This story follows Beltane.
Coming of Age
After he woke up at dawn three days running with a voice insistently calling his name, Arthur finally lost patience and got his crossbow and a torch and stalked down to the dungeons. "No, don't get up," he told the abashed guards he'd surprised at their dicing, and took the passage down to the dragon.
"You should have come sooner, young Pendragon," the dragon said, landing out of the dark.
"I told you the next time I came down here, it would be to feed you an arrow," Arthur said, and forced himself not to swallow or let his voice tremble. He'd thought that the dragon might have gotten smaller with the years, the same trick of memory that had made his childhood pony shrink from an impressive beast to little more than a pet. Instead if anything, it felt bigger. He'd been a boy the last time, not yet a blooded hunter; he hadn't yet known what those teeth could do, those talons.
The dragon only inclined its head, regally. "And I have left you in silence all the years since then," it said. "What does it tell you, then, that I have called you here now?"
"That you've gotten really bored and even having crossbows shot at you is better fun than hearing yourself think," Arthur said, except of course it had him now, dammit. This was why he'd stopped coming. It was too good at weaving its words, making the unthinkable sound reasonable and the merely wrong almost a duty.
"I have called you to give you a warning," the dragon said. "A red moon rises over Camelot this night. The Wild Hunt will ride."
"The Wild Hunt is a fairy tale," Arthur said.
Quick as lightning, impossibly fast for so huge a beast, the dragon thrust its head down and almost into the passageway. "So are dragons, in Uther's realm," the dragon hissed, and damn, Arthur really hadn't remembered it being this big.
Having startled the breath out of him, it drew its head back, settling back on its rock like a self-satisfied cat. Arthur glared at it. And then it said, incomprehensibly, "Merlin is not in the castle."
"Er," Arthur said. "All right?" Then he frowned. "How do you even know who Merlin is?"
The dragon ignored him. That was the other reason Arthur had stopped coming. Bloody infuriating creature. "If he does not return within these walls before sunset, no mortal power can bring him back to Camelot, and he will ride with the Hunt forever."
Arthur stared at the dragon. He wanted to think it was all nonsense, but there were two problems in the way of his convincing himself. One, the dragon hadn't ever lied directly that he'd been able to work out. Two, this was just the sort of idiotic mess that Merlin would get himself into.
"I'd thank you, but I'm sure you have your own reasons for telling me this," Arthur said.
The dragon inclined its head. "We all have our own reasons, Arthur Pendragon, for we all have our own nature. Even so, I wish you good fortune in your quest, although I am sure you will go after Merlin not for my reasons, but for your own."
Was that a—a leer in the creature's expression? As though it knew something, or thought it knew something. Not that there was anything whatsoever to know— Arthur shot the dragon another well-deserved glare, and stalked back down the corridor.
He wasn't going to start getting sloppy and just trusting the dragon, so he put the word out among the servants to chase Merlin down and send him to his room, even while he got on his hunting kit. By himself, because Merlin was a useless idiot who probably was wandering around in the woods picking flowers and communing with the squirrels or something.
The sun was already creeping towards mid-morning; how fast could a day go? Three servants came to tell him they hadn't seen any sign of Merlin. Arthur slung on his sword and went upstairs to make one last attempt.
"I'm afraid not, sire," Gaius said. "He had gone out this morning before I rose—"
There was a knock on the door and Gwen put her head in. "Gaius, have you seen Merlin—oh, I'm sorry, sire," she said, ducking her head.
"No, it seems we're all looking for him," Arthur said dryly, and eyed the two small packages in her hands.
Gwen followed his eyes and looked a little awkward and embarrassed. "Oh. Well—" She came over and gave them to Gaius. "Could you give him these, when he comes back?"
"Presents, Guinevere?" Arthur said, making it teasing, although he mostly felt annoyed. Merlin didn't deserve presents for being useless. Did Guinevere go around giving Merlin presents all the time or something?
"Yes, um—this one's from me, and this one's from Morgana," she said. Arthur stared at her, and she added uncertainly, "It's nothing really—just, we thought, it might be nice—his coming-of-age, and everything—"
"It's his naming day?" Arthur said, and then immediately wished he'd kept his mouth shut, because it startled Gwen long enough that she slipped up and gave him a look that was less you are the prince of Camelot and I respect you unreservedly and more you're the prince of Camelot and you're a bit of an ass aren't you. He hated when that happened, because then for weeks after he couldn't shake the feeling that she was always thinking that. Not that he cared what some servant thought of him. Naturally.
"Thank you, my dear, he will be very honored," Gaius said, putting the packages down. "Sire, I recall now I did ask him to fetch me some plant samples from Hampstead Forest earlier this week. Perhaps he went to collect them."
"On his naming day?" Arthur said. "In winter?"
Gaius shrugged. "Perhaps he was feeling a bit of homesickness for the countryside," he said. "I am sure he'll return soon."
That was more than Arthur was sure of, with the dragon making doom-laden pronouncements. "Thanks, Gaius," Arthur said grimly, and then he hesitated at the door and looked back. "By the way, Gaius, do you know anything about the Wild Hunt?"
"The Hunt, Sire?" Gaius said, puzzled. "Little more than the legends: they are the embodiment of the Wild Magic, and no mortal may see them ride and live." He paused and added thoughtfully, "They are said to be led by a pagan god."
Oh right, gods now. Arthur barely restrained himself from going down to kick the dragon in its substantial tail.
The guards at the gatehouse did remember Merlin walking out that morning towards Hampstead; fortunately, as otherwise Arthur would have had to sack them all for incompetence. His mood was darkening as he rode out. Hampstead Forest was only an hour's ride from the city gates, but it was enormous, and he couldn't exactly make anyone help him. He'd already made something of a scene running all the servants around this morning; if he tried to take some guards to find a servant who'd gone out for a few hours, the Wild Hunt would be the least of his worries. His father would probably decide he'd lost his mind.
The roads were mostly empty as he rode, and grew emptier as he reached the forest. There was no reason for it: the sky was clear and the day fine, for February, and the road nearly clear of snow. Still there were only a handful of people out, and they hurried past quickly with downcast eyes, keeping to their course. There was an odd heaviness in the air that made Arthur understand it. If it had been summer, he would have said there was a thunderstorm on the way.
He ignored the other travelers also and urged his horse on more quickly. It was nearly noon and he could see the road plunging into the forest up ahead when he nearly rode over one of them, an old woman who had stopped plumb in the middle of the road. "What are you doing?" Arthur demanded irritably, pulling up his horse, before he realized she'd stopped to set down a yoke of two large buckets filled with acorns and hawthorn berries and leaves.
"Beg your pardon, noble lord," she said, pushing herself up to heave it back onto her shoulders. The buckets were nearly as tall as she was.
Arthur looked at the sun creeping onward. Then he said, "Leave it," and swung down to pick up the yoke for her. "Here, you'll have to lead my horse."
"Oh, it's not work for the likes of you, sir knight," she said doubtfully. "I'm all the way to the forest from here."
"Just lead the way, and go quickly," Arthur said, straightening up with the yoke across his shoulders. His eyes widened a little bit as he got the buckets off the ground, and he had to stifle a gulp. The old woman had to be as strong as a bloody ox.
He regretted telling her to go quickly after about five minutes. The yoke wasn't of finished wood, and it ground on his neck and shoulders, tiny splinters jabbing him. The old woman chattered at him, too, while leading his horse briskly: some nonsense about the woods and the virtue of hawthorn berry tea, on and on while the sun beat down on his back and he sweated through his leather. The buckets got heavier with every step, it seemed.
He would have liked to pause, but there was no way in hell he was going to admit he needed a break to carry buckets that a crone a foot shorter than him had been managing. But he couldn't quite help a sigh of relief once they'd gotten into the shade of the woods.
"Just this way, sir knight," the old woman said, pointing, and led him down a narrow winding footpath. It wasn't what Arthur would have called just this way. Branches snagged at his coat and slapped at his legs as he struggled through behind her, having to go sideways in places with the stupid buckets.
Finally they reached her hut, a small snug cottage in a well-kept clearing, a couple of chickens pecking at the ground and flowers at the windows. Arthur set down the yoke with a grateful thump and hissed as he straightened up, his back crackling. He'd thought it would be ten minutes's work; instead it felt like he'd been lugging buckets for a week. He looked up. He couldn't quite see where the sun was, for the canopy of trees overhead, but he had the bad feeling he'd lost more than another hour.
"You've been very kind to an old woman," she said. "You must let me give you something, a little tea—"
"No, that's all right," Arthur said hastily. He would have liked a cup of water, but right now he devoutly hoped he would never smell hawthorn again in his life. "I have to be going. I'm looking for someone. I don't suppose that you've seen him? This tall, dark hair," incredibly stupid, "skinny?"
"No, sir, but you're not going into the forest now, are you?" she said. "The Hunt's out tonight, you can smell it on the air."
He rolled his eyes. "So I've been told."
"I'm sure your friend will have the sense to find some shelter," she said.
"He doesn't have enough sense to fill a thimble," Arthur said, and muttered under his breath, "And apparently neither do I, since I'm going after him."
"Well, then you had better take these," she said, and took two branches out of the buckets and held them out to him.
"Er," he said, but when a lady offered you a present—"Thanks very much." He took the branches. He could always toss them into the forest once he was out of sight.
"You'll find the road back that way," she said, pointing down the footpath as he took the reins back from her and mounted up. "And sir knight, never forget," she called after him, "keep to the road, whatever you do. Good fortune in your quest, Arthur Pendragon," she added.
Arthur whipped his horse around to stare at her, and he was alone on the edge of a clearing in front of the withered grey ruin of a cottage, overgrown with ivy and years-abandoned, with green branches of oak and hawthorn in his hands.
"Oh, bloody hell," he said. Dragons, now enchantresses—he glared at the branches. He ought to throw the damn things away.
After a moment, he tucked them into his saddlebags instead, and turned his horse back to the road.
Arthur had ridden through Hampstead Forest more times than he could remember, hunting deer or wild boar, or heading to the southern border for one skirmish or another. He could recognize particular rocks and trees on sight, and he knew where the good streams were for watering. If someone had dared him to go through blindfold, he'd probably have taken the bet.
He had no idea where the hell he was.
A river was cutting the road in front of him, its waters rushing quick with snowmelt, dark and shining and too deep to ford. The horse snorted nervously even coming near to the ice-rimed bank. Arthur would have liked to think he'd taken a wrong turn somewhere, but he couldn't convince himself of it. This was not any road he'd ever been on before, and there was no river this size in Hampstead.
Unfortunately, the river didn't seem to care that it didn't belong, and stayed right where it was, a low cold roaring in its voice as it foamed past the banks. Arthur looked down it to either side: he thought it looked narrower, a little way off into the trees. Maybe they could jump it, if he turned off.
But the sorceress had said not to leave the road. Not that Arthur had any faith whatsoever in her advice, of course, but there wasn't much time. The light was already failing fast, and if he did get turned around in the bramble, who knew how long it would take him to fight his way back out.
It took him another five minutes of internal struggle to work himself up to it. He knew his fairy tales as well as any other child; his father might not have approved of magic, but he approved of a child going to sleep at the proper hour, so his nursemaids hadn't done more but close their bedtime stories on a perfunctory note that it was all just a tale, and real use of sorcery was of course completely evil and should never be tolerated.
In this case, it was mostly that it felt utterly stupid. Grudgingly, Arthur took the oak branch out of his saddlebags and threw it at the river, glad there was no one to see him.
The branch landed on a half-submerged stone in the middle of the river and did nothing. Arthur stared at it for a few minutes, but it just lay there, being splashed.
"Bloody witches," Arthur muttered, and squared his shoulders and started turning the horse off towards the side.
The oak branch twitched as a swirl of water doused it, and then abruptly it was growing. Arthur had to take a tight grip to hold his horse's head as the branch grew out towards them. In minutes it was a huge fallen log, stretched from bank to bank.
The horse flatly refused to set foot on the log, and to be fair, Arthur didn't like the idea very much either. He tied the reins up on a tree with enough slack for the horse to reach graze, and patted its neck. He slung on his sword and tucked the damned hawthorn branch into his belt and went across.
On foot and alone, the forest seemed even more unfamiliar, dark and strange. The trees seemed to have drawn closer together, branches lacing into each other. It felt—unfriendly. He hadn't heard a sound of bird or deer in a long time, and even when he stepped on a dry branch or crackling leaves, the noise was oddly muffled.
Also, he had no idea whether he was even going the right way. Unless Merlin had been getting advice from dragons and witches too, he didn't know to stay on the road. He was probably stuck in a thicket or something. "Merlin!" Arthur yelled. "Are you there, you idiot!"
No answer came, not even a rustle of leaves. The canopy was so thick overhead he couldn't even tell what hour it was.
He walked on for what felt like a really long time. The woods were getting darker every minute now, and he was starting to wonder what the hell else he was supposed to do. The dragon had said he had to get Merlin out of the woods by sunset, or else. Well, that was coming fast, and even before the sun went down all the way, in about ten minutes the mirk here in the woods would be so thick he wouldn't be able to see where he was putting his own feet, much less find one stupid lost servant.
He had to stop as the few weak gleams of sunlight faded from between the leaves and left him in almost pitch. Grimly he shut his eyes for a count of ten, hoping to get them to adjust to the darkness, but when he opened them again, he was standing in a faint glimmering circle. He looked down: he'd tucked the hawthorn branch into his swordbelt, and it was glowing with a thin, fragile white light. It brightened as he took it out and raised it, and in the radiance he caught a glimpse of something moving somewhere up ahead, maybe a flash of red color—that ridiculous kerchief, maybe—
He broke into a run, and coming around the curve of the road he found Merlin at the edge of a clearing, standing there with a basket full of herbs and a vague expression.
"Merlin, you idiot," Arthur said, his heart pounding with relief, and grabbed Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin jerked at the touch, startling. "Arthur! What are you doing here?" he said.
Arthur swatted him up the head. "Looking for you, you utter incompetent. How you manage to turn an hour of picking herbs into a full-day expedition—"
"Oi, leave off!" Merlin said, ducking. "I just got turned around, that's all. It's not that late—"
"It's nearly full dark!" Arthur said, and Merlin paused and got an uncertain look on his face as he looked up at the sky.
"It—how long has it been?" Merlin said, sounding confused. "I wasn't—I just came in, and—"
"You lost yourself in a daydream or something equally ridiculous," Arthur said firmly. "I was coming hunting, and Gaius had to ask me to fetch you," he added. There was no point in giving Merlin any delusions of importance. "Now come on, we're going to be an hour getting back—"
The sound of cracking branches pulled his head around automatically—a deer somewhere nearby. Then it came bounding out of the thornbrake and into the clearing and stopped, one hoof raised: an enormous stag, pure white from hooves to antlers, with eyes of deep crimson gazing at them warily.
"My God, what a beauty," Arthur said, involuntarily, and at the sound of his voice the stag leapt away, vanishing. From the distance a shrill yelling came: the voice of a pack of hunting hounds.
Merlin went very still next to him. Arthur said with an effort, "We're leaving." He couldn't quite seem to make his legs move. The pack was drawing nearer, and he knew with horrible certainty that he really didn't want to see the hounds making that noise.
"I don't think we should run," Merlin said in a low cracking voice. "I think running would be—bad," and Arthur thought about running with that pack on their trail, running through this twisted forest that made no sense.
He reached out and curled his hand around Merlin's wrist, and the hounds spilled into the clearing: huge white creatures with red eyes and red tongues lolling out of their mouths. Some of that flood came eddying towards them, milling around their legs, sniffing at them with wide eager pupilless eyes, a wave of cold emanating from them. Merlin was trembling: some of them were nosing at him hopefully. Arthur tightened his grip, and then the lead dog picked up the scent of the stag and began its belling cry.
The pack turned away and went flowing out of the clearing after the stag, lithe bodies hurtling themselves away into the dark forest, and the outriders were coming behind them. Horses like grey smoke and riders with pale and set faces, with grey spears and grey cloaks. The riders turned and looked at him and Merlin as they passed, and some of them, oddly, inclined their heads.
Then all of them were gone, disappearing as the stag had vanished. Arthur felt he could breathe again, but only for a moment: like a break in the flow of a battle, when you knew worse was coming. A great black horse was coming into the clearing, a single rider who wore a helm with great antlers branching from it.
The rider turned and looked at them, and in the depths of the helm his eyes gleamed like gold.
Arthur had one too many things to hold on to; he wanted to draw his sword, badly, but he wasn't letting go of Merlin, or giving up the hawthorn's struggling light. He drew Merlin back a step or two as the rider came towards them, trying to put himself in between.
"This is the king's forest of Camelot," Arthur said, rasping. "Only those he has given leave may hunt here. Who are you?"
He wasn't sure if he was actually going to get an answer, but the rider spoke, a voice that sounded like it was made up of rustling leaves and thunder, and said, "I am Herne, and all lands and kings are one to me."
Arthur really wished he hadn't asked. A catapult ball had landed twenty feet from him in a battle once, and it had felt like being knocked flat even though he hadn't moved; it was the same feeling just to hear that voice. Something huge and implacable that didn't care in the least who or what he was, that destroyed without remorse.
Another horse came pacing out of the woods, black like Herne's, saddled and bridled and riderless, and it pawed the ground, waiting. Merlin drew a small shuddering breath behind him, and Herne bent his head forward. "Tonight you come of age, my falcon," he said. "Cast off your mortal flesh, and come away with us."
"He's not going anywhere with you," Arthur said, and fought to hold his ground as Herne turned his gaze back on him.
"Twenty-one summers past," Herne said, "I lay with a mortal woman. Twenty-one winters gone, she kept a child from me, and bound him to the mortal world. Let go my son, little princeling, for he rides with me tonight."
For a moment Arthur didn't follow, too busy with the thunder of Herne's voice beating at his bones, and then he said incredulously, "Merlin?" and turned to look—and Merlin's eyes were shining golden as Herne's own, brilliant and inhuman and strange.
Something turned in Arthur's stomach. Merlin—Merlin, of all ridiculous people, a thing of magic. Not even a sorceror; more than a sorceror, worse, with the blood of this terrible creature in his veins. Merlin was gazing up at Herne, his face dazed, and then he looked at Arthur and flinched back a little. "I—Arthur—" he said, and even in that one word there were faint echoes of thunder somewhere in his voice, like a distant storm coming nearer.
Arthur still had his hand around Merlin's wrist, but his grip loosened. Merlin's face went more pale, fading, as if he was receding into the darkness, though he hadn't taken a step. "Come away," Herne said again, and half-blindly Merlin turned towards him, tugging a little against Arthur's grip.
For a moment, he might have pulled free; Arthur could almost hear Uther's voice saying coldly, "Let him go; it will save the trouble of executing him—" Then his hand was tightening again, and Merlin, his eyes still fixed on Herne, stopped moving forward.
There was a low growling noise, like dogs snarling, all around him. Herne's head swiveled towards him, and again it was like a blow. "Let go my son, Arthur Pendragon," Herne said, "and you may go from this place alive."
So far today, Arthur had followed the advice of a dragon and a witch, but apparently he was going to have to draw the line at a god. "I won't let you take—" he started, but then Herne's horse took a step nearer, and Arthur's breath caught in his throat, choking. His hand ached and throbbed, and Merlin's skin was so damned cold in his grip.
"Seven great seers, servants of the Old Magic, lay down under a spell to dream the coming of a king, a king so bright his name would live through a thousand years of dark," Herne hissed, bending low. "A priestess of the Isle gave her power, your father his honor, your mother her life, and the blood of a thousand sorcerers has been spilt in further repayment of the debt into which they entered, all that you might live."
Arthur didn't even remember how to breathe exactly for a moment. Because a god was telling him these things, and he knew—he knew without wanting to know that all of it was true, even the parts that had to be lies unless his whole life was built on deceit and murder. "Why?" he said, his voice raw. "Why would—"
"All that you might live," Herne said softly, like the pause before a killing stroke, "and bind my son to the service of the Old Magic forever."
There was contempt in that voice, icy and sharp as knives, and holding on to Merlin's wrist felt like gripping the naked blade of a sword. Arthur's eyes were stinging hot, watering. He blinked it away, breathing in short sharp pants. He felt as cold as if he'd been wounded, badly. "I haven't," he said, dragging his gaze away from Herne's blazing eyes. "Merlin, I haven't—" He stopped, coughing, and tasted blood in the back of his mouth.
Merlin stared back at him and said nothing. There was a cold light welling up under his skin, a hardness that didn't belong anywhere near his face, paling almost to translucence: like Merlin had gone even further away, past even speech.
"You are the bait in the trap: a prison he would choose." Herne dismounted from his horse and drew a sword, long and pitilessly black. "They forgot," he said, "that I am unbound. And not even your destiny can stand against me, once and future king."
He raised the sword, and Arthur knew he had to get his own blade out, but he couldn't. He sank to his knees instead, even the hawthorn branch sliding from his fingers and tumbling to the ground, the light dimming. He couldn't even keep his head raised, but knelt there with his head bowed like a criminal waiting for the executioner's blow, only barely holding on to Merlin's wrist, his fingers numbed.
He felt the sword descending, heard it whistling in the air, and then there was another light flaring, a shower of golden sparks around his head, and he managed to raise his head to see the sword shuddering aside, turned by a shimmering light around him.
Merlin's other hand was raised, and he said, in a strange and distant voice, "No."
Herne held the great sword tipped to one side before him, its point resting on the ground. "You need not shield him," he said. "Your destiny is your own to choose, whatever lies you have been told."
Arthur didn't have any more breath left, or strength, and his grip was opening. His loosening fingers slid over Merlin's palm, cold as ice, but before they could slip wholly free, Merlin's hand closed on them, and laced their fingers together.
"I choose," Merlin said.
"You would make yourself a slave," Herne said, in a howling like wind and wild hounds all around them, branches lashing furiously at the sky. "You would bind yourself willing to the Old Magic's service."
"Not them," Merlin said. "Arthur," and Merlin's voice saying his name—the way he said it—was like being a flame in a dark room, like feeling himself written down in gold ink on a vellum page. Almost as hard to bear as the pain, and as easily something he could die of, only joyfully, and Arthur was falling the rest of the way to the earth. Something in him was breaking free, held into his flesh only by Merlin's arms tight around him, holding him as they sank to the ground together. Merlin was saying urgently, "Arthur—Arthur—" each word piercing him.
Herne's footsteps fell near Arthur. He flinched away, too weak even to keep himself from doing that, and turned blindly to the shelter of Merlin's body.
"What's happening to him?" Merlin said. "Stop it!"
"No mortal may see the Wild Hunt ride and live," Herne said.
"No," Merlin said. "No, please—please—what can I—" Arthur felt him swallow, and then he said, "I'll come with you if you'll—"
"No," Arthur managed, trying to make his hand work enough to curl into Merlin's tunic.
"If you could come, you would not care that you left him behind to die," Herne said. "There is no such bargain you can make." He paused and then he said, in a voice that was somehow heavy, "But you have a claim upon me, if you wish to spend it so."
"Yes," Merlin said. "Yes, please—anything—"
Herne turned and beckoned, and out of the woods a woman came to his side, tall and with a terrible, cold beauty; Arthur turned away from looking at her face. She was bearing a great drinking horn, and taking it, Herne held it out to Merlin. "Let him drink."
Merlin had to almost prop him up against his body. He pressed the horn to Arthur's mouth—the lip was so cold it burned—and tipped. Arthur shut his eyes and swallowed. The liquor burst into his mouth and burned deep into him like fire passing through a field, and carried him into dark, still shining with the memory of his name in Merlin's voice.
He opened his eyes still in Merlin's arms, and they were warm and human around him again, almost hot on his chilled skin. Hoofbeats were retreating, like a storm going away, and Arthur looked up into Merlin's eyes. Flecks of gold were still showing there, but they were fading, and above the red moon was sliding slowly behind the trees.
There were a thousand things he wanted to say, and Merlin was looking down at him with another thousand in his eyes; then the moon slipped away, and what Arthur said was, "Why the hell am I lying on the ground? Ow." He struggled up: there was a broken branch of hawthorn right underneath him, poking him in the back. He tossed it aside. "Are you finished yet?"
"What?" Merlin said blankly.
"With whatever it is you're digging up for Gaius," Arthur said, waving his hand. "I swear, Merlin, only you could turn simple plant collecting into an overnight excursion." He rubbed his back. "I can't believe I fell asleep waiting for you."
Merlin opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and looked around himself with a puzzled look. "Yes? I—do you see my basket anywhere?"
"After all that you lost it?" Arthur said. They poked around the clearing and found it sitting against a tree. "All right, come on, then. I've got drill first thing in the morning."
His horse was waiting a little way down the road, tied near a small creek and huddling against the side of a tree. It whickered urgently at them as they came, probably eager to get back to its warm stable. Merlin held the reins, patting the horse's nose, while Arthur mounted.
Arthur took the reins up from him and held out his hand, leaving the stirrup open. "All right, up."
"You want me to—ride with you?" Merlin said, blinking up at him.
"Merlin, it's already near ten o'clock," Arthur said. "I am not going back to Camelot at your walking speed, and I am under no circumstances leaving you behind, much as you deserve it, because if I do, you probably won't get back to Camelot until next week sometime."
Merlin scrambled up and settled behind, and because he couldn't be given an inch, put his arms around Arthur's waist. Arthur rolled his eyes but didn't tell him to let go. "Do try not to fall off," he said, and nudged the horse down the road.
Merlin was quiet behind him for a bit. Arthur cleared his throat and said, "Congratulations, by the way."
"What?" Merlin said.
"You know," Arthur said. "Your coming of age."
"How did you know that?" Merlin said.
"I know about these kinds of things," Arthur said.
Merlin's silence behind him took on a certain dubious quality.
"Fine, Gwen told me," Arthur said.
"I was going to be worried," Merlin said.
"Shut up," Arthur said, without heat. The horse stepped out of the forest, onto the open road, and Arthur felt his spirits lift. The moon was overhead, full and yellow and friendly. A little snow was drifting down, but the ground was easy underfoot, not frozen hard again. It looked like midwinter had broken early, he noted professionally. There would be a good harvest this year.
That reminded him. "There's no reason you couldn't take a week and go to Ealdor," he said.
"What?" Merlin said.
"If you felt homesick," Arthur said.
Merlin didn't say anything for a moment, then softly he said, "No. I'm not."
"Ah," Arthur said, and tried not to be pleased, because that would have been stupid. "We've missed dinner," he said after a moment. "You'll have to go and bring some food up to my chambers when we're back."
"All right," Merlin said.
"There ought to be some of the roast pork left," Arthur said. "And bring up some of the gingerbread."
"You hate gingerbread," Merlin said.
"Thank you, Merlin, it's very helpful to have you around to remind me of these things," Arthur said.
"But—oh," Merlin said. "Thanks."
Arthur flicked the reins dismissively. "Miracles are deserving of recognition."
"Miracles?" Merlin said.
"That you've stayed alive long enough to come of age," Arthur said.
The horse walked onward, down the empty, shining road back to Camelot. After a little while, Merlin's head drooped and came to rest against Arthur's shoulder while his breath evened out. Arthur found himself leaning back a little to meet him, and Merlin's whole body relaxed into his.
The warmth was pleasant, on a cold night. Arthur spoke softly to the horse and kept it to a steady walk. The poor creature was carrying double, he wasn't going to make it rush. The world felt clean and perfect, all around him; felt complete.
The dragon raised its head as the old woman came down the passageway. She brought no torch that might have alerted the guards; she needed none. "It is done," she said.
The dragon nodded. "Yes." After a moment, it said, "The question is, was it done well."
The old woman was straightening. Her hair was no longer white. "All that has been given and shaped was for this end," she said. "You know without his power, the old ways will die. Magic is fading from the world. Iron and steel drive us forth. Only such great power can restore it."
The dragon was silent. Then it said, "But will he be ours?"
"He is Pendragon's," the woman said dismissively, "and Pendragon is ours, whether he will it or no. Uther gave us that, however much he may writhe against it now."
"I wonder," the dragon said, and added, "No mortal can see the Wild Hunt ride."
"Arthur remembers nothing," she said. "It has been taken from him."
"Yet he was there," the dragon said. It reached out a taloned hand, flexing. "Do you see his future clearly now?"
The woman was silent. "The future often slips from sight," she said, finally.
"Hm," the dragon said, and lowered its head to its forearms. "Did we bind the heir to the Wild Magic," it said, "or set loose the heir to the Old?"
= End =
This story is followed by That Shall Achieve The Sword.
Many many thanks to Merry and Mia and gear for beta!
All feedback much appreciated!