maybe he did it to himself," said Arthur impatiently. "Maybe he mucked up some magic. You know how he is."

"None of us has the power to break the spell of Emrys's," they droned, and he hated their sycophantic admiration that left Merlin unaided.

They checked anyway, in secret, so their Emrys wouldn't be angry with them, and found no spells, no magical malice.

"I think he's battle-weary," said Gwaine one day. He and Arthur were drinking alone. This happened more often now - Merlin had lost all interest in mead and merriment.

"He's not been in a battle for years. He should be getting better, not worse."

"Sometimes it happens like this," Gwaine sighed. "I've not seen anything like, but that's because men hide it, like it's something shameful. And he's hiding it, too. Barely anyone else notices apart from us. He's even trying to hide it from you. He doesn't want you to worry."

"He tells you more than he does me," Arthur said, even though it stung to admit it.

"Maybe," said Gwaine, which meant yes, and also that he wasn't going to share Merlin's secrets.

"If there's anything I can do – if you know of anything I'm doing wrong, you have to tell me. I order you to."

"Oh, I'd tell you if I knew."

Gwaine had never been one to mince words. But often Arthur caught something in his eyes, a bitter kind of reproach, as if Gwaine secretly resented him for failing Merlin when he'd needed him the most.

"You're angry with me," said Merlin once, staring out of the window with his back to Arthur.

"I suppose I am a bit," Arthur admitted. "Nothing I do is good enough to make you so much as smile. It's annoying. But, well. Maybe I'm just not the kind of person who can make someone happy."

He hadn't given his wife what she'd needed; he'd never truly understood what that was. It only stood to reason he wouldn't be able do that for Merlin, either.

"I am happy with you," Merlin said. "I've always been. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I don't deserve to be so happy. Not after everything."

"You deserve every happiness, Merlin. By the royal decree, I make it so. I can, you know."

Merlin turned and gave him a small amused smile.

"I'm your king," Arthur said, encouraged. "I order you to be happy. If you defy me, it's back in the stocks with you."

Merlin actually laughed, and came over to straddle Arthur's lap and give him a long kiss.

"No, it wouldn't do to let the people see my court sorcerer in such undignified position," Arthur continued, babbling out everything that came to mind to press his advantage while he had it. He wasn't sure why it was working; on another day the same words would have reduced Merlin to tears or white-faced fury. "I'll install the stocks in my room and keep you there for my private enjoyment. And it won't be food I'll be tossing in your face."

"Tyrant," chuckled Merlin and pushed him flat onto the bed. "Tie me up tonight."

There had been good days, sometimes good weeks. Sometimes Merlin would sleep well and wake up smiling, and they'd laugh together and walk in the sun, and the passion between them would be sweet and sharp, like it always was in the time of their youth. Sometimes Merlin would stay in bed all day, weeping like a hurt child, and wouldn't say a word to anyone.

Arthur was feeling battle-weary himself, and he didn't know how to fight this war. When he couldn't take it any longer he'd ride out and stay away for days, letting Gwaine deal with both Merlin's moods and the affairs of the kingdom.

When Merlin told him he was going away for a while, Arthur felt a shameful kind of relief.

"I'll go with you," he said nevertheless. "Or Gwaine will, if you'd rather..."

"No, I need to be alone," Merlin said. "I'm going to see some old friends, travel a bit, have a think. I want to see this kingdom as the people do, not from your castle. Just, to see it was all worth it, for them. I want to live in a forest for some time, to listen to the earth. I need to remember who I am. I think... I'm lost. I need to find myself again."

"You are coming back," Arthur said, making it an order, not a question.

"Of course. My place is with you. But I'm no use to you like this. A sorcerer who's losing his mind isn't a great ally."

"You're just... weary," said Arthur. He couldn't accept that thought, even if it had occurred to him sometimes. Madness was supposed to run in his family. It couldn't happen to Merlin.

That's how he'd seen Merlin for the last time: walking out of the castle on foot, with a small pack strapped to his shoulders. When he turned to wave to Arthur, his smile was bright and joyful, and he looked so young, so hopeful.

He'd sent Arthur a handful of messages from his travels. A dazed-looking bird would burst into Arthur's bedroom window and land on Arthur's shoulder, then demandingly claw at his skin till he took off a pouch tied to its neck. The messages were mostly inane lines about weather or food, but they still made Arthur smile for days. Sometimes Merlin would send him a beautiful flower or a sweet fruit from a faraway land; of course, being Merlin, he never quite thought that through. Arthur poked at the wilted, mouldy mess in the pouch and laughed, and imagined Merlin's pout when he berated his silliness later.

And then the last message came, telling him that Mordred's army was marching on Camelot. Merlin wrote that he was coming back, and he'd be by Arthur's side when they went into battle, and they'd win, and he'd stay, he wouldn't leave again.

Arthur waited till the last moment, and then set off without him, hoping Merlin would meet them at Camlann.

He told himself Merlin had been delayed, had taken a wrong turn, got distracted picking flowers. Anything could have happened – Merlin could have been half way across the world when he'd scryed Mordred's plans. It might take him weeks to get back.

Merlin never arrived. When Mordred's sword sunk into his gut, Arthur had a brief, uncontrollable flash of a thought: he's dead, isn't he, nothing short of death would have kept him away, Merlin's dead.

But he'd mostly managed not to think like that since.

**

"Merlin isn't dead," said the sorcerer. "He's trapped outside of time."

He led Arthur out of the house, onto a dark empty street. Most of the houses were destroyed by the bombs; even the one Arthur had been held in was half-rubble.

"Has he been imprisoned all this time?" Arthur asked, struggling to imagine what fourteen centuries of captivity would be like.

"It's not like that. Your enemies knew the only way to get to you would be to separate you from Merlin. They couldn't kill him, and whatever spell they could put on him, they knew he'd break it given enough time. So they made sure time was the one thing he wouldn't have."

"Is he still living that last moment, when he was captured? Was his mind stuck like that?"

"He's not – Sire, nothing is happening to him. He doesn't really exist right now. All the time that has passed - it passed him by, he didn't feel it."

Arthur stopped, his mind swarming with too many questions.

"I can take you to him," the sorcerer said. "I'll explain everything on the way. Your Highness, please. I've sworn fealty to you. You can trust me."

They rounded a corner; Arthur expected to see the shimmer of a magical portal, but instead the sorcerer got into a parked car and started the engine. Arthur took the passenger seat and gave him a chance to negotiate the turn as they set off.

"All right, talk," he said, surreptitiously clutching at his seat. Driving was still a bit too exciting. "Who are you?"

"Gilli," said the man. "You don't remember me, do you? I didn't think you would. We've never spoken. But I fought your father in a tournament once."

"You!" Arthur gasped, suddenly recalling the face, and the gracelless lanky body that seemed like it might topple sideways just from the weight of a sword. "That's how you were winning! You used magic – you cheated!"

Gilli smiled, keeping his eyes on the road.

"There were no rules in the open tournament. No weapon was banned."

"Oh, but magic was banned in the whole kingdom," said Arthur heatedly. "And your opponents didn't expect it. So it was cheating!"

During Arthur's reign magic was allowed at open tournaments, and it hadn't nesessarily given the fighters a winning edge. He'd seen many sorcerers knocked out while they struggled to finish a spell. But the principle stood.

And then it finally dawned on him.

"Gilli," he said. "Are you like me?"

"Oh, no. Nobody is like you, Your Highness."

"You shouldn't call me that. I'm not a king anymore. Why are you still alive, then?"

"Magic," Gilli said simply. "If you know how to use it, you can live forever. Merlin helped me craft the first few spells. We were friends. Kin."

Gilly pulled back his sleeve and let Arthur see red runes painted into his skin, on the inside of his arm.

"Merlin put these here," he said. "I'm covered in them now, but he'd started me off."

"Immortality," Arthur breathed.

"No. Only the means to slow and reverse aging. I wanted to prolong my life to finish my study of magic. There was so much to learn. I needed more time."

He smiled again, fondly, at his memories.

"Merlin said I'd never learn it all. That magic was endless. And he was right. All this time, and I'm still a novice. There's still so much to learn."

"Did you learn how to rescue him?" Arthur asked, not in the mood for idle talk.

"I can't. But I hoped you might do it."

"I've no magic..."

"You're tied to Merlin. Your destinies are one," said Gilli as he drove them out of town and turned onto a wide empty road. The car nearly floated on the smooth surface; it was so different from being on a horse. "And you have beaten the pull of time. This power, however you came by it, can break the spell."

"You've been looking for me," Arthur remembered. "Is this why?"

Gilli nodded.

"I found Merlin centuries ago," he said. "My people worked to free him, but we failed. So we waited for you. Your return has been foretold. But we thought you'd return in a blaze of glory to reclaim your kindgom..."

"Sorry to disappoint," said Arthur testily. "I don't think Albion needs reclaiming. It's doing fine. It just needs defending."

"I understand," said Gilli politely. "The burden of the crown must be heavy. I remember how Merlin suffered, and he only stood at your side."

"This is a terrible time to free him," Arthur said, remembering Merlin's lost expression when he was taken by a waking nightmare. "We're at war. I don't want him to see any of this. It might make him worse."

"There's never a good time," shrugged Gilli. "You only come at times of trouble, I know this now. I finally found something of yours to focus my searching spells, and I nearly got to you in Belgium, but you died before we could speak. And we need Merlin. Now more than ever."

"Will you have him fight enemy bombers? That's - "

"There's a greater threat," said Gilli. He drove west, back to Wales; if Merlin was there, it meant he'd nearly made it to Camlann before he was trapped. He'd been so close.

"There's a group of my people, aided by those who believe that magic is sacred and necessary. We call ourselves The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn."

"Oh," nodded Arthur. "So that's my link to it. I wondered what the Nazis were talking about."

Gilli glanced at Arthur's battered face, guiltily squirmed in his seat and handed him a handkerchief. Arthur leaned to the side mirror and rubbed at the drying blood, trying not to worry the bruises.

"I should have got to you sooner," Gilli said. "I hadn't expected betrayal. It seems the Order has been infiltrated; my search had led them straight to you. They sent sorcerers to stop me, but, well. I guess they underestimated just how old and skilled I was."

"So the enemy has sorcerers," Arthur nodded. He's not encountered battle magic for a long time, but he knew it must still exist. Magic was endless and eternal, as Merlin always said.

"Not just sorcerers," Gilli sighed. "A society like ours. They're very powerful, and they're working on something that's never been done before. They're trying to channel magic straight into destruction. They're crafting a new weapon, and they mean to take the skies."

"Damn. Our air defences are barely holding as it is..."

"We need Merlin's council, at least," said Gilli. "If he can't fight, he could instruct us. We can't lose this war. We can't."

He stopped the car abruptly. They were on a narrow country lane, with no town or village in sight, surrounded by a forest. On their left the ground sloped down, to the black water of a small still lake.

"Is he here?" Arthur asked.

"It's not far. I want to get something you might need. Come with me."

They walked to the lake's edge; Gilli knelt on the rocky shore and moved his finger over the surface, drawing an intricate symbol. Water sparked under his touch, glowing; it looked yards deep this close to the shore, and Arthur found himself clutching the branches of nearby willows to fight off a sudden rush of dizziness and stop himself stepping right into that black depth.

Something moved through the pillar of light Gilli had conjured within the lake, then surged up, soundlessly breaking the surface. Arthur stepped away from the shore, tugging Gilli along, expecting a magical beast or an angry spirit.

But it was only a girl, young and pretty, wet-slick black hair plastered to her pale skin. She smiled at them, easily treading water a few yards from the shore.

"Hurray," said Gilli and pointed at Arthur in triumph. "Found him."

"So that's Arthur," she swam a litte closer and caught a willow branch to steady herself in the water.

"I'm usually a lot better looking," Arthur said, smiling back at her with his swollen mouth.

"I'll fix it," she said. "Come closer. No need to make your friends worry, is there?"

"Don't bother, I'll do it," said Gilli, and she huffed at him.

"So why didn't that occure to you till now?" she asked. "Anyway, your healing spells are worse than injuries. Come here, Arthur."

He did and knelt at the water, at the spot where Gilli had stood then he summoned her. He thought to help her onto the shore, but this close he could see the transparent shimmer of her skin, the strange glow of her eyes, and he understood.

"Are you the Lady of this lake?" he asked.

"My name is Freya."

She scooped up a handful of lake water and poured it on Arthur's face. The throbbing pain faded instantly, and he tipped his chin up, letting the soothing drops linger on his skin. She did it again; as she touched him, Arthur felt his body dip through the surface of skin, like through water.

"That's better," she said, sinking back into the lake. Her dress looked peculiarly familiar, just like something Morgana would have worn in the old days. "Are you going to see Merlin now?"

"I hope so," he said. "Did you know him?"

Of course Merlin would be friends with every sprite and spirit in the land. That was just like him.

Her smile was wistful, sad.

"Can we have it now?" Gilli asked.

"Of course. It's been waiting."

She dived under and disappeared. Arthur experimentally pressed on his face, searching for bruises and cuts, but they all seemed to be gone.

"She wouldn't let me touch it," Gilli said. "I barely talked her into letting me use it for my spell. She'd only give it to you, or Merlin."

Freya's head bobbed up onto the surface again. She raised her arms; she was holding a sword, its runed blade resting on her palms.

"Oh," Arthur said, touching the familiar markings. "I wondered where it went."

"Morgana gave it to me for safekeeping," she said as he took Excalibur from her and twirled it in his hand, the handle moulding into his palm like he'd held it only yesterday.

"Go and free him," she said. "And tell him to come and see me some time. I've missed him so much."

She stretched her hand to Gilli in a farewell, and he touched it gently, his fingers sinking into hers, making her skin ripple. And then, with one last splash, she was gone.

**

They drove for another hour. Arthur cradled his sword in his lap, resting his palm on the handle. His last sword, the one he had during Napoleonic wars, had been a small, light thing, a swift curved blade, and he was good with it, but he'd missed the weight and the power of the old weapons. He'd had a sword in the last war as well, but that one had never tasted blood. A blade was of little use in modern warfare.

"Merlin is strong," Gilli said. "Not just his magic. He's strong. He's the bravest man I know. He'll want to fight."

"When did you last speak to him?"

"He came to see me when he'd left Camelot to travel. That must have been just a few months before he was trapped."

"Then you know," Arthur said, tightening his fingers on Excalibur. "Strong or not, he wasn't well."

"I don't know what we'll do if he can't fight," said Gilli. "My order is powerful, but I can't trust any of them now. I don't know which of my people are working for the enemy, or how many of them."

"Maybe if you'd been paying more attention, you'd have noticed the traitors sooner," said Arthur. Then he remembered a time when everyone in his closest circles was lying to him. Merlin, Morgana, Uther - and he'd never suspected a thing.

"It's not that simple. The Order of the Golden Dawn and the Vril Society of Berlin used to be friends. We were all friends. Scholars of magic. When our countries went to war, the old ties weren't all broken, it seems."

"But how can our people work against their own country? Why are they aiding the enemy?"

"You have to understand," said Gilli, pained. "This country hadn't been always kind to magic. Your father's purges were the worst, but there were more afterwards. Even now - yes, we don't hide any more, the Order is a known entity, it has many friends in high places. But mostly we're left free because we're not seen as a threat. The Government doesn't take us very seriously, and we make sure to keep our ambitions modest. All we want is to pursue knowledge. But the kind of respect we had when Merlin stood by your throne - we've never had that since."

"Betraying your country isn't the way to get respect," Arthur spat out.

"Our countries betrayed us over and over, and some of us aren't willing to forgive. The last court sorcerer, the Russian one - have you heard what they did to him?"

"Yes, I was around at the time. But I heard he was killed because he was bedding the queen," Arthur said, flinching in distaste at voicing filthy gossip.

"No. Well, maybe that happened, Grigori was half-incubus, after all, but that's not the point. That kind of hate and violence - that was because he was feared. Because he was one of us."

Arthur kept silent, remembering the chopping block in the castle courtyard, and the pyres, and, in later centuries, the witch hunts. He'd not seen any; he'd not been on Albion's soil most of the time then, busy fighting the Dutch, the French, the Spanish. But he'd heard the rumours, and they pained him. The loss of lives was always a tragedy, but making peace with the Old Religion was a piece of his legacy he'd been proud of, and it had been cast away. 

"Our friends in Germany allied themselves with the right people as they were rising to power," Gilli said. "Later they were publicly disowned, or the old circle was, but the core of it, the Vril Society, is working directly with their leadership. They have respect and power. They must have offered this to my brothers and sisters in the Order in exchange for their help. You can't understand how tempting this would be."

"I'm surprised you're still loyal," said Arthur, with more disdain than he'd meant to.

"It's not loyalty so much as common sense," Gilli said. "We can't lose this war. This isn't just a conquest. This is a purge. The enemy is set to exterminate everyone they deem unworthy to live. Men who love men, women who love women. Priests and followers of other religions. People of other races - the wrong colour, the wrong blood."

Arthur stared at him in disbelief. Religion was a choice, although he knew a lot of people who'd sooner die than renounce their beliefs; he couldn't understand, but he respected that. Love - love wasn't a choice, but at least one could hide their heart's desires, choose to be loveless rather than be hunted. Cruel and senseless as their persecution was, at least these transgressions could be avoided. But nobody could hide what they looked like, or choose to have different blood in their veins.

"Oh, that's been going on for some time," Gilli said. "It's been a while since any country in Europe had a Moorish royal. Now most people think your queen was as white as snow. Have you seen one of these before?"

He fished a small charm from under his shirt and showed it to Arthur. 

"Oh yes," Arthur nodded. "Shield of David. Are you an Israelite?"

"You know very well I'm Welsh," said Gilli curtly. The talk of the purge made him angry, white-lipped, shaky, and Arthur made sure to keep an eye on the road. "But I'd lived with them for a while. They took me in, and let me study the magic of Kabbalah. They taught me of the One Who Is."

"One who what?"

"God," said Gilli. "I've had a very long life. I've seen a lot of evil. If not for the light of faith, I would have gone insane a long time ago."

"I heard Jesus helps a lot of people," said Arthur respectfully. "He's kind and powerful. Oh, wait, no, you worship his father, right? Iehova?"

"Oh, my heathen king," Gilli smiled. "We all worship the same God. Even you, a non-believer, work His will. And this time, I hope you might help deliver His people from evil. They're being hunted. Some in the Order think it's because of their magic, because the enemy fears it, but so few of them have the skill or the power. Just like there's so few of us on this isle who are born with the gift. It can't be that - this level of destruction, just because... We have to stop the invasion here. We can't let them take our land, and we have to drive them back. We have to free everyone."

"Let's free Merlin first," Arthur said. "How are we going to do that? Are there spells? Will you need my blood?"

"I'm not quite sure," Gilli said. "I'm just hoping it will come to you."

He stopped at a mountain side, and they took a small footpath till it faded into the undergrowth, and then picked their way through brush and rocks and damp grass. Eventually Gilli found the entrance to a cave and beckoned Arthur inside.

The cave was damp and tiny, just enough of a space for a small travelling party to find cover for a night, or for a bear to make it its home. Gilli muttered a spell and made the walls glow mutely with a diffuse bluish light.

In the middle of a cave sat a big chunk of smooth black stone, very out of place next to the grainy limestone of the mountain. 

"Here it is," Gilli said. "The focal point."

The cave walls and floor were covered in painted symbols. There were traces of paint and minute scratches on the rock itself, barely marring the sleek surface.

"We tried everything," Gilli sighed. 

"Is he inside that?" Arthur asked and pressed his palm to the cold stone. The rock was just about big enough to fit a person inside, if it was hollow.

"He's not anywhere right now. This is just the centre of the spell."

"Are you absolutely certain? Have you tried chiselling this down to make sure he's not in there?"

"That's impossible. This isn't just a rock," Gilli said. "It's pure element of earth, crystallised into a state of complete inertia."

"I think you'll find that's what rocks are."

Gilli suppressed an impatient sigh.

"It's an indestructible magical rock, Sire," he said. "It needs to be destroyed for the spell to be undone. I can't explain it more simply than this."

"All right," Arthur said. "I know what to do. I want to be alone when I do this. Wait outside, I'll yell if I need help."

Gilli shuffled his feet a little, frowning, but then reluctantly left the cave. Arthur walked around the rock, running his hand over its surface.

He knew what to do; it wasn't hard to figure out. Here he stood, holding the only sword that could slide easily through solid rock. At least, it had once before, and it could do that only when it was in Arthur's hand. He was the only one who was meant to wield Excalibur; Merlin had always been annoyingly adamant about that.

Arthur had never tried bashing this sword at rocks since then, as he had no intention of ruining his favourite blade for the sake of idle curiosity. But the power must still be there.

He grasped the sword with both hands and lifted it to chest level, his body easily falling into the correct stance for a thrust. He set the sword point to the stone and took a breath.

"You'd better not be in there," he said, and pushed. 

The blade sunk into the rock, not meeting any resistance. The stone hissed and bubbled where the metal touched it, radiating strange yellowish glow. Arthur drove Excalibur half-way in and stopped to wipe his shaky, clammy hands on his trousers.

"Right," he said out loud. "Now what?"

He'd expected the rock to crack or vaporise at the touch of the blade, the way magical things tended to do when Merlin broke the spells that held them together. But the rock was just as solid as before, only now it had Excalibur stuck in it. 

"Oh, right," Arthur said and took the handle again. He pulled the sword out, and it went with the same eager thrill as when Arthur had done this the first time, when he'd first claimed this blade and his crown.

There was a bright flash, all in all a lot less dramatic than Arthur had expected, and then the rock was gone, just like that, no shards or dust clouds, and in its place was Merlin. 

Arthur had been wondering sometimes if he was starting to forget Merlin's face, if the memory of it was by now something nebulous and idealised, nothing to do with the real thing. But Merlin was exactly like in his memories, same face he saw in all his dreams, the face Arthur knew better than his own; Merlin was real, real, and the whole world seemed changed, reborn and transformed, real again.

Merlin was alive, unharmed; he whirled around, snarling, his eyes blazing gold, his hands full of fire.

"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, ducking behind Excalibur. The runed blade had been known to deflect a spell or two on occasion. 

He wanted to say that whatever threat Merlin was fighting it was a dream, not real - but then he remembered that time hadn't passed for Merlin. Just a moment ago he'd been battling enemies who were herding him into a trap.

Merlin shot out a hand, his face still fierce, and Arthur expected an attack, but Merlin grabbed him and shoved him behind his back, still waving a ball of fire in his hand to ward off the unseen attackers. 

"They're gone," Arthur said. Merlin's grip on his shoulder was painfully hard, and his hand was hot, too hot to bear, searing him through his coat. "Merlin, they're gone. They'd trapped you and left you here, and they've been gone for a long time."

Merlin let go of him, slowly calming down. 

"I'd only just found you," Arthur said. "It took a while. I didn't know where you were."

"How long - Arthur, Mordred is - "

"He's dead. Mordred is dead. I killed him."

His last fight with Mordred had been desperate and chaotic. Mordred had been blinded by anger, and Arthur weighed down by age. They fell at the same time, but Mordred had died before Morgana came to weep over him and carry Arthur away.

Merlin closed his eyes and nodded, and abruptly pulled Arthur into a crushing hug. His hands were still warmer than human skin should be, but they didn't burn anymore.

"Sorry I wasn't there," he mumbled into Arthur's neck. 

"It's all right," Arthur said and let Excalibur clatter onto the cave floor, and put both arms around Merlin's wiry back. He felt just like he used to, smelled the same; their bodies fitted together so easily, known and familiar, as if they'd never been apart. As if everything that'd happened since Merlin left Camelot was just a confusing, long dream, and now Arthur was awake again, alive again.

"You'd warned us," Arthur said. "It made all the difference."

"I guess that changed the future," said Merlin, still clutching at him tight. "I didn't think - so we won?"

"Well," Arthur said and cleared his throat. "Well, we're at war again. But it's a different one."

"Oh, we'll win that too," said Merlin brightly and pulled back to look at him.

Arthur had been hoping Merlin wouldn't notice right away that something was amiss. He wanted Merlin to have the comfort of familiar things, at least for a moment. In the dim light of the cave, in that first minute of confusion, Arthur wouldn't seem that different from the last time they'd seen each other. He still wielded Excalibur, and still wore his old clothes. He'd been expecting to get a uniform soon, so changing his outfit hadn't seemed worth the bother. High boots and a long coat didn't look that out of place in this time. His laced-up tunic had attracted some stares until he'd bought a knitted vest to put over it. He used to have a vest not unlike this one. He'd never worn it - it was too plain and peasant-like for a king's everyday attire, and he hadn't dared put it on when he went hunting, for fear of ruining it. It had been a gift from Hunith.

But even Merlin had to notice that he looked decades younger. Arthur would have to explain, and he had no idea where to begin.

Merlin ran his thumb down Arthur's cheek and smiled.

"You look better," he said. "You've been looking so tired lately. I think this, being apart for a bit, did us both a lot of good."

"I missed you," Arthur said.

"I missed you too. So much. But, you know, maybe that was just what I needed, to miss you like that. Wherever I went, all I thought about was going home. And then couldn't even remember why I'd wanted to leave. All I need to get better is right back home. We've beaten monsters and huge armies together; there's nothing we can't win against. Right?"

Arthur nodded, too many words stuck in his throat. Merlin was smiling at him, beautiful and hopeful and alive, and right here, back where he belonged. Arthur squeezed his shoulders tighter, and realised he was shaking all over. Merlin ran a soothing hand down his arm, frowning a little. 

"I missed you," Arthur repeated stupidly. Merlin's face blurred in his eyes, and then Merlin was kissing him, dropping quick pecks all over his face, licking tears from his cheeks. 

"Me too, me too," he whispered. "It's okay, Arthur, I'm back now."

"I didn't know where you were," Arthur babbled, leaning on Merlin to stay upright. "I didn't know. It's been so long."

"How long - " Merlin started, and Arthur shut him up with a hard, angry kiss. He yanked Merlin's scarf off and kissed his neck, the white skin on his collarbones, the dip between them, feeling Merlin's pulse under his tongue. 

Merlin squirmed and laughed and pulled them both down to the cave floor. There was stubble on his face, and it prickled and burned when Arthur kissed him. Merlin's hands were teasing under Arthur's shirt, plucking at the ties of his trousers. 

"Are we safe here?" he asked. "Do we have a moment?"

He lightly pressed the heel of his hand to Arthur's cock, and it jumped to full hardness so fast that it hurt. 

"I posted a sentry," Arthur mumbled, dizzy and helpless under Merlin's familiar touch.

Merlin grinned, yanking down Arthur's trousers and dropping his own with no finesse, shameless and easy as always.

"Damn, Arthur, it's been months," he said. "Even longer for you, I guess."

Arthur nodded and let Merlin straddle his thighs and gathered him closer to kiss him again.

"You're so hard," Merlin muttered against his lips and wrapped his hand around them both, stroking in ragged impatient jerks.

"I've not touched anyone since you," Arthur confessed. He'd touched people, of course; he'd fought people, he'd huddled with others for warmth in tents and trenches, carried the wounded off the battlefield. But the thought of doing this with someone else had never crossed his mind.  

Merlin grinned, pleased, and squeezed harder, and Arthur came right then, spurting over his fingers. He got on his knees, grabbed Merlin's hips and yanked him to his feet.

"Really, how long was I in there?" Merlin asked again, but Arthur's mouth was already busy. He licked around the head of Merlin's cock and swallowed him as deep as he could, gagging for the lack of practice, comforted by the familiar smells and tastes, ignoring the way the burn in his jaw and throat made his eyes prickle and moisten again.

When Merlin came, Arthur pressed his wet face to Merlin's warm stomach and stayed there, unable to unlock his arms and let him go.

"Um," Merlin said, uncertainly petting the top of Arthur's head. "We should... probably... Are you all right there?"

"Yes, let's get a move on," Arthur said. He wiped his face on Merlin's shirt, picked up the Excalibur and marched them out of the cave.

Their sentry was pacing outside, nervous and sullen. 

"Gilli!" Merlin yelped, and they embraced as old friends.

"So good to see you again," Gilli said. "I'm sorry it took us so long. Has he explained everything to you?"

"About that," Arthur said. "I'm quite tired. I've had a very long day." 

"Understandable," said Gilli warily.

"I'm going to have a nap. Why don't you bring Merlin up to date on everything he'd missed?"

Gilli frowned at him, but Arthur only patted him on the shoulder. The sorcerer had sworn fealty to him, so Arthur felt he might as well make him do the hard work.

"Good man," Arthur said and strolled to the car, leaving them behind. He climbed onto the back seat, shook off his coat and pulled it over his head.

Merlin exclaimed something outside, loudly, and Arthur forcibly shut his mind against it. He'd had a lot of practice at that; he'd slept through artillery fire and the screams of wounded men in field hospitals. He could easily sleep through this.

**

He'd just about fallen asleep, dreaming in vivid, repeating patterns, when Merlin roughly shook him awake. He flipped Arthur on his back and loomed over him ominously, staring. His eyes were backlit with a swirl of magic, too bright, impossible to read. 

"Right," he said, running a hand over Arthur's face. "Yeah, I remember now. You used to have wrinkles. Here and here." 

"Only an idiot like you wouldn't have noticed," Arthur said, goading. Sometimes, when Merlin was just about to be swallowed by misery, Arthur could needle him into getting angry instead. That he could deal with; the alternatives were a lot worse. 

"How many times?" Merlin asked and gave him another half-shove, digging his fingers into Arthur's arms. "How many times did you die?"

"How the fuck should I know? Did you expect me to keep tally just in case you ever asked?"

"How many times?"  

"A dozen, maybe," Arthur said reluctantly. It was a lot more, but he really hadn't been counting. 

"How long each time?"

"Couple of years. Sometimes a bit longer. Sometimes just a few moths."

"You hardly lived," Merlin said and started to pull away, retreating inside himself to that remote place where he'd be lost for hours. 

Arthur grabbed the back of his neck and held him in place, frantically searching for just the right words. 

He'd never thought about living past any of the wars he'd fought. It was good to fight, to be useful in his country's time of need. Afterwards he could've adjusted to the changing times, found a peaceful occupation, forged new ties with new people - but he simply didn't see the point.  

And every time, at the end of every war, just as victory was imminent, fate had always offered him a way out. A suicide mission to volunteer for, an arrow or a bullet to take for someone else, or something foolish and meaningless, like a stray cannon ball he'd see coming, and wouldn't run from. And then he'd be back in the mist, his head in Morgana's lap, his soul at peace.  

"I'd lived," he told Merlin. "We both did, and don't you forget it. We had a long life together. We accomplished many things. Don't you dare belittle that. Everything afterwards was a gift."

"What sort of gift is that? Fighting, and dying, and always being alone..." 

"I've never been alone - Merlin, I always ended up commanding a large regiment! I never had five minutes to myself!"

"I should have been with you," Merlin muttered, and his mouth started to twist awfully, working to swallow a sob. Arthur pulled him closer and kissed him, gently nudging at his lips till they stopped shaking.  

"Well, as you said," Arthur whispered when Merlin seemed to have calmed down a little. "Some time apart was good for us, right?"

"Fuck you, don't twist my words," Merlin grumbled and pressed against him with the whole length of his body. "I almost forgot how annoying you are. Well, that's it. There will be no more dying, is that understood?"

"Are you giving me orders now?"

"Why shouldn't I? You're not the king anymore. You're just some guy. And I'm still the sorcerer. Maybe you should be my manservant."  

Arthur snorted with derision and shifted under Merlin to better settle them on the narrow seat. 

"Listen," he said. "If you... Did Gilli explain about the war?"

"Some," said Merlin, tucking his legs along Arthur's. "Sounds bad. But he has a plan."

"Listen, if you don't want to fight, I won't ask you to," Arthur said. That was supposed to have been the first thing he said to Merlin, but he'd got sidetracked. "We'll take you to a safe place. He probably told you a lot of rubbish, like it all rests on you, but wars are different now. One person can't turn the tide. If you just want to rest - it's okay, we'll be fine."

"Don't be daft. My place is with you."

"No, but..."

"You're crushing me," Merlin said with a laugh, not pulling away. Arthur tried to loosen his arms a little, but it wasn't easy.

"I'm not letting you out of my sight," Merlin said. "Ever. You're useless without me. The moment I left, you died."  

"Oh, that's bollocks, it wasn't the same moment - I was just fine for five months!"

"Yeah, you survived on your own for a whole five months, great achievement - if you're eight years old! And since then all you've done is die over and over again!"

"I did more than that! I served my country! I made a bloody huge difference, if you want to know, I - "

"Never tell me," said Merlin and jerked free. "I don't want to know. I can't."

They sat together a while. There was a small red spot on the a side of Merlin's neck, where Arthur'd kissed him too hard.  

"All right," Arthur said. "What's the plan, then?"

Merlin unlocked the door, not fumbling it too much, and waved to Gilli, who climbed into the driver's seat and started the car. They headed back East.

"Don't worry, this is pretty safe," Arthur said, reassuringly squeezing Merlin's fingers, and was met with a blank stare. "You're not scared?"

"Come on, Arthur," Merlin sighed. "Wraiths are scary. Questing Beasts are scary. This is just a cart."  

"A car."

"Yeah, fine. So, what about that Vril Society?"

"Their headquarters must be in Berlin," Gilli said. "It's probably safer if you find your own way there. I have a friend there, he can be trusted. I'll try to contact him and enlist his help."

"What's Vril? Ridiculous name for a society, isn't it?"

"Well. They say Vril is a substance they can harness through mental concentration. It's the brightest light and all-encompassing power, and it can both heal and destroy. It permeates all things, it can reduce a city to ruins or animate dead matter..."

"So Vril is magic."

"Of course it is. They think by giving it a new name they will seem more powerful. As if they have something that's never existed before."

Merlin nodded to himself, thinking.

"So we need to get across the water, to Saxon lands. Why is it always the Saxons?"
 
"Not always," Arthur said. "Often Franks. Though we've been friends lately, they were on our side in this one, but they lost, they're conquered right now. Never mind that, I'll explain later. What do we do when we get to Berlin?"

"The Vril Society is working on a new magical weapon," said Gilli. "It's going to rain death from the sky. Nothing we have will be a match for it. They call these things ball lightnings, or flying saucers."

"Flying what?"

"It's like a small plate," said Arthur. "It doesn't sound that deadly, actually."

"Hm," said Merlin sceptically. "I don't know. Remember all the trouble we had with one medium sized cup?"

"They nearly got to the Cup of Life, you know," said Gilli. "Two years ago the Nazis had it in their hands."

"But - no, we hid it! We sent it so far away, it was protected..." 

"It still left a trail in stories and legends. Two scholars from across the sea had traced its path, and the Nazis followed them. But don't worry, it's safe now. It's deep within the earth."

"All right," said Merlin, sucking in deep breaths. "All right, that's good. Fuck, I thought that was one thing we did right, and we didn't even do that very well. But, fine. So we find these saucers and we destroy them, and - what's that?"

There was a red glow at the horizon, in front of them. The dawn was close and the sky was paling already, and they could see a veil of the black smoke rising to the sky. London was burning.

"You told me they'd still not crossed the sea," Merlin said, staring at the faraway fires. "Did they - Gilli, you told me we've not been invaded yet! Are we too late?"

"We're not," said Arthur, rubbing his tense back. "Merlin, it's been two hundred years since we fought on our own soil. Our enemies can't set foot on this isle, we're holding them back. This is all they can do - they fly over and burn our cities from the air, and then we chase them off."

"How do they fly?" Merlin asked. "On wyverns?"

Arthur bit down a moan and turned away so Merlin wouldn't see his face. 

This was going to be impossible. It was still difficult for him, every time. Just a few decades would change the world almost beyond recognition, and he'd have to learn everything anew. He was quick to pick up changes in the language, had no trouble catching up on political developments, but it was the small, mundane things that frustrated him the most. Once he'd wrecked his quarters in a fit of rage because he couldn't figure out how to fasten his new uniform; when he saw a steam train for the first time, he'd screamed in front of his men.

Merlin wasn't going to adjust. The changes were too great. He'd live in the permanent state of shock, and any healing he'd done on his travels would be undone in a matter of days.  

"I wish it were wyverns," sighed Gilli. "That would be easy, now that you're back. It's just cars like this one, only with wings."  

"Yeah, we're never that lucky," said Merlin, thoughtfully drumming his fingers on the back of Gilli's seat. "Maybe there's something we can do to help defend against air attacks. If he agrees - "

"I thought about it," Gilli nodded. "But even if he's still around -"

"He's alive, I can feel him."

"No, Merlin. The enemies are too many, and they're very quick in the air. They'd kill him."

"What are you talking about?" Arthur demanded. "Who's he?"  

"It's doesn't matter," Merlin said. "We can't built a whole strategy around one person, Sire, that's what you've always taught me. It's a vulnerability. Otherwise we'd have gone on most campaigns by ourselves, with just Leon and Gwaine for company."

"You shouldn't keep secrets from me, Merlin," Arthur said, without much hope. They'd been over this too many times. "Secrets are poison. You know what they did to Morgana and my father. I still think that's what made you sick back then. If you'd only told me..."

"You know, I've just realised that Gwaine is dead," said Merlin slowly, ignoring Arthur's words of reason, as usual. "Well, of course he is. It's been fourteen centuries. Everyone is dead, right? It's just us."  

"There's your friend, Freya the lake sprite," Arthur said, and Merlin smiled sadly.

"I knew we were going to die," he said. "I'm not stupid, right, I knew it, we weren't young anymore. All our parents were dead, and it would be our turn soon. It's just, Gwaine. He was always so... alive."

"No man is worth your tears," said Arthur quickly. Merlin knew it was just a phrase. He'd watched Arthur weep for hours over Uther's body. But he'd always said it, and sometimes it helped.

"Yeah, yeah," Merlin nodded, rubbing his eyes. "He told me - remember that time he was wounded and his lungs were - he told me then, Merlin, if I die, when you think about me, remember the times I made you smile. Let me make you smile again. That's what I'm going to do, yeah."

"He really loved you," Arthur said. He'd gotten over that jealousy a long time ago.  

"We'll grieve after the war," said Gilli and drove them into the city.

He kept to the streets that had been mostly untouched by the bombing, but there were still islands of rubble here and there. Whole houses stood blackened by the flames. Arthur tried to imagine how all this would look to Merlin, this tall, beautiful city unlike anything he'd ever seen, so terribly scarred by the war, seemingly beyond recovery. 

"It will be fine," he told Merlin. "London burned to the ground before, and they rebuilt it. They'll rebuild this again."

"If they have the chance," said Merlin grimly, nodding at the lines of posters glued to the buildings that were still standing. "I think that says 'Freedom is in peril'. It's a siege, isn't it? The whole country is under siege."

"Read that one," said Arthur, pointing left. "These are messages from the King, that's his crest on top. Look, it says 'Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory'. Cheerfulness, Merlin. The King commands you to stay cheerful."

"I didn't swear fealty to that one," mumbled Merlin dejectedly.

"There's a third poster," said Gilli and stopped the car. "It's been made, but it will only be distributed if the invasion is imminent. Do you know what it will say? If the enemy marches on our land, do you know what the King will say to his people?"

"What?" asked Arthur, even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know. Merlin didn't need to hear whatever grim words had already been prepared in case the worst happened.

"Keep calm and carry on."  

Arthur barked out a stunned laugh. Even Merlin raised his head and grinned.

"Really?"

"Yes," said Gilli. "This country you've built - it will carry on. Well, we should part ways here, in case I'm still being watched. Once you're in Berlin, contact me the usual way."



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