The day had started out calm enough, thinks Lord Aeron of Anglesey. So how did it get so strange, so very very fast?
The hunt had begun as hunts always do, with two sleepy hounds and tired gamekeeper indulging in a warm mug of spiced mead before they left. The sun was pink and low between the trees and the wood of his crossbow, cold from the night’s chill in the armoury, had warmed nicely in his arms by the time the hounds starting pointing and huffing thick through their noses. The gamekeeper – what is his name? George, or somesuch, Aeron is sure – had levelled his crossbow and Aeron had done likewise. Just beyond the thickest stand of trees, heavy with low brush, had sat a fat pheasant that ruffled his feathers contentedly. But before he had been able to get a clear shot off, a small raptor had swooped low between the branches.
Really, it was perfectly reasonable for him to have fired on the raptor. After all, they hadn’t known what it was going to do. Not natural, to be flying about so close to where the hounds were roaming, and if it didn’t fear hounds, who’s to say it wouldn’t have carried off with the pheasant? Mangled that fine feathered gloss and spoiled Aeron’s hunt?
But the reasons don’t matter anymore. For as soon as the raptor was hit – and it was with a fine shot, if Aeron did say so himself, and never mind the scolding of the gamekeeper, because Aeron didn’t believe in bad luck, and certainly not for something as silly as shooting down a bird, regardless of what type – it began spiraling to the ground, and as it did –
“Hail Mary, full of grace – ”
– it twisted and grew, wings becoming arms, and (hail Mary, Mother of God) feathers shrinking into smooth skin, cloak flowing out from the clasp at his throat, smashing hard into the ground on its – his – back.
The hunt had begun so normally. How did it turn so strange?
George crosses himself. Aeron jolts, and follows suit. His family isn’t one of those old, ancient, and forever ones, traced back through the years to the dawn of the Isle. He isn’t accustomed to the Old (heathen) Religion of the land, fuelled by magics and moon worship and blood sacrifice, and who knew what else? And this, this is most assuredly a practitioner of the very Old Religion.
“A sorcerer, Lord bless my soul,” George says, crossing himself again. (And again, Aeron follows suit, because it’s not like you can overdo it, warding off the Evil Spirit, can you?)
“Is he...” Aeron starts, then stops. Quiets. Waits until he is sure the sorcerer isn’t stirring. “Did I kill him? Is he slain?”
George, face pale and eyes far more awake than they had been even ten minutes ago, kneels slowly and picked up a long stick.
“Careful,” Aeron hisses.
So George is. Quiet, even with his creaky bones. His hounds stays quiet as well, sitting and shivering in the lingering pre-dawn chill. Aeron rests his hand on one hound’s head; curls his fingers in its fur. They watch the gamekeeper carefully as he creeps, leaves barely rustling around him, right up to where the sorcerer lies. Aeron gives a hurried wave when George looks over, because hurry up, don’t be a coward, old boy, do it!
George does it. Holds the stick steadily and firm, and gives the sorcerer a tentative poke.
They wait, breath baited. Nothing moves.
George does it again, a little harder, rocking the body where it lays, yet still the body stays quiet.
“His pulse,” Aeron hisses. “Check his pulse, quick!”
It’s well within his right to demand, Aeron thinks. After all, he is a Lord, the son of a great, if not so well known, man, long may his father live. And George is his gamekeeper, after all. No need for such a glare. In fact, a less tolerant master would punish George sorely for his insolence.
Aeron leans forward as George places two fingers on the sorcerer’s bared throat, keeping all the while as far from the body as possible.
“He lives, milord, but your quarrel has caught him in the arm.”
“Excellent!” Aeron exclaims. The poor, scared gamekeeper looks confused, so Aeron continues. “I hear they pay handsomely for caught sorcerers in Camelot’s court, and if I bring him in – obviously a powerful sorcerer, for who ever heard of one who could change his shape at will? – I shall bring my family into the high standing it deserves. Don’t look so glum, George,” Aeron says, walking forward and thumping George on the back. “This is a good thing! Truly.”
“‘Tis James, milord. My name.”
“Of course, good man, yes. Now quick, let’s bind his hands and feet. Between us, we should manage quite well to bring him back to the keep and from there I shall take him a’horseback into town. An apothecary should have sleeping draughts enough, I dare say, and so long as we keep him under, why, the journey to Camelot shall be nothing at all, compared to the riches it shall bring us.”
As it happens, carrying a bound, unconscious, grown man a full league through uneven forest is a thing more easily planned than done. By the time they heave the sorcerer through the gates, the afternoon grows long across the grounds.
It is full dusk when Aeron rides into town, sorcerer bound and (thankfully) still asleep. He bounces with the horse, slung over like an extra saddlebag. The road spits dust in Aeron’s face, and he thinks perhaps he should have bound the sorcerer’s wound a little more tightly. Red soaks through the linen wrap, and dirt grimes its way underneath the edging. Infection can kill a man more easily than any battle wound and a dead sorcerer will bring no bounty at all; a dead sorcerer is as like a man, nothing special at all.
Aeron finds an apothecary – dusky and old, smelling of comforting oils – and wheedles the price of a flask of concentrated sleeping draught down to near his whole purse instead of all of what he brought in his saddlebags. He sits on the bed he rented in the local inn and, staring at the slumped sorcerer on the floor and listening to the raucous noise from the tavern below, thinks that maybe he might have under-thought the venture. The road to Camelot is three days long, at least, and with a sorcerer slung across the saddle?
But the reward. Not only gold, but glory. Remembrance. Honour in the court of King Uther, a weighty prize in itself.
Yes, it will be worth it, Aeron nods to himself. The sorcerer mumbles and sloppily jerks away from Aeron’s touch as he feeds the mouth of the flask between the sorcerer’s teeth. A mouthful, that’s all the shopkeeper said. Just a mouthful and he should sleep the night through.
Still, Aeron worries, and tosses and turns the night away, scared to turn his back on the enemy, yet scared that he will look over and see gold eyes staring back. Dawn finds him a tired man and the day only makes him more tired, between carrying his prisoner, and stressing over keeping him under, and juggling extra arms and legs between his hands and the reins of his horse.
It only makes sense, really, that he might forget, just once, to feed the sleeping draught to his prisoner when they are both yet two days north of Camelot.
“No. No no, please, no.”
Colour blurs before his eyes, sound mushing together into a horrifying mess of clattering metal and harsh growling of, “Can’t be right, could have sworn, another hour at least,” rope burning into his wrists, burying under his skin, no no, please no more, please I promise.
Leather pressing into his bruises, heat blazing from his ribs, his lungs, cold munching (nipping, gnawing, maggots burrowing deeper, deeper) on his fingers and the flush of his face, and no, please no more (please) away, get away.
He grabs at the leather, sweat sliding his hand away until he presses his palm down hard enough, presses and pushes, world turning sideways, rightways, blurring sound and colour so loud it blinds him –
(eyes roving, searching, and what is he forgetting, something, some of who he is, lost, and who is brave enough to adventure alone to find the pieces of him, of this lost thing on the ground?)
– and he lands on the ground, gravel rough under him (whoosh goes his breath, can’t breathe in, come back, come back, please) grey, so much grey (fuzzy, rough) above his head.
“No no, please no, I promise,” he says to the leering face (Uther, my king, no more, I promise, please, I’ll stop, I know, I was wrong, please, my only king my only king) and presses his face flat to the ground (rough with little stones and dusty in his eyes) so his cheek rubs with grit.
His back aching, scraping, bruised and bloodied, he smells blood (knows that smell, scared in a cell, alone with his ears and eyes and nose and the blood that slides wet down his back) and tastes it, too.
“No no no, stop, please,” he cries, lash marks heavy on his skin, easier to turn over, to slide along his belly –
(You snake, they say, they always said, they say still, you animal. And here he says, he always and forever says, I know, I know, please no.)
– and scrabble back, not fast, so slow on his bound arms, his weak-with-exhaustion arms.
The world tilts (and slides and sways – head wound, catalogues the cold part of him, the hard part that sparks with war and steel and the smell of death, the part beloved to his king; the only part of him beloved to anyone at all) and nausea lurches up his throat, climbs up to his mouth, spills out, over a fine leather boot (you kicked me over, you should not have, I can’t, please no I’m sorry) and he coughs and he coughs and he gags.
A hand grabbing at him, cold like a brand (or is that, that’s not... not a brand, not another brand) as it slaps across his face and forces a leather tube between his teeth. He bites down and he doesn’t swallow, he spits it out and he kicks back –
(hears a scream, and an “Ow!” and a “that bloody well hurts.” Petulance, that’s new, that’s novel)
– and crawls away (they leave him alone, Uther’s men, or wait...is it...) and leans heavily against the wall of his (cell? So grey, must be his cell) and looks up to a ceiling of pale grey, dizzy and dazed and watching the haze of swirling grey twirl high above his head.
His head hurts, and the world spins away from him again.
Emrys rolls his head to the side and marvels at what he sees – the men watching over him, arguing, fighting – over him? No, can’t be. Must be something else. Maybe a girl, they must be fighting over a girl, getting red in the face and pointing, accusing, spit flying, yes. Must be fighting over a girl. Or maybe a boy – Emrys can’t be (please, can’t be) the only one to have noticed both, to have thoughts of either fill his cock in the secret dark of night.
“What the bloody fuck do you think you’re doing, mate?!”
“I was just, I just, he’s a criminal, I found him, in the woods on my grounds, he’s a – ”
“He’s a what, a poacher? He steal game to fill a hungry belly?”
One man (shaggy hair, flushed face that says alcohol, maybe, though he seems steady for it) pushes the other (cowering, cowardly, and the cold part of Emrys says I could kill you, I could rend your limbs apart with such ease, I could paint your face with fear and pain, and he shivers in fear of himself) back against a wall.
“Get out, mate. Get back on your fancy horse, and fuck right out. Back to whatever poncey castle they tossed you out of. Get!”
The sound of drawn steel, the swish of a sword in the hands of one who knows how to use it.
Heavy thudding, a storm in his head, my head, and a furnace stoked high in his skull. He flinches at the cool fingers that coax along his scalp and turn his face this way, that way.
“Hey, hey, it’s alright, mate, it’s fine. That creep’s gone, he’s gone. You’re safe.”
“Gone,” Emrys says, and his voice is thin, cracked (bruised and bleeding). “Please, no, please be gone, please.”
Shaggy hair and high flushed cheeks, crinkles in a weathered face and a voice like honeyed mead.
“Yeah, just me now. Lucky you. Hey, hey, settle down, mate, let me get those off you.” Wrists freed, flailing arms out and away, floating, flying, he was flying once, wasn’t he? Or is that a dream he can only just remember? “Are you hurt?”
He remembers, he does, to nod, because he can still taste the blood and hear the pain screaming in his arm.
“Whoa, yeah, you sure are.”
The man – guard? Can’t be a guard, too kind, eyes too soft, smile too wide – lifts at the cloak wrapping him and turns his arm this way and that; pokes and prods at the loosened winding of bandages until they too fall in a fluttery fade to the ground.
“Looks infected. Which explains all the – woozy weaving, and whatnot. You’ve caught yourself a nasty fever.” The man looks up from the arm (his arm, it’s his own arm) and smiles honest; smiles wide. “I can help you with the infection. Travelled with the druids, once upon a time.” The man speaks through a grunt as he heaves Emrys up (flying again) into his arms and starts walking (lurching, listing) down the road (so not in a cell, so not in the castle, but where is Uther – you killed him says his voice, cold like death; still and dry like death, or don’t you remember?)
“They needed the help, and the protective steel, though they still won’t admit it – ballsy bandits really go for those fancy talismans they craft, you know? – and in return they helped me, too. Wouldn’t shut up about the stars, though. Kept going on and on about how strong I was, which,” and here the man interrupts himself with a barked laugh, “wasn’t all that true, at the time. Not all that true now, come to think of it.”
Wooden walls around him, smell of oak, taste of rough but carefully washed linen, sound of quiet books and loneliness; the solitude of someone who knows everyone and loves no one (and is loved by none in return).
Emrys lets the man – the quiet man, though he talks as ceaselessly as the wind does – undress him on the bed, bare his wound to the light, and wash his arm and the grimy skin of his body with a soft cloth and warm water from a large copper basin. And every time he feels his limbs twist and turn in that man’s grasp, he reaches (strains and struggles) for something – what is it? – that he can’t find, that maybe isn’t and never was there. A hidden place of fantasy where he held power and drew it tight inside himself, safe and deep and silent. But there is no place inside him; no fire burning low or steady. He lists beside himself and sighs, and relaxes into the sweeping spin of haze. Emrys falls inside himself and tries to pull the wandering threads of his mind tight, but they slip away, slip and slide away. He sweats and he struggles, quiet.
“I’m Gwaine, by the way,” the man – Gwaine – says. “Figure since I’ve got you naked in my bed, I might as well introduce myself.”
He quiets then and the only sound in the room is heavy breathing and the splashing of water, clear against the metal bowl, squeezing through the cloth, dripping, dripping.
Sink down, heavy and down, warmth swept down his limbs, cloth pressing it into his skin, steady pressure pulling him down and down, heavy and down. Shivers spark, spread along the fast-to-cool wick of water, but (as he whimpers and shivers and whines) a blanket folds over his feet and fingers massage warmth back into the cold (burning hot, frozen to ice) pulse of pain in his arm; chase it away again with the careful (sharp like thunder and lancing, spearing hurt through him that he can’t flinch from – too tired, so tired, so – ) scrape of the cloth over the pain in his arm.
But still, the rhythm catches Emrys, tugs at his mind and sucks him into a lazy spiral, down, down, heavy and down, and soon –
– Water splashes soft against his skin and curls over his face like a mask of smooth silk. The pool sprawls before him, clear and deep and wide, and he sits there alone (and cold). Camelot hides his lady far away, though even from here he would but have to crane his neck to see the glass of her tower room. But he is without the walls, and she within, cut off from him with walls of stone and mortar, thick and impenetrable to her in a way they haven’t been to him since he had been a small boy. Before he had learned how sacred his need to serve the crown in all things. Before his king had set him free.
Dawn steams up a mist on the water’s calm surface, light skimming gold across it, through the mist, over his cupped hands. He drinks it in, pulls it deep inside, this light from the sun and the earthen depth of the pool, and something opens wide and blankets the air. A voice spills over inside him, saying you are for us, Emrys, and you will always be for us, just as you are of us, low and resonant in his chest and yet far away, a thread of thought that stretches so far below him that he cannot see its roots.
He whispers a few words, locks the light into the water, traps the gold and pours it carefully into a small flask so that he can bring his lady a piece of the dawn she never knows outside her dreams and the small view outside her window, broken by turrets and walls that span too high to let the dawn through. He shakes the flask and listens for the shimmering sound of the dawn before he draws away, to Rhyddid. She whickers and nudges at his shoulder with her nose. Emrys smiles and rubs at the mud that had dried between her eyes. It flakes away under his fingers, grits against the pad of his thumb, and this, this day feels close to peaceful.
(and still he can’t escape the piece of him that says, your king, he will know you have been dawdling, he will know you stopped to indulge your own fancy, he will hate you for it, and hurt you for it, get up and go before the day grows later still and he knows you’re lazing, that piece so large it thunders inside him and swallows him whole).
He does not shake, as he rides back through the castle gates, but he wishes he could. Wishes for some way to shiver away this feeling (of fear) that grows in him.
But in her room, his lady, the Witch of Camelot, lies sleeping and he has time to set the flask on her bedside table. He opens it so that the dawn upon the water ripples through the room. On her bed, she stirs, wakes and smiles; laughs in delight (them both willing themselves to forget that they are still within the same stone walls that have trapped them for so long) and throws her arms around him.
He remembers the firebrand warmth of her skin when he kneels before his king and tells him of the druid camp he saw in his patrol. It helps the coldness that he’s slowly starting to understand has long held his heart in an icy grip.
(Warmth soaking into him, firebrand warmth, and Emrys shivers on a bed of cheap linen and scratchy hay, mind blanking, hollowing out, slipping and sliding away from him again.)
Emrys drowses, when he is dry again, in the warmth, in the heat of the sun, the heat of the fire – the pyre!
(Flame rising high, loud and fierce, snapping and cracking wood and stone and bone and flesh, long hair flashing, snapping, cracking into sudden heat, the Witch screaming, and above it all you weren’t there, you were gone and she died and you were gone, you could have stopped it all but you were gone.)
Bursts awake (gasping, sweating, too tired to push himself up to sit) to see Gwaine creeping back into the room, holding a small wooden bowl rounded over with moldy bread crusts.
“Sorry, did I wake you?” (Panic, thrash, too weak, too tired, shivering and aching with sickness and sadness.) “Whoa, whoa, calm down, that creep’s gone, back into bed. Easy, there. Boy, he really did a number on you, didn’t he? Wish I could’a kept him back a while, showed him a thing or two. But, well.” Gwaine sits at a small table and lays out a small length of clean linen. He frowns in a thoughtful sort of way before picking up the cloth and tearing it into small strips of fabric. It rips noisily, but he speaks over it. “You weren’t looking so good, all tied up on the ground there.”
He pours a small splash of water into the bowl and swipes the crust around the sides, softening them, before standing up and carrying the bowl and the strips over to the bed where Emrys lies. Emrys tries to move, but the room moves around him too, and he loses his arms and his legs to the tide.
“Got something here to help with the red lines in your skin. The poisoning.”
Gentle hand pressing down on his chest until he lies down, and cool pasty bread pressed over his arm and massaged into his skin (calming, deep as the ocean, the pull of the earth, the smell of the sky – there it is, the secret within him, come back and you can never lose what you are, who said that?) and squishing with soft, slimy fingers into the flapping gape in his arm.
“Too bad there aren’t any druids for leagues,” Gwaine says as his fingers gentle linen bandaging over Emrys’s skin, pressing the mess of moldy, softened breads close against him. His voice sounds worried. “This always did work better with, ah, you know. Their druidic power. But we’ll just have to make do.”
No, says Emrys, says the son of the sea and the earth and the sky (and no one else, not a single other person, and certainly not a tyrant king).
It rises from within him, from the well that stretches down forever, into the pit of darkness that hides a secret (treasured and unknowable) – a power that stretches through time.
“Ddaear, iachâ fi; wybren, cadw fi; y môr, diogelu i mi.”
“Huh. Well, I guess that’s handy.”
Darkness squeezes his mind through a rush of silence and into a pit of emptiness. He cannot see (he is blind with sickness and terror and magic) and he cannot will his eyes to work, nor his limbs to do aught but tremble.
A cold hand folds over his brow, tentative, shaking slightly at the heat he’s throwing off; low voice, saying, “Just hang on, just hang, that’s right, that’ll be fine, just,” before breaking into scattered mutterings punctuated by the spread of clean, cool salve. He runs away and finds –
– a room gone white – curled before a fire in a room so white with frost that his bones ache with it, and the chill edges further through the room the longer she sleeps. So long, this time; cold leaches through to the bones of his fire, and it flickers; dims; limps to what will soon be its slow death. She has been dreaming for days, her mind a crazed torrent of colour and sound Emrys cannot slow down enough to understand. But that is how it has ever been, since the Witch was introduced to Camelot’s court in the summer of her last free year. She is like him, but not; close, but still unknowable. A bird trapped inside a cage, a castle of walls too high to see beyond, even from her tower window, struggling still to burst free – but he will never let her.
(He will never be alone again.)
Frost slips under his feet, wooden heels sounding sharply through the chambers. Emrys pauses at the door. She is sleeping, and will be sleeping yet for hours. Her mind spins rapid, wheeling thoughts and half formed images, and if he grits his teeth and concentrates hard, he can tease out the image of a steel sword, shining in the sun, writ with gold down the blade. But soon, he loses his grasp on the picture and it slips from him like a hazy dream chased off by the rising day. If this is like her other times of long wandering – through her own thoughts and deeper into other worlds – she will wake confused.
She told him why, once. It had been before the fuzzy wash of sleep had cleared away from her mind. She had told him about her pool (“Green,” she had said, “and golden.”) that opens for her as she wanders between worlds, past and future and other nows. Before his king had bid him to stop her, she had visited another now frequently, waking afterwards confused; asking Emrys (gripping him tight by the arm, wild eyed) whether she was dreaming still, or if she was being caged again.
That had stopped when Emrys had started tethering her to the path Uther chose.
Blankets lie heavy on the bed, but she sweats in a fever of effort, eyes glowing with a white edge when they slip open, bright enough to lance the pale room and throw shadows on the wall. Her legs have kicked the heaviest furs to the bottom of the bed, flung far enough to curl around the bedpost. Her knuckles twist in the sheets, white silk splotched with frost creeping from the clutch of her magic. Ice curls at the feet of the bed and rimes the soft tips of the carpeting furs.
Emrys softens his exit, presses the sound of the door’s hinge away from the room. She will be sleeping yet for hours and the birds in her resting room have yet to be fed. His long strides down the hall bend and twist and darken, until he walks through the last doorway and falls for a long time.
Water washes down his throat more smoothly than Gwaine remembers. But then, it has been a long while since he’s given it a chance, really. Two days spent watching the stranger on his bed, sleeping on a folded blanket on the ground, fearing the worst but remembering the guttural, slippery words the stranger had spoken over his own wounds and hoping for the best. Gwaine is tired, and painfully sober.
The sun spears through his eyes and blood thumps in his head, but something tells him that maybe this is it. That this is the call he has been waiting for, since he left the druids to their solitude and wandered from town to town a bitter wreck, hoping that maybe what Aneirin had been telling him was true (you are important; you will be loved; you are above all strong) and fearing, as the years went on, that it wasn’t.
The stranger on his bed turns onto his back, but before Gwaine can pull him back onto his side – choking on vomit is not exactly on anyone’s list of ways they want to die – he opens his eyes and awkwardly holds his head up, neck thick with tension and shaking.
“Finally awake for good, then, sunshine?”
Gwaine stretches where he lies on the floor and watches the stranger sit up, leaning back on his arms, to peer owlishly around the room, looking vaguely alarmed but thoroughly confident.
Well. That makes a lot of sense, actually, Gwaine thinks as he remembers gold eyes and the tugging warp of power that thudded through the room, days ago.
“Where – ” the stranger coughs. “Where am I? I remember, there was a man taking me. I think I was – must’ve banged my head.”
“Maybe, but what worried me was the infection. From the hole in your arm. Don’t worry, it’s gone now. The infection. Took care of that already. And that man is gone, too. I’m Gwaine, do you remember?”
The stranger tilts his head, sweaty hair falling in clumps over his eyes. “I owe you a life debt. Thank you, Gwaine.”
Gwaine smiles, says, “Anytime. So, what’s your name, then? I’d be remiss if I let the tall, dark, and handsome stranger in my debt leave without at least getting his name.”
The stranger pauses, looking with shy eyes out through the window, before he says, “Merlin.”
“So, Merlin. You need any help getting anywhere?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Point me to my clothes, and I’ll be off.”
Gwaine shakes his head, rueful. “Sorry, mate. I travelled with the Druids. You were infected. Curse of infection hides in the folds of the fabric. Didn’t want to keep that around so I burned ‘em outside a couple nights ago.”
Merlin sighs. “Is there a weaver’s anywhere in town?”
“‘Course there is! This is Warligon, mate. Best city for bartering in cloth this side of the border with Essetir. Take your pick of colour, even, though I don’t suppose you’ve got the coin for it.”
Merlin smirks at that, and yes, that’s a look Gwaine thinks is very familiar.
“But you’re thinking you don’t exactly need coin, do you? Got your magic and all.”
Gwaine had thought Merlin might startle at that, but he doesn’t. Just laughs, and says, “Yeah, something like that.”
“Market should be open by now, so it might be a bit tricky to run off with any tunics. No stall ever left unattended, not with so much fabric this pricey.”
Merlin laughs again as he pulls on a pair of Gwaine’s breeches he finds on the floor and says, “I’ll be back soon to return these.” He snags a loose tunic and doesn’t bother tying it shut at the chest – not that Gwaine does, either, but at least Gwaine fills out the shirt enough that it manages to look artful.
The stairs creak under Merlin’s feet (until he frowns at them with gold eyes). Gwaine watches him cross the marketplace through the window. At first, he doesn’t see how he’ll do it – too many people, all too aware of the expense of their goods. But then, Merlin waves a hand at hip height, and the sound of wood splintering, cracking under a great weight, crashes through the market. A stand of foreign fruits falls to the ground, peaches and oranges and melons rolling through the street, peddlers crying out, children snatching at the passing fruit and running off with giddy laughter, parents screaming for them to get back here, right this instant, urchins using the distraction to pull trinkets off nearby stands and merchants (slow in their heavy silks) catching them with hoarse anger.
In the confusion, even Gwaine – though he’s watching for it – barely notices Merlin (confident, straight-backed, and with unexpectedly practiced sleight of hand) snatch a bolt of tough black fabric from a stall just across the lane and walk swiftly and with purpose away from the mess.
Gwaine laughs; is still laughing when Merlin walks back through the doorway of their – his – room and presents the fabric with a flourish.
“There. See?” Merlin says. He passes a hand over the fabric and mutters something, eyes spinning with gold. The fabric jumps, twists, and furls into a plain tunic, heavy breeches, and a black cloak.
“Did you burn the clasp of my cloak, as well? Or was the infection hiding in the metal hook?”
Gwaine imagines the eye-roll. He must be imagining the eye roll.
“Oi, I’ll have you know I just saved your life, and by burning your things, I may have saved it another time over!”
“Yes, yes. Well?” Merlin raises an eyebrow and holds his hand out.
Gwaine grumbles before digging through his pack and pulling out a bronze clasp. It’s weighty and expensive, vine detailing around the circlet, pin through the centre sharp and firm.
“Should keep that as payment for services rendered,” Gwaine says, turning it over and over in his palm. “But I’ve a soft spot for scrawny urchins.”
Merlin’s face at that pulls back into a wash of indifference, head tilting back like every courtier that Gwaine had hated so much, as a boy, because why look at him at all if it was all going to be down the nose? But with Merlin, there’s a softness edging around his eyes, a confused tilt to his eyebrows. Something that tells Gwaine that this is the boy’s only known response to kindness – indifference.
“Thank you,” Merlin says, as he pulls the cloak around himself and pins it at his right shoulder. He says it with the uneasy tone of someone not used to saying it at all. He says it like Gwaine would. “I am in your debt. Truly.”
“Anytime,” Gwaine says. And he means it, he does. Maybe this is what the druids had always talked about – being strength for those who needed it, forging alliances across the firm divisions of Camelot. But before he can offer to maybe tag along, volunteer his steel to the cause, whatever cause it is that Merlin is obviously fighting, Merlin tugs the window open, plants a boot on the sash, and pushes off, out into the air. Gwaine lets out a startled cry – because hey, he didn’t spend all that time sleeping on the floor for nothing, for an ungrateful wretch – and rushes to the window, leaning out to see –
– to see Merlin warp in the air, a single smooth beam of light bending around him, into the form of a falcon.
A merlin falcon.
Gwaine laughs. Merlin, indeed.