Disguised as a young knight, Merlin accompanies Arthur, Lancelot, and Gawain on a minor quest. Sheltering from bad weather in an abandoned castle leads them to a night of danger, transformations, and new connections.
After several long minutes with no sound but their own footfalls and the distant storm, the sloping passage passed at last through a wide, rounded archway into a space that seemed more like a vast grotto than any sort of outbuilding. They took a few steps into the space and halted, unsure what exactly they were looking at. Merlin lifted his tankard and absently took a drink as he soaked in the details, and the others took the opportunity to do likewise.
The chamber was unexpectedly large—easily twice the size of the great hall at the base of the keep, and like that shattered space roughly circular in shape. The floor under Merlin’s bare feet was damp, undressed red-black stone; but the stone was warm, not cold, and seemed half-smoothed by the passage of water, as if a fast river had once flowed this way. The walls were of the same sort, appearing to be made of dark, smoothed, but unfinished stone. In three or four places around the circle they appeared to be marked with a faint sign three feet across, or perhaps it was a sigil—though if it was a sigil Merlin did not recognize it, and sigils were the kind of thing he had made it his business to know and remember.
Here and there around the edges were thick wooden supports for a roof of enormous, square timbers that loomed maybe twenty feet overhead. No sound of torrential rain battered it from above, however, so Merlin guessed there must be something beyond it—more cave, perhaps, with the ceiling there as protection against rockfall. Unlike the ravaged keep this unlikely space was perfectly preserved; the timbers used for the ceiling looked like they were hewn yesterday (by giants, going by the size of them), though there could be no doubt the hidden sanctuary was far, far older than the keep. The fort might even have been built to protect it, though by whom—or from whom—Merlin had no idea.
Though he was temporarily unable to sense magic innately, Merlin didn’t need this ability to be certain that deep layers of sorcery were at work here. The pristine condition of the ceiling timbers was a big clue, and the sigils, if such they were, were a hint as well; but the real give-away was the fact that they could see, even though they were in an enclosed grotto in the midst of a raging, sun-killing thunderstorm. Gentle, pearly luminescence seemed to exude from all around them, oozing from the very stone floor under his feet, the distant walls, and especially from the burbling waters of what looked very much like a large, primeval hot spring at the very center of the grotto. Gentle wafts of vapor or steam rose from the iridescent pool, adding to the headiness of the air in the vast, round chamber. The moment he saw it, Merlin could guess what was coming next.
“You guys see what I see?” Arthur said, because of course he did. Though Gawain stood between them Merlin could almost feel the king vibrating with excitement. When he turned to look, though, what made his heart skip wasn’t the king’s puppyish exuberance—it was the swath of white ale-foam decorating the upper lip of his five-day golden beard. With fermentation-lowered inhibitions Merlin found himself frankly staring at his adorably handsome crush. His brain focused in like a tunnel on only one idea: kissing that ale-froth away. It would require a very messy, sloppy kiss, with lots of tongue…
“Down, boy,” Gawain murmured, his voice low and gravelly. At first Merlin thought the remark was aimed at Arthur, following as it did on Merlin’s own thoughts on the king’s canine-like enthusiasm; but when he met Gawain’s gaze he saw the big, brawny knight was looking at right him, his dark eyes flickering with vast amusement. Merlin mouthed “goat fucker” at him. Gawain’s smile bloomed wide.
Arthur, meanwhile, had wiped his lips with his forearm and was already halfway to the glowing pool. No doubt only concern for his tankard kept the king from galloping the rest of the way and leaping into it like a giant fish going home. “My liege!” Merlin called out. He hurried after him, the others following. He was concerned, but was unsure how to express his doubts as “Sir Tor.” “Are… are you sure it’s wise?” he asked.
Arthur paused and turned to face him, frowning slightly, but it was Lancelot who spoke. “What do you mean, brother?” he asked.
Merlin gestured to the glowing pool, then all around them, taking in the whole of the uncanny grotto. When Arthur’s frown deepened, a small line appearing between his brows, Merlin sputtered, “It’s all… magic!”
Arthur sighed in exasperation. “Of course it’s magic!” he exclaimed, rolling his eyes. “Honestly, you’re as bad as Merlin.” Gawain made a sound like a cough, but when Merlin whipped his head around to stare at him Gawain was taking a swig of ale while innocently gazing up at the high timber ceilings. “He’s always pointing out how this lute is magic and that monster is sorcery and that undead army is clearly necromancy,” Arthur went on, drawing Merlin’s attention back to him. “It’s a bloody glowing cave with a timber ceiling untouched by time and blood-sigils on the walls, for Herne’s sake.” Arthur aimed a finger at him. “Just because I’m a king doesn’t mean I’m a blind fool!”
This time he was sure of the cough from Gawain, but when Merlin glanced sidelong at the bastard he was still nonchalantly examining the ceiling. Merlin addressed the king, but got no further than, “My liege—”
“Everything in my life is magic,” Arthur explained patiently. “My sword is magic. My chief counsellor is magic. Even now we’re on a quest to retrieve an uncleavable helm. How else would such a result be achieved, eh? Hemp inserts?” Lancelot snorted. Arthur reached up with his free hand and patted Merlin’s cheek. “Magic is the blood of the world, young Sir Tor,” he said, repeating back to Merlin the very words he himself had uttered to the king perhaps half a hundred times in all the time he’d known him. Arthur then turned and walked away. Lancelot followed, uncharacteristically snickering. Gawain seemed to be trying to hold in his laughter as he passed, but he couldn’t manage it. “It’s all… magic!” he repeated to Merlin with mock wide-eyed innocence, then burst into giggles.
“Goat fucker!” Merlin hissed, cheeks burning. Gawain laughed harder.
Arthur proceeded to the stone lip of the pool where he set down his tankard, shucked his breeches without ceremony, and simply took a step forward into the glowing spring, dropping in feet first. Lancelot and Gawain immediately did the same, not wanting their sovereign to experience any danger they did not share as well. That left Merlin with no choice but to join them. He had just set down his ale and pulled off his clinging breeches when Arthur surfaced, his milky skin already flushed by the heated pool. He looked positively revitalized, though the temperature of the water seemed to have surprised him. Lancelot and Gawain broke the surface a moment later. “It’s hot!” Lancelot commented, likewise reddened. “And deep,” Gawain added, his tougher skin nonetheless showing the warmth of the spring as well. “Bottomless, I think.”
“Shall I toss in a few leeks and radishes to stew with you, my lords?” Merlin asked, now standing naked at the lip of the pool by his tankard.
“Just that nice long tuber you’ve got there’ll be enough,” said Gawain cheekily. Merlin scrunched his face at him.
Arthur had reached for the stone lip to pull himself toward the edge. “There’s a shelf or something here to sit on,” he observed. He turned and positioned himself on the hidden seat so that his muscled shoulders and most of his golden-haired chest was visible above the luminescent waters, though his nipples, tantalizingly, remained just hidden under the shifting surface. The other two found their seats in turn, and Arthur lifted his bright blue eyes to Merlin. “Come on in, Sir Tor!” he called. “The water is very fine.”
There being nothing else for it, Merlin sighed, stepped forward, and plummeted feet-first into the steaming pool, wondering as he did so how exactly his long, peculiar life had come to this moment, in which he was pretending to be one of a clutch of randy, physically impressive young knights heating themselves up further in a mysteriously magical hot spring in the secret grotto of a run-down, forgotten keep halfway into the middle of the northern nowhere.
The shock of the water hit him, and he thought, It’s probably just one of those things.
The four of them basked contentedly in the warmth of the softly luminous spring for some time without speaking, most with closed eyed and heads tilted slightly back. Merlin splayed his arms behind him around the stone lip of the pool, his fingers only inches behind Gawain’s and Lancelot’s thick shoulders, and he felt his concerns and anxieties slowly dissipating. It seemed to him almost as though the strangely heavy water and the headiness of its delicate vapors were seeping into him through his skin and pores, allowing some inchoate aspect of the pool to weave itself lazily around the increasingly hard-to-ignore intoxication he’d been feeling from that pint and a half of good, stout ale he’d imbibed. In recent centuries the net effect of ale and spirits had largely been to put him to sleep, but now, tonight, secreted in this grotto while the nature raged outside, charging the air for miles around, the pool and the ale combined to make him loose and tranquil, but alert and subtly charged with new, latent energies.
Not all of those energies were confined to his mind and senses. Even if he hadn’t had to contend with the deep, gently shifting, and strangely playful waters lapping coyly at his thighs, ballocks, and mostly hardened prick, he was acutely aware of the fine chests, wide shoulders, and handsome faces of the men sharing the pool with him. Shifting his eyes from one only brought him to the admiration of another.
Taller and and burlier than almost all of the knights, his densely muscled form outweighing Arthur by a good two stone and Merlin, in his present form, by at least three, Gawain resembled a manly beast carved from the bones of the earth; yet that ethereal sculptor had done his work with care, crafting a masterwork in flesh: the resulting figure was a shrewd and smirking ideal warrior and an embodiment of masculine power, only enlarged and expanded by an order of magnitude above ordinary men. Beside him, Lancelot seemed sleek and compressed, like a fox beside a wolf—an effect heightened by his being the only one of them with clean cheeks, having pointedly contrived to swiftly and efficiently shave himself on every morning of their journey while the others continued bathing. When he wasn’t in Gawain’s company, though, his stature and inordinate good looks were enough to make men envious and women swoon. He’d seen Lancelot perform feats of unbelievable strength on the battlefield, cleaving men’s heads in half through iron helms in a single downward stroke; but what most impressed the court and commons was the sight of him on the training grounds, stripped to the waist and endlessly practicing, lunge, parry, turn, riposte, thrust, cut, and slash, first with a broadsword and then with knives, quarterstaves, and even axes, each move seeming a deliberate effort to bring his already exquisite chest, shoulders, arms, back, and legs that much closer to perfection.
And then there was Arthur. Tall and limber, the king, still bright-eyed and boyish at two-and-twenty, had seemingly grown his ample strength almost by accidental. His attractive thews were honed as much from generously joining the labors of his men (he had shared in the building of the new castle at Camelot as much as any man) as from the rigors of battling eleven defiant kings into submission and fealty. But the beauty of his smiling face and golden-haired physique meant little to him, Merlin knew—unless it was to help his citizens and nobles hold their faith in him and his good intent. Though it was his irresistible, effortless masculine allure that drew him to Arthur, so that even his scent seemed to twine around his insides and hold him fast, it was Arthur’s heart and passion and his ready smile that stoked and swelled Merlin’s steady, undying love for his sweet, irrepressible king.
… “Love”? Where had that thought come from? A moment ago it was his raging prick pointing at Arthur like an ox-befucked underwater man-seeking dowsing rod that was the problem. Not that didn’t remain a problem, and a big one, still discoverable as it was. Though hidden under the surface it extended up and outward from his crotch like a mighty bough from a bole, within easy reach of an errant hand or even foot from any of his companions. Love, though… that was a dragon of a different breed. Merlin sighed and, reaching for his ale, took a long, steadying draft. Fuck a goat, he thought. Fuck a goat-fucking goat in the fuckhole.
As Merlin was replacing his tankard, Gawain spoke, though he kept his head tipped back and his eyes closed. “I am reminded,” he said, his voice almost stentorian in the confines of the underground cavern, “of a game I was once taught, back in a tavern in the Orkneys, when I was but a lad.” He’d opened his eyes and found that the others were all looking at him, mellowed by the ale and warm water into easy agreeability. “It is a very ancient game. Legend says it was the Fae who taught it to the first men to ever dwell in Scotland, thousands of years past, though I’m not sure I believe it. It would be a good pastime for our present circumstances,” he added, his eyes glinting.
“What kind of game?” Merlin asked, not liking the mention of the Fae, who were known for their pranks—not all of them harmless.
“A game of secrets,” Gawain said, glancing at Merlin with a wink. Merlin narrowed his eyes at him. “But mostly,” he went on, addressing the group as a whole, “it’s a game of four comrades enjoying and appreciating their shared friendship and each other.”
“I’m for that,” Lancelot said, and Merlin, glancing over at him, found that Lancelot was watching him with a resurgence of that unconcealed hunger he’d seen before, amplified now by a fair quantity of good ale. Arthur noticed, and regarded Lancelot with a small frown. Gawain observed them both with a calculating look.
Arthur visibly set aside his annoyance with Lancelot and addressed Gawain. “So why haven’t you suggested this before?” he asked genially. “We’ve been the four of us and in need of a pastime before on this trip.”
“Because you have to be drunk,” Gawain said. “Well—at least somewhat intoxicated.” And so affirming this necessity, he grasped his tankard and took a long, instructive swallow. The others followed his lead.
Arthur wiped his mouth, relieving his short beard once again of froth. Merlin let himself sigh inwardly. “So how does it work?” Arthur asked Gawain. “Is it like ‘Never hath I ever’?” At this Lancelot snickered again—he was definitely intoxicated.
“Not exactly,” Gawain said. He scratched his beard, as if trying to order what he needed to say in his ale-soaked head. “So, it goes like this,” he began. “Each of us takes a turn. We ask you each one by one for two things that are characteristic of us, and then how you would combine them to bring about an improvement, or idealization, of some kind based on the attributes named. Then we pick the one we like and reward the winner.”
“Reward… how?” Lancelot asked before Merlin could.
“Well,” drawled Gawain, “it varies depending on where you are, and who’s playing it. The games I’ve been in,” he added, looking Lancelot in the eye, “the reward is a big, sloppy kiss.”
Merlin’s cock surged under the surface, and he had to physically resist an urge to grab it tightly in one or both of his fists. Arthur grinned good-naturedly, looking forward to doing something fun and physical, Merlin guessed. Lancelot blinked at Gawain, then leaned forward slightly. “Are you certain?” he said in a sort of undertone, as if the others weren’t there.
“Yup!” Gawain said. Lancelot’s gray eyes fell momentarily to Gawain’s bearded lips, and Merlin wondered for the first time whether Lancelot’s lips and Gawain’s had already been introduced at some point in their eventful friendship. Then Lancelot’s gaze moved in a slightly woozy arc to meet Merlin’s, before shunting aside to land on Arthur.
Merlin felt the faint crash of thunder, almost as though it had come through the earth more than the air. Outside, the storm still raged. They would be here for a while. He wondered languidly whether the horses were upset. They were a spirited bunch, especially the king’s stallion, Hengroen. If their mounts panicked, they might get free of their pickets and bolt, in which case it would be a long walk for them to the nearest town.
Arthur, for his part, was game. “How shall we begin?” he asked. He appeared very mellow as he relaxed against the side of the pool, though Merlin did not doubt he could be ready to pounce in a second, like the lion to which he was often compared.
“I’ll start,” Gawain said. “I’m the first subject, so each of you needs to say two things about me, and how you’d combine them.” He looked at Arthur to his right. “You first, my liege.”
Arthur hummed in acceptance of the challenge, looking Gawain over assessingly. “Well, Sir Gawain, I should say that you are very strong, and very…”
“Hairy,” Lancelot put in.
“…And very hairy,” Arthur finished. “So to combine the two…” He frowned. Merlin wondered just how intoxicated he actually was.
“So that he would be even more himself,” Lancelot coached.
“Even more strong and hairy,” Merlin elaborated with a smirk. He eyed Gawain, who was grinning.
“So to combine the two, so that you would be even more yourself…” he paused, still frowning, then brightened suddenly. “…You would become a bear!”
Lancelot barked a laugh—he definitely seemed much more prone to explosive humor than usual. “It would not be much of a change!” he said.
“Perhaps not,” Gawain said, his grin still wide. “What say you, brother Lancelot?”
Lancelot regarded his friend as if there was nothing he did not know about him. “Let’s see,” he said. “You are unstoppable in battle, and—”
“Hairy,” Arthur put in.
“Very hairy,” Merlin amended.
“—And very hairy,” Lancelot went on, as if he had not been interrupted by the other two and had intended to say the same all along. “So to combine the two, you would become—a mighty warhorse!”
This time it was Gawain who snorted. “Is that truly how you see me, Sir Lancelot?” he asked, eyes glinting with mirth.
“Horses can be very handsome,” Lancelot said defensively, as if concerned he’d bruised Gawain’s vanity. “Not that I’ve fucked one. Or would fuck—all right, then, say you’d become a centaur, then! You could still have your muscles and your face and those lips of yours…” Lancelot trailed off, eyes fixed on the lips of which he’d been speaking, then astonishingly his cheeks colored even from their hot-spring-reddened state and he looked away, finally picking up his tankard and apparently draining the last of his ale.
“At least he didn’t say ‘an ox’,” Arthur said reasonably.
Gawain, smiling, turned to Merlin. “And what say you, brother Tor?”
Merlin was staring at Lancelot, trying to get his own slightly sozzled brain around increasingly obvious signs of some kind of past connection between Gawain and Lancelot, and how all that might square with the heated looks he’d been getting from Lancelot—and the flirting from Gawain, for that matter, though the latter seemed focused on the extra-large “tuber” with which young Sir Tor had evidently been blessed. He felt Gawain’s eyes on him and started, catching up to the fact that it was his go. He turned to the larger knight and trying to refocus his sluggish thoughts, though all he could think of for a moment was Gawain as a huge, magnificent centaur—half man-and-a-half, half… well, the horse would have to be as impressive as Gawain himself, bigger even than Hengroen…
He shook his head. He tried thinking of the real Gawain, and what he admired about him. “Strong and cunning,” he blurted. “You’re strong and cunning, and—”
“Hairy,” Lancelot insisted.
“Very hairy,” Arthur finished.
Merlin tried to repress a smile as he met Gawain’s gaze. “You’re strong and cunning and very hairy,” he repeated. It occurred to him to say the combination of these should be a lion, but he couldn’t countenance the thought—Arthur was the lion among them. He closed his eyes briefly, imagining Gawain as a man with the spirit of a beast in him, running massive and naked through the night, the sable hair of his head, face, and body catching the light of the moon—
He grinned, opening his eyes. “I have it!” he said. “To combine the attributes, you should become—a werewolf!”
Gawain’s brows lifted, then his face lit with pleasure. “Sir Tor,” he said, “you are definitely the winner!” Without further preamble he slid his hand behind Merlin’s neck and pulled him into a deep, soul-melting kiss.
He realized now with blinding hindsight that the whole thing had been about this and nothing else, and while he was slightly peeved he was also at the same time rather impressed with Gawain’s audacity. His heated cheek still close to Gawain’s, he whispered, “People only play this game for the kissing, don’t they?”
Gawain pulled back just far enough for Merlin to see his face and wiggled his eyebrows. Clearly, even it it was true for no one else, it was certainly true for Gawain. Merlin snorted a laugh and shook his head, and the two of them shared a smile. He felt a strange, new connection firming between them. Was this how young men bonded? Merlin didn’t remember, but he knew he liked it.
“Well!” he heard Lancelot remark, his voice sounding a little husky. “I think the temperature of the spring has risen a bit.”
“Indeed,” came the king’s voice. Arthur cleared his throat, and Merlin and Gawain turned to him, slowly resuming their previous positions as they did so. Merlin wondered if Gawain was as hard as he was—perhaps the biggest surprise of the last minute or so was that Gawain hadn’t “accidentally” brushed his hand against Merlin’s doughty prick as he’d pulled away.
“So it’s now my turn, right?” Arthur asked, looking at Gawain. Gawain nodded, and Arthur went on, “Right. So, two attributes and a combination, please, Sir Lancelot.” For all he was a king and used to commanding crowds and armies, he seemed slightly flustered to have the focus on him when it was just the four of them, his dual roles of king and brother chafing though he would never admit the fact. Merlin’s heart swelled, and he felt his lips curling naturally. Kissing Gawain, it turned out, hadn’t put a dent in his adoration for the man—more’s the pity, he thought; a dent was needed, and more than a dent.
Lancelot noticed Arthur’s discomfort, too. “So, my liege—shall we all say how magnificent you are, and move on to the next turn?” he teased.
“That turn would be yours, Sir Lancelot,” Arthur said, a little more easily. “We won’t be so constrained about you, so you should return the courtesy.”
Lancelot laughed. “Ah, well, in that case,” he said, glancing at his now-empty tankard, “I would say that your attributes are good cheer and generosity; and that to combine them, you should be… always in possession of a full tankard of ale to share with your friends.”
“Fine ale,” Gawain prompted.
“Yes, fine ale,” Lancelot emended quickly. “I know you’ll drink anything, my liege,” he added conversationally, “but some of us… well, it would be impolite to say.”
“Would it, now,” Arthur said indulgently. He turned to Merlin, who felt unexpectedly skewered by those vivid blue eyes. “What say you, Sir Tor?”
“Um…” Merlin stammered. “Well, my liege, your attributes are… well, clearly bravery, and… wisdom of course, and so to combine them you should become…” Merlin’s brain completely blanked. He had no idea what he was saying—he was drowning in blue. “Er, that you should become king beyond life,” he ended awkwardly. With horror he realized how stupid this was and waved his hands before him, sputtering, “No, wait, let me do that again! Um—”
All three of them were laughing at him, though not too unkindly. “What! You want me to be king of the Britons even when I’m dead?” Arthur chuckled. “A festering corpse sitting forever on the throne, staring down at my appalled subjects until the end of time?”
Merlin’s face burned. “No, no, of course—”
“Maybe he meant that you should become king of the dead,” Gawain suggested.
“Ugh, collecting the souls of the dead forever? I’d rather be King Rotting Corpse!” Arthur said.
“I—” Merlin tried to say.
“Now, let’s give Sir Tor here some credit,” Lancelot interjected. “Perhaps his meaning was that you should persist as the idea of kingship forever, long after you have turned to dust in the earth.”
“Yes! Yes!” Merlin said, pointing at Lancelot, who looked smug. “That was what I meant.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Arthur said sternly. “Honestly, Sir Tor,” he went on in a mock chiding tone, “you’ve let winning the first round go to your head. I was willing to let you win just to see if Sir Gawain’s display had any basis—”
“You what?” Lancelot said, surprised, and now it was Gawain’s turn to look smug.
“—but I’m unwilling to become a moldering corpse-king just to kiss you!” At this Arthur’s lips finally quirked into a grin, though it was in the same remonstrative tone that he added, “Sorry, Sir Tor.”
Merlin smiled back at him. “I understand and accept your judgment, my liege,” Merlin said with a nod, still embarrassed but relieved by the king’s sense of humor.
“Now, Sir Gawain, tell us you can do better than that,” the king said, turning to the larger knight.
“I don’t know,” Gawain said consideringly. “A moldering corpse-king would make us the talk of all peoples.” He aimed a teasing look at Merlin, who just shook his head. “Let’s see,” he said to Arthur. “Your attributes are… golden hair, and valor in battle. So to combine these attributes, you should be…” Merlin perked up at this. Surely, Gawain was going to say what he thought he was going to say. Gawain, however, finished with a triumphant, “…king of the golden eagles!”
“No!” Merlin blurted out. They all looked at him, and Merlin felt embarrassed again. “You were supposed to say ‘a lion’,” he said. “Like how he called you a bear,” he added uncomfortably, as they continued to stare.
“The king of the eagles might nonethess be a lion,” Lancelot suggested. Gawain shrugged.
“So,” said Arthur, grinning boyishly and obviously having a grand time, “my future options are: king of the eagles, possibly also a lion; a decomposing carcass-king; or to have a full tankard of beer.” He sighed melodramatically. “If only all my choices were this easy!” And with that he grabbed the back of Lancelot’s head and pulled him in for a mighty kiss. At first he seemed to make a show of giving Lancelot an exaggerated, comic smooch, and Lancelot played along, flailing as though he was trying to get free of a masher. After a while, though, they both forgot the act and settled in for a long, sensual kiss that seemed unlikely to end anytime soon.
After a while, Merlin looked over at Gawain. “Did we kiss that long?” he asked, sotto voce.
Gawain shook his head as if critical of their technique. “Maybe we should show them how it’s done again. Once they come back to us, that is,” he added musingly, as if grudgingly impressed by how long they could go at it.
Suddenly it occurred to Merlin that Arthur might now be, at this moment, as aroused and fully hard as he himself was. He was very glad when Gawain cleared his throat rather loudly, causing the two to jump apart.
Arthur gave them a slightly shamefaced “Sorry,” though he was obviously euphoric from the kiss. Lancelot, meanwhile, rubbed his kiss-swollen lips, and Merlin wondered if he was feeling beard-burn from Arthur’s five-day growth—Lancelot’s own dark stubble was only just now starting to show. If he and Gawain really had been together before, he thought, Lancelot should be used to it—though maybe Gawain’s full beard was softer than Arthur’s new growth. Merlin certainly hadn’t minded the brush of Gawain’s bristles against the small, well-trimmed beard he had by way of the real Sir Tor. As for his usual long, white beard—well, no one had ever kissed him through that, one way or the other. Perhaps when he was back in his own body, he’d…
“On to you, Sir Lancelot,” Arthur said, breaking into his thoughts. The king was settling back against the wall of the pool as if resuming his role as mellow observer, having handed his baton to Lancelot. Merlin was once again momentarily distracted by the thick, golden-haired chest.
“Right,” Lancelot said, turning to Merlin. “Time to redeem yourself, brother Tor. What say you?”
“Huh? Oh,” Merlin said. He met Lancelot’s gray gaze, and for the first time considered the value in succumbing to the noble knight’s interest in him. Not because he would prefer Lancelot over Arthur, but because it was so unlikely that Arthur was feeling anything more than a lusty curiosity for an attractive, well-made and accoutrement-gifted body—one that wasn’t even his, he reminded himself. And Lancelot… but, no. Lancelot was obviously a better match with Gawain, he told himself dejectedly; and they clearly had lingering feelings for each other after whatever history they had together. Still, he should do this right. If he won the turn, kissing Lancelot was a bonus. He might not find true love with him, but there was a chance he would feel that wonderful sense of bonding he’d now gained with Gawain, and in a lot of ways that was worth almost as much.
Plus (a sneaky thought in the back of his head whispered), if he kissed Lancelot, maybe it would make Arthur jealous…
Lancelot lifted an eyebrow, and he realized he’d gotten lost in the wanderings of his mind again. When you were several centuries old (and looked it), you could get away with that. “Er—” he began, then coached himself again to do this right. What did he admire about Lancelot? “Your attributes are,” he said, “that you… train tirelessly… and your skill with a blade is unmatched.” It was certainly true—Merlin had never seen anyone come close on either score in all his long life. Lancelot nodded at the compliment, and Merlin continued, “So, to combine the attributes…” He paused, trying to solidify the slightly elusive result he’d come to. He decided to phrase it more or less as if he were actually phrasing a spell in his head. “Anyone who picks up your blade,” he said, “shall thenceforward use it with the same deftness and endurance as you do.” He was glad for once he couldn’t wield his magic at the moment—a spell that potent would require at least six animal talismans, and would drain him for a full fortnight at least.
Lancelot raised his brows, considering Merlin’s submission. “Intriguing,” he said. “Brother Gawain, what say you?”
“Now, you see, young Sir Tor,” Gawain said in his deep rumbly voice, drawing out the last three words only just enough to taunt his imposter companion, “I’m afraid you’re close to the target with my friend Lancelot here, but not quite in the black. Consider this.” He regarded Lancelot discerningly, just as Lancelot had with him. “Your attributes are skill with a sword, and the ability on the battlefield to kill by your own hand more men without fail than anyone else.” Lancelot smiled at the praise. “To combine the attributes,” Gawain continued, continuing to eye him shrewdly, “whenever you pick up a second blade with your blade-holding hand, you should have a second pair of hands to wield the new blade as deftly as the old!”
Lancelot’s face lit up at this, though he seemed to be trying to reserve judgment until the round was complete. Arthur seemed to speak the thought for him, though: slapping Lancelot on the back, he said, “Why, Lancelot you could kill twice as many men!”
“Or monsters,” Merlin put in. These days, monsters might be more likely, with Britain united under Arthur’s fair rule.
“You could fight in single combat with two villains at once!” Gawain said.
“I could,” Lancelot said judiciously. Then he asked tentatively, “Could I… keep the arms? If I wanted?”
Gawain shrugged his burly shoulders. “Sure,” he said negligently. “As long as you like.”
Lancelot nodded. “Because they could have other uses,” he said distractedly. His gray gaze fell on Merlin, and he saw the familiar heat there, but almost immediately they slid to Gawain, and the heat seemed to stoke higher. Merlin smiled—there was no doubt on whose expansive body Lancelot would have wanted to use those extra hands, were they something that actually existed beyond Gawain’s and Lancelot’s imaginings.
“Well,” Arthur said, and Lancelot turned to him looking slightly guilty, as if he’d forgotten for a moment he was there, “it seems your other companions are interested only in buttering you up, Sir Lancelot; so you shall have to get the truth from me.”
Lancelot smiled. “My liege,” he said, nodding.
“Your attributes,” Arthur said, as if he truly regretted these things about his friend, “are that you are snob about ale, and you are too handsome. Therefore, to combine the attributes: whenever you drink inferior ale, you shall immediately become the ugliest man in the room!”
Lancelot laughed outright, and Merlin thought how seldom he had seen the staid, martially focused knight do so before tonight. “There is no need, my liege,” he said, “for that is already the very reason I avoid bad ale!”
The others laughed with him. “It’s true,” Gawain said. “Serve him mediocre ale and he becomes very ugly. Especially if he drinks it!” Lancelot gave him a fond look, and Merlin suspected there was a story there, and a shared moment few others knew about. He would have to ask Gawain about it later.
“Come here,” Lancelot said to Gawain. He slid closer to Merlin, so that their bare cheeks and legs were pressed together underwater, and Gawain did the same on the other side. Then, to Merlin’s great consternation, they leaned right across Merlin and began to kiss right in front of his face, bare inches away.
“Uh… guys…” Merlin said. Gawain and Lancelot ignored him, however, intensifying their kiss. They were even making little “mm” and “unh” noises as their mouths and tongues explored just how much pleasure they could give each other with Merlin planted firmly between them. He had nowhere to go, it was right in front of his face, and the visceral experience of it was ramping up his own arousal in a way that would, if they didn’t cut it out, require some kind of action very soon. He tried clearing his throat. “Guu-uys…” he sing-songed. No dice.
Fuck a goat, he thought. Wrapping his arms determinedly around both men’s bare, heated, and well-muscled shoulders, he dove in and joined the kiss with reckless abandon.
“Brother knights,” Merlin thought he heard Arthur’s voice say a short while later. It was hard to be sure. Gawain and Lancelot had accepted him into their kiss, and they were sharing a great deal of pleasure. So far it was only with our mouths, and with the firm flesh their were all pressing together from shoulders to ankles; but Merlin was aware that that the three of them were very naked and very aroused, and that a sexual tension had been building amongst them all for hours—maybe days. His stiff log of a prick was right there, Merlin thought as he shifted his kiss from mostly Lancelot to mostly Gawain. It was right there. All Gawain or Lancelot would have to do was reach out a hand and…
“Lancelot! Gawain! Tor!” Arthur called out, and they started, turning to him and blinking stupidly, their brains still swimming in several minutes of escalating arousal. The king sounded alarmed, but his eyes were wide with—bafflement? wonder? Merlin was pretty sure it wasn’t about the kiss. Even if he’d never seen three hot men kiss before, instinct told him this was something else.
Lancelot was the first to recover. “What is it, my liege?” he asked. He pulled back to sit upright against the side of the pool, though still closer to Merlin than he’d been. Gawain did the same, likewise staying close.
Merlin noticed that Arthur was holding his tankard—perhaps he had pulled it down to take a drink while they’d kissed. Wide eyes still on them, Arthur did not speak his response. Instead, he turned his wrist, tipping the tankard to one side and slowly pouring out a full pint of dark amber ale, right into the softly luminescent pool. It dropped quickly beneath the surface and was gone. The three of them stared. Arthur righted the tankard, glanced inside, then, once more with his eyes on the other three, he tipped the tankard again—and poured out another pint of ale.
Merlin gasped. “It’s real,” he said in a hushed voice that nonetheless filled the large cavern. “Something made the game real.” He looked sharply over at Gawain, narrowing his eyes. “Was it—was it the Fae?”
Gawain shook his head. “I made that part up,” he admitted. “I made most of it up.” His look became pointed in its turn. “Was it—?” he asked meaningfully, not finishing his question.
Merlin shook his head minutely. I don’t have my magic, he tried to tell him with his eyes. Gawain seemed to understand, nodding and turning away.
“It must be the spring,” Arthur said, setting the tankard back up on the lip. Merlin and the others looked up at him. “You said it before, Sir Tor,” he said. “The glowing pool, the grotto untouched by time. Some potent magic resides here, ready to be worked by whomever comes to this place.”
“And magic is invoked by rituals,” Merlin said, his own eyes widening. “Even a game… a game with structured questions, responses, and… rewards…” Suddenly his eyes fell on the tankard again, and uncontrollable laughter boiled up in him. “An endless ale-tankard,” he said, still laughing. “It is a kingly gift!”
He turned to Lancelot, ready to make a remark about his gift of hands, but he froze when he saw the blood had drained from Lancelot’s handsome face. He was staring at Gawain. “When—?” Lancelot asked. He looked to Arthur and Merlin. “When? Do we know?” he asked.
At first, he didn’t understand, but when he looked at Gawain’s impassive face, and saw again his sable beard and thick mat of curly chest hair, it came to him, and his stomach fell. He swallowed. “Tomorrow,” he said, his voice sounding rough. He looked at Lancelot, who had asked the question. “The full moon… is tomorrow.”
Lancelot looked heartbroken. “Gawain,” he said.
Merlin turned quickly to Gawain. “I’m so sorry, Gawain.”
“It’s all right,” Gawain said to Merlin. He saw now that Gawain’s eyes were yellow. Was that the coming full moon, or would he always be yellow-eyed from now on? There was a smile in them even now as he shrugged those massive shoulders again. “I chose it,” he said simply. “And neither of us knew.”
“We should have,” Merlin said. He took hold of himself, feeling his resolve stiffen. “You won’t be an evil werewolf,” he said firmly. “You have the strength of will to control it.”
“That’s right, Gawain,” Lancelot said encouragingly. “You will master it, if any man can.”
“Of course,” Arthur said. “Our Sir Gawain has fought direr creatures than a wolf!”
Merlin was sure Gawain appreciated the words. But Merlin was not trying foster mere confidence in Gawain. This was too important. “You have the strength of will to control it, Gawain of Lothian,” he repeated, voice hardening even further. He bore his eyes into Gawain’s and willed any scrap of magic to come to him now, if it ever did. Fuck being in the wrong body, and fuck the strange magic of this place. He was an ox-befucked wizard of the old magic, and he would compel this truth. He brought his forehead right up against Gawain’s, and with every ounce of will he could muster he drove the words into Gawain’s being. “You will control your wolf,” he said fiercely. Just for good measure, because it had sealed the turns of the game, he brought his lips to Gawain’s in a brief but impassioned kiss, one that Gawain returned with feeling. He broke free, their foreheads still pressed hard together, hard skull against hard skull. A twist of queasiness struck him, but he ignored it—he had to finish, just in case there was any chance. He spoke it again. “You will control your wolf, Sir Gawain of the Round Table,” he intoned in a low, firm tone. “Say it!”
“I will control my wolf,” Gawain said, and mouthed the name without speaking it: Merlin Emrys. Merlin smiled, his heart pounding, and Gawain gave him a tentative smile of his own. There was deep gratitude in his new yellow eyes, and love—the kind of love a knight had for his brother knight, despite Gawain knowing full well that Merlin was not a brother knight at all, of an age with him and with a warrier’s mien, but a rank imposter, and a fool at that. Merlin saw the love and wondered at it, and though all at once he felt unaccountably woozy and lightheaded, his smile widened.
Then Gawain’s smile became a mischievous smirk, and he said in a loud voice, “But what am I to do with obstreperous pups?” And then with a mighty shove he pushed Merlin right into the middle of the bottomless pool.
Merlin came up spluttering and disoriented. Hands reached out and grabbed him, pulling his bar butt up onto the shelf they’d been using for a seat. Merlin found he was sitting next to Arthur, and that the king had his strong right arm around his shoulder. He looked concerned. “Are you all right, Sir Tor?” he asked. “You look pale.”
“I’m well, my liege,” he said. He looked up to see Gawain was giving him a questioning look, now from across the pool, and Merlin nodded. I think we’re good, the nod said. We’ll have to see, tomorrow. But… I think we’re good. Aloud he said, “Now all we have to do is give brother Lancelot here a couple of swords, and see what happens!”
Lancelot’s eyes bugged out—in his wave of anxiety over Gawain and his wolf he had apparently forgotten his own prize. “The hands…” he said wonderingly. His eyes turned immediately to the expanse of Gawain’s chest and shoulders, and Merlin knew Lancelot, for once, was not thinking about his blade.
“Brothers, there is one more thing we can’t forget,” Arthur said. “Sir Tor, here, has not had his turn.”
“I insist,” Arthur interjected. “Indeed, I command it. We are knights of the Round Table, and all of us are equal—even you, Tor, son of Ares, our newest brother knight. We must all fare the same.” Arthur squeezed his shoulder, and Merlin looked up into those blue eyes and saw—lust, yes, and affection. But… dare he think it… was it possible…?
“As you will,” he breathed, but he could not hold back his smile. My naked liege, he said in his head.
“Relax, now,” Arthur instructed, suppressing his own amusement. “I promise we won’t turn you into a toad or anything.”
“Aw,” he heard Gawain say, “can’t we mess with him a little?”
“Just a little light hazing,” whined Lancelot. “You let us do it with Bors.”
“None of that,” Arthur said, glaring at the other two from under his golden brows—though he sounded not a little amused. “Besides,” Arthur continued, meeting Merlin’s eyes again, “it would be a betrayal to exclude you… now that we know it can be a boon.”
Merlin was still staring up into those eyes. He still felt a little weak, and it felt good to be held. “I don’t need anything… my liege.”
“Ack,” Gawain said after a few seconds of them staring into each other’s eyes. “Barf. Are you two going to be like this from now on?”
“Perhaps you should find your own enchanted pool,” Lancelot suggested.
“But pass that tankard around first!” Gawain added. “Ours are empty.”
Merlin knew it was not like Arthur to bristle at these two oafs playing at ordering the king around, but it still made his heart leap to see a brilliant smile bloom on Arthur’s angelic face. “Sir Tor,” he said politely, “would you be so good as to hand your brothers the magic bottomless ale-tankard? Then you may take your turn at the game.”
Dutifully, Merlin grabbed the tankard from where Arthur had set it down, more or less behind him, marveling to feel its heft from being full to the brim with magically replenishing ale, and handed it to Lancelot, who began refilling his empty tankard from it. He then handed it to Gawain, who did the same with both his own tankard and Merlin’s, too. He passed Arthur’s and Merlin’s to Lancelot, who handed them to Merlin. Arthur retrieved his and raised it. “To the glory of Britain!” he said. “Hear hear!” they cheered, and downed the ale in mighty gulps.
Merlin drew a breath and set his ale aside. “Now brothers,” he said diffidently, “since the king commands it…”
“Your attributes are that you are ugly and unpleasant,” Lancelot broke in, “and to combine them means you shall become a vole. On alternate Tuesdays.”
Merlin gaped. Gawain chimed in. “Your attributes,” Gawain intoned in that deep voice of his, “are that you are obstreperous and a pup. They shall therefore combine such that you shall bark like a dog whenever the tower bell rings. Oh, and horses will laugh at you.”
Merlin gave him a sour look. He knew where this was going now, but he didn’t appreciate having his chain yanked. Especially if there was even the tiniest risk of their jocular suggestions somehow happening anyway. They were in a magic pool, after all, and the sorcery involved was all unknown to Merlin. Though immediately it occurred to him how he could prank Gawain once they got home. He could picture it—the tower bells ringing, Merlin starting to bark like a dog, Gawain’s face going white…
Nah, he’d probably just smirk, he thought. He turned to look at Arthur, who still had his lanky, powerful arm around Merlin’s shoulders. He never wanted it to not be there. He met those blue eyes and sighed inwardly. I should tell you who I am, he thought. But then you’ll stop loving me. Aloud he said, “You had better be nice.” When Arthur’s gold eyebrows rose playfully he added, “my liege.”
I’ll let you love me an hour longer, then I’ll tell you. His heart sank a little, but he could tell himself it was enough just to know love again, even if only for a day. There were plenty of myths and legends, after all, that told that very tale.
“Your attributes,” Arthur said, his tone now gentle and full of that love that was now so bittersweet, “are that you are young… and beautiful… and wise.” Merlin stared at Arthur, wanting to object, to contradict him on all those points, but Arthur carried on. “To combine them, you shall retain your youth, your beauty, and your wisdom… forever.”
Merlin gasped. “Arthur—!” he got out, but he could not say more, because in that moment Arthur’s sweet, delicious mouth closed over his, and their tongues met, and Merlin was immersed in the sheerest, most perfect bliss he had ever known—a pleasure that did not end when unstoppable climax rose within him between the space of one second and the next, and suddenly he was blasting his release into the hot spring water… and still, still they kissed. And Lancelot and Gawain did not tease or complain, as he later discovered, because they were kissing, too.
A very long time later, Merlin and Arthur broke free from their kisses, Merlin having thought he heard a noise. At first he thought it might be thunder, as before. Lancelot and Gawain paused in their embrace as well. “What—?” Gawain began, but Merlin held up a hand.
It came again—thrommm, heavy and loud, reverberating through the very stone around them. A pause, and then it came again, thrommm. Thrommmm. Thrommmm.
“That’s not thunder,” Merlin said. Gawain grunted his agreement.
“A noise like that can mean only one thing,” Lancelot said.
Arthur nodded. “The fortress is under attack.”
Merlin looked around at his companions. Lancelot smiled ferally, and Gawain smirked, a glint in his yellow eyes.
Merlin caught Arthur’s eyes, seeing in them excitement, determination, and most of all unconditional trust in his three good knights. Merlin resolved he would not let him down, not ever. “C’mon,” he said, tilting his head toward the archway. “Let’s go show ‘em who they’re fucking with.”
“You’ll never believe it,” Lancelot said over the battering against the door.
After they’d climbed out of the enchanted pool and pulled on their breeches (with some reluctance, and Merlin could tell Gawain wanted to suggest fighting naked), they’d returned to the stark, imposing, and mostly undamaged entrance hall beyond the keep to retrieve the swords and knives they’d left with their packs and outer clothes. Judging from what they saw in the great hall the rain had stopped, or at least lessened for a time. But the wind still howled like a ferocious spirit, and some kind of force was definitely bashing methodically against the sturdy two-man-high main doors at the far end of the hall, filling the space with stone-shivering noise. Lancelot had hurried up a narrow stairs to a little story above the hall to try to get a vantage on their intrusive visitors; the others gathered in the armory they’d discovered earlier. Gawain had found and lit one of the torches and placed it in one of a wall mount as they considered what additional weapons they might need against various potential enemies. Lancelot now rejoined them with an astonished expression.
The others looked at him curiously. “Well?” Arthur said.
“Boars,” Lancelot said, looking at each of them in turn.
“What?” Merlin said, not sure he understood properly.
“Boars?” Gawain repeated, just as incredulous. He looked at Merlin and Arthur with a half a smile. “Do we need swords, or a rotisserie?” he remarked sardonically.
“Giant boars,” Lancelot clarified, still looking a little stunned. “As big as stallions. Bigger. Huge curved tusks, tall pointy spines…”
The hair stood up on the back of Merlin’s neck. “Troyth boars,” he said in an awed whisper. The others looked at him. “I’ve seen them before,” he told them. “They’re incredibly dangerous and very hard to kill. I’d heard there were some in this area,” he added thoughtfully, “but they usually stay out of sight.”
Lancelot blinked at him, slightly confused. “You’ve seen them before? In your family cow-pasture?”
“Yes, of course,” Merlin said mildly. “There’s a lot of monster traffic out there.” He turned to Arthur. “They’re very strong—as strong as five oxen, and their hide is very difficult to pierce or slash. Their tusks are deadly poisonous, too. One cut from them and you’re dead in minutes. The best approach for a kill is from underneath at the flank where their hide is weakest.”
Arthur nodded and turned to Lancelot. “How many?”
“Three,” Lancelot said. “One perhaps half again the size of the others.”
“What I don’t get,” Gawain said, “is what they’re doing here. Why are they attacking the castle? There’s no food here, and nothing of value…” He trailed off, exchanging a look with Merlin.
“But what use would troyth boars have for an enchanted pool?” Merlin wondered aloud, picking up the thought.
“Someone is using them,” Arthur concluded. “Someone who has just enough magic to force the boars to attack this place—so that he can take the secrets of the pool and its chamber.”
“At least he’s stupid enough not to check for side doors,” Gawain snorted.
Merlin looked around at the others—four half-naked champions, ready to defend a castle that was not theirs. “I’m no longer certain we four being here tonight is a coincidence,” he said slowly. He felt only slightly the imposter now, with his determination bolstering his courage. He had Tor’s sword buckled at his waist over his thin breeches. He also bore a long, sheathed knife strapped to his thigh, like all the others apart from the king. He had only Excalibur, but that was more than enough for any man.
Merlin knew he could choose only to stand with Arthur, Gawain, and Lancelot, and was proud to do so—but he wished he was a better fighter. It had been a very long time.
“Whether fate or chance, we must do what me must,” Lancelot said solemnly, looking to the king.
“Agreed,” Arthur said. “So,” he summarized, “three beasts, one larger, plus an unknown hostile to their rear, possibly with magic. I doubt whoever is behind this will reveal themselves until it’s necessary, but killing the beasts will either flush them out or drive them off.” A thought seemed to strike him, and he looked up quickly at Gawain. “Underneath, from the flanks…” he said meaningfully, meeting Gawain’s gaze.
A slow smile spread across Gawain’s bearded face. “I’ll give it a shot,” he said.
Arthur nodded, then nodded again, as if he were readjusting the tactical part of his brain to new possibilities. “Very good,” he said. “We’ll exit the side door. Lancelot will move around to the beasts’ right side and take a position there, while Tor and I will come all the way around the keep to the other side. Once in position we’ll attack from both sides, and Gawain from the rear. If possible, we take down the smaller beasts first, then bring down the larger one together. Any questions?” They all shook their heads, and Arthur held out his bare right hand, palm down. “For Britain,” he said, and the others stacked their hands, each in turn, and repeated the words.
“For Britain,” Merlin said, placing his hand on top, last of the four, feeling unexpectedly moved.
Arthur grinned at them all, and they pulled their hands away. “Right,” he said. “Gawain, Lancelot, off you go.”
The two of them started to step away quickly. “Wait! Lancelot!” Merlin called out, unbuckling his (or, rather, Tor’s) sword from his hip. Lancelot stepped back toward him, a question on his brow. “Swap swords with me.”
“What? Why?” Lancelot asked, surprised.
“Because to lend your sword now is to lend your prowess and endurance along with it,” Merlin explained. “And I could use the help.”
Lancelot looked at Gawain, still confused. Gawain rested a hand on Lancelot’s elegantly bulging shoulder. “He joined our kiss, remember?” he told him. “You received both gifts.”
“Ah.” Lancelot licked his lips and smiled at them both, remembering the kiss. He then offered Merlin his sword, with its belt and finely worked leather scabbard. “Her name is Sekace,” he said seriously. “Use her well.”
Merlin took the sword and scabbard in his left hand. “I will,” he promised. He handed Lancelot his sword, scabbard, buckle, and all. Once he’d taken it, Merlin then turned and pulled another sword in a plain sheath off the rack mounted on the wall behind him and offered him that one, too. Lancelot moved automatically to take it with his left hand, but Gawain said, “No, your sword hand.” He blinked at Gawain, then seemed to remember. Wordlessly he shifted Tor’s sword to his left, and took the new sword from the rack in his right.
The moment the second sword was in his grasp, Lancelot began to change. Two thick, beautifully muscled arms, twins of the ones he already owned, seemed to emerge with a snap from his body just under his existing ones, as if they’d been trapped there all along and were able to pull themselves free to feel the light of day at last. Virgin hands stretched and flexed as Lancelot gazed down at them in wonder. His square, sculpted chest thickened and subtly reshaped itself before their eyes, layering and dividing at the sides to serve and strengthen both the upper arms above and the new ones below. The round, muscled caps of the shoulders were set just under the hollows of his under-arms, and Lancelot shifted them in their unaccustomed locale, brushing lightly against the solid, well-shaped brawn of the upper arms he was used to.
He looked up at them with shining eyes. “How does it feel?” asked Gawain, his deep voice sounding a little husky.
Lancelot didn’t have to answer—the joy was written on his face. “Amazing,” he said. “In fact I want to feel it again. Here, Sir Tor, hand me another of those swords.”
“Later,” Arthur said patiently. “The question is, can you use those things?”
Lancelot’s eyes flashed with excitement. Clearly he could already feel the working of his new arms together with the old. Buckling both scabbards at his hip he unsheathed the two swords in a single, fluid movement, Tor’s above and the other below, taking a moment to test the grip of each unfamiliar blade in his strong right hands. Then, in a lightning move he lunged at Merlin, two swords flashing in the torchlight. Before he had even a second to react, Lancelot deftly froze like a cat, his eyes blazing and triumphant. Merlin shivered right down his spine and straight to his toes. Not daring to move an inch he looked down to see the upper sword against his neck, and the lower ready to plunge straight into his heart. “Do you yield?” Lancelot quipped.
Fury and terror roiled through him, mixing freely like the winds of the tempest outside. Heart pounding at ten times the usual speed he glared at Lancelot, at first barely able to speak. Never in his life had he experienced anything like being the near-victim of the Lancelot death machine, and he was quite sure he never wanted to again. “Goat fucker!” he got out finally, almost sputtering the words. “Ox-fuck a goat-befucked ox-fucking fucker!”
Gawain chuckled—uncharitably, Merlin thought. Lancelot, whose eyes had never left Merlin’s, gave him a wide, feral grin as he slowly withdrew his blades, letting the flat of the upper one slide tauntingly along his neck. Merlin wanted to growl at him.
“My question is smartly answered,” Arthur said blandly, but he wrapped a calming arm around Merlin’s still-quivering bare shoulders. “Thank you, Sir Lancelot.”
“My pleasure, my liege,” he said. He turned to Merlin, his expression entirely innocent. “Now, Sir Tor, that third sword—?”
“Fuck a goat in the fuckhole!” was all Merlin could say.
Arthur was chuckling now too, though he squeezed Merlin’s shoulder again in sympathy. “Let’s go,” said the king, still grinning, and Merlin, finally coming off his fright, left the armory with the others, glad of the arm Arthur still had slung over his shoulders.
Merlin crouched with Arthur behind the corner of the rectangular front hall. Night was falling, but there was still enough light to see. The overgrown grass was wet and the soil sodden, and the dark sky still roiled overhead; but the rain had indeed let up, and the wind seemed mostly engaged in whipping around the ominously dark forest and formidable crags behind the keep—under which, somewhere, lay the enchanted hot spring that had given them enhanced fighting prowess, an animal spirit, and—for the after celebration—limitless fine ale. Merlin’s heart fluttered, wondering if he would really know the deftness and tirelessness of Lancelot in battle. He hoped there would not be much need to find out. He was a wizard, not a warrior—or, at least, so he had always thought. So much had changed.
He peered around the side of the building and took another look at the giant, ugly boars. They were continuing to savagely charge and attack the doors, now with their mighty tusks, themselves the size of a hound, now with their bulky shoulders, turning aside tusk and snout. Their lack of progress seemed only to incense them. The larger one in the middle was almost half the size of the massive doors and definitely directing the attack, the others mindlessly mimicking its actions.
Beyond them, Merlin spotted Lancelot peeking around the opposite corner. He caught Merlin’s gaze and nodded. “Lancelot’s in position,” Merlin said quietly, though with the racket the beasts were making he could have shouted.
“I’ll attack the nearer beast under its forelegs,” Arthur instructed. “You go for the haunches at the rear legs.”
“Understood,” Merlin said. They rose to their feet, unsheathed their swords, and prepared themselves. Merlin felt calmer than he expected, partly because Lancelot’s sword felt so right in his hand, like an extension not only of his sinews but of his very will. Was this what Lancelot felt all the time? Was it doubled, now that he had two sword-hands, and two mighty swords to wreak the havoc he sought?
Arthur gave a silent count of three, and then the two of them charged around the corner, racing to attack the boars, who were still bent on attacking the great doors. Lancelot followed suit the moment he saw them move, his two blade glinting in the dying light, his face a deadly mask as he ran. None of them roared a war cry, though Merlin felt one in his throat. Men deserved warning of oncoming death and a chance to defend themselves. Beasts did not—especially, Merlin thought, dire beasts conjured to an evil purpose.
In seconds they were on the nearer beast, Merlin wanting to choke at the vile stench. With a single thrust he drove his weapon deep into the giant boar, then ripped cleanly forward, deep into its thorax, as if he were gutting it for market. The blade went exactly where he willed it, with terrible strength and purpose, and Merlin yanked it free half afraid it would continue tearing open the creature of its own accord. At the same time, Arthur had torn open the beast’s chest and driven Excalibur straight into its heart. The creature barely had time to look back, squealing horrifically, before it collapsed in a mutilated heap. An almost simultaneous death-squeal from the other side of the alpha boar told of Lancelot’s matching success.
Death, at least, was nothing new to Merlin, not even death at his own hands, though it had seldom been with a sword. He had seen many men and many monsters skewered by the blade. Their immediate concern was the remaining troyth boar, which was so large it towered over them, its beady eyes now registering fear and rage at their puny yet successful attack. They kept its eyes in sight, rounding the seeping carcass of the one they’d killed. Lancelot mirrored them on the other side. The boar took a single step back, eyeing them warily.
“Mind the tusks,” Arthur reminded them.
They were now between the beast and the great doors, Arthur and Merlin on one side, Lancelot on the other, their boar-blooded swords all raised and ready. They advanced, and the boar retreated another step. It snorted, and Merlin saw in its eyes it was preparing to attack. Arthur saw it too, and they readied themselves, Merlin wavering between confidence and disbelief at his own actions.
At that moment a roar from behind the monster rent the night as a massive sable wolf leapt onto the enormous beast and tore its flesh open near its haunches. White teeth flashed as dark blood streaked and splattered everywhere. The huge boar cried out deafeningly in fear and pain, its hind legs collapsing and head lowered. Arthur, Merlin, and Lancelot rushed forward. Merlin happened to be in the center as they charged, and as he raised his sword to strike through the beast’s skull he looked into the dark eyes and saw—the last thing he expected. “HOLD!” he roared suddenly, setting the point of his blade instead directly between its eyes.
Arthur and Lancelot stared at him agog as they stilled their sword-arms, their half-naked bodies streaked with blood. Somewhere in the deepening night he sensed the massive sable wolf stepping back from the beast and watching him with curious yellow eyes.
He stared hard into the beady eyes of the giant boar. “Do you yield?” he spat.
Lancelot and Arthur reacted with surprise. “Sir Tor,” Lancelot began.
Merlin ignored him and dug in his point a bit deeper. “Do you yield?” he demanded.
“Sir Tor,” Lancelot tried again, slightly peevishly this time, “it cannot yield, it is only a—”
Then, as they watched, a queasy transformation took place. The giant boar shimmered, though it was more a shimmer they felt, like heat or nausea washing from the beast, rather than one seen. In a single heartbeat they were looking now not at the wounded boar but a giant man with a hawkish face and russet hair and eyes, naked and wounded from a vicious maul to the flank. Then he was a normal sized man, laying in the grassy mud hurt and bleeding. He looked perfectly ordinary—so ordinary Merlin almost doubted having seen a monster, though Merlin’s sword remained between his hunted, angry eyes.
“—beast,” Lancelot finished distractedly.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked gruffly from Merlin’s side, his tone heavy with distaste.
The hawk-faced man only moaned, seeming barely aware of them, though the wound in his human form was far less dire than it had been on the boar, as if the transformation had partly healed him. The sable wolf trotted around to stand with the others, watching him intently, and Merlin saw for the first time how truly massive he was—his back reached nearly to Merlin’s chest. He bared his sharp teeth at the hawk-faced man and gave a low growl, and the man froze, opening his eyes and staring at Gawain.
“The king asked you a question,” Lancelot said, aiming the point of one of his swords at the ex-boar. “Who are you?”
“I am Aeric,” he groaned. “Aeric of Olmarden.”
Arthur frowned. “I know that name,” he said.
“I was chieftain of Olmarden,” the wretched man said, “but they’re all gone now.”
“What are you doing here?” Merlin asked harshly.
Aeric’s tale was short and ugly. Until recent days there were guardians and priests at this forgotten castle, though in latter times there were only two, both old men and weak. There was a legend in Olmarden, the thriving town up beyond the crags, that the town’s founder had been permitted to commune with the sacred pool here and that he had brought a blessing of wealth and safety to the town. Aeric promised his people to do the same, but once the guardians allowed him to access to the pool he prayed only for power. The guardians sensed his intent, however, and overrode his desires with theirs, so that the power he gained was to become a giant, hideous wereboar. Enraged, he chased the guardians out of the castle and pulled them down, killing them brutally, and in the instant of their death the great doors clanged closed, and he could not gain reentry. He tried to use his new form and strength to dominate his town and aggrandize himself, but the people reacted with terror and disgust, and those he did not kill with his poisoned tusks fled the town, so that it lay now as abandoned as this lonely fortress. He lived now as king of the troyth boars, whose will was his own, but he was so miserable he wanted only to surrender to the sacred pool the power with which he’d been gifted.
“Help me, guardians,” he pleaded, still laying half bent in the muddy, blood-soaked grass, clutching his half-healed wound. “Help me to mend my fate.”
Merlin curled his lip. He knew what he would say to this villain, but Arthur was good-hearted enough to be unpredictable in moments like this. He looked to his left to gauge the others’ reactions, and found that Gawain the man now stood near him, hairy chest, breeches, scabbarded sword and all. He was looking at Aeric with the same contempt as Merlin, and so was Lancelot.
Arthur’s face was merely dispassionate. But as he stepped forward, Merlin saw the coldness in his eyes. Merlin moved to stand behind him, and the other knights moved behind the king as well, Arthur visibly speaking for them all. “I do not believe you,” Arthur said.
Aeric blinked up at him. “But… I have confessed. Everything I told is true.”
“Oh, I do not doubt it,” Arthur said, taking another small step forward. “It’s your intent I do not believe.” Aeric narrowed his eyes. “You sought power over others from a sacred focus of old magic, then killed its servants,” Arthur recounted. “You betrayed your duty to your people to protect and save them. You came here today not in supplication but in violence, rage, and gluttony for greater power.” Arthur tightened his lips. “By your own words and deeds,” he said formally, “you have forfeited your rights among men or beasts—”
Aeric snarled. Suddenly he leapt up—but as the giant boar. With a vicious shove he thrust his poisoned tusk straight into Arthur’s belly. Arthur cried out, slumping backwards, and Lancelot barely had time to cast his swords to the ground and catch him in his four strong arms. The giant boar turned and fled, the horrible rending wound Gawain had given it all but healed, and setting its sights on the beak in the outer wall it galloped across the greens at frightening speed. Gawain gave a ferocious roar and leapt forward in a flash of skin and fur and teeth, and then the sable wolf was tearing after the much larger boar.
Merlin turned to Arthur and saw the terrible wound. Lancelot was moving very slowly, as though there were something wrong with the passsage of time. His head swam, much to his astonishment—was he truly going to pass out from the sight of blood now, after all these centuries?—and then a blackness overtook him that was not truly black at all.
Merlin was immersed in the fathomless hot spring, somewhere so deep down that the surface above was merely an abstraction. He wasn’t breathing, but that was all right. He didn’t need to breathe. He was naked, too, as was only natural. Clothes belonged to the other world.
At first he was there just in the water, calm and warm and endless, and he felt as though in a way he was the water. Then others gathered around him—handsome men, limber and well-made, with smiles and soft lips and hot, blue-green eyes. They were all the same, these men: like water. And yet they were all different, again like water.
You gave us a gift, one of them said, moving close and and smiling at him. When you were in the pool with us, you gave of yourself. Then the man moved closer and kissed him, and the others stroked and caressed ever inch of him. Hands were joined by lips and tongues, and soon there were mouths around his suddenly hardened prick, and in no time Merlin was hurtling delightedly toward an impressive climax. More mouths gave pleasure to his prick, his ballocks, his anus, while the men making out with him also intensified the pleasure they were sharing with him, and him with them all. And then he climaxed, forcefully, as if with his whole body; and he drifted, floating, his body arced slightly backwards in endless water, caressed and held by the handsome, friendly water-men.
When he opened his eyes he saw a water-man close before him, their faces almost touching. Beyond him were more water-men, all alike but not so. We are grateful, said the closest, and will give you a gift in return.
Merlin smiled. Is it your seed? he asked, seeing the exchange as only fair.
The water-man smiled back at him. In a way. And then Merlin fell—only, he was falling upward…
As soon as Merlin came to himself again in the muddy courtyard, he knew what had changed. Where before this body was innocent of magic, the grasp of it only just within the reach of his fingertips, now he was infused with it down to every last particle of his being. The physical attunement he’d accumulated in his old body, and lost in the exchange with Tor, was not only recovered but enhanced, even perfected. He could not be more empowered, and the ability to absolutely turn the potency of nature to his own desire roared through him as though he had become a blinding sun.
He knew on whom he must visit his wrath.
He stared ahead hard, catching sight of the fleeing giant boar-monster. It was almost to the break in the wall. He thrust up his hands to the roiling clouds above, and then—
At the last second he saw him, almost invisible in the night. A sable wolf, nearly upon the monstrous boar. His heart quailed. His friend, whom he had nearly destroyed in his seething rage. “GAWAIN, HOLD!” he screamed in an uncanny voice that filled the whole valley. Energy was still building within him. The wolf turned, yellow eyes alight in the darkness of the overrun field.
“FALL BACK!” he roared in his strange voice. “FALL BACK, GAWAIN, NOW! RUN!” And the wolf understood. He started racing toward him as phenomenal speed, only once looking back over his shoulder for pursuit. The wolf understood. The wolf trusted.
There was nothing now to hold him back, and nothing that could hold him back. With a shouted spate of long-forgotten words, spat like a fishmonger’s curse on the wet and bloodied earth, Merlin tore fire from the sky and flung blinding lightning straight down upon the benighted, evil creature that had attacked his beloved Arthur. The lightning crashed to earth in a tremendous blast of unimaginable power, and he and the wolf were both thrown off their feet even as a deafening cracckkk!! filled every space there was, within him as well as without. Merlin fell to his knees holding his head, his senses spinning away from him.
Gawain the man knelt beside him. “Merlin,” Gawain said, shaking him. “Merlin!”
“Why do you call him—!” Lancelot said, shocked. Merlin turned and saw he was still cradling the wounded king, hands caressing his forehead, cheeks, and shoulders.
“Who else calls down lightning from the sky?” Gawain snapped testily.
“Or calls people ‘goat-fucker’,” Merlin said with a woozy chuckle—he’d finally figured out what must have given him away to Gawain.
“Merlin, come back to us, brother,” Gawain said. “The king is dying. Can you save him? Tell us you can save him.”
The king? he thought, trying to order his swirling thoughts. He focused on the man slumped in Lancelot’s many arms. “Arthur!” he cried.
In a heartbeat he was beside his beloved king, his hand on his chest, peering into the wound with all his senses. Everything else fell away as his sight deepened. Something was fighting his focus—he was tired, so tired, truly exhausted—but he fought it with the ferocity of Lancelot on the field.
He tightened his thoughts and sight, and saw the festering evil within Arthur, like slime in a clear pool. It needed to be contained before it spread. Contained, and then destroyed. Not daring to call on Arthur’s life-force, he drew on his own, weaving it through Arthur to strengthen him and sustain him, while another stream wrapped around the intruding slime. It kept trying to escape his grasp, and there were three separate sources to contain, but at last he had all of the poison wrapped in impenetrable balls of his own life-force. Carefully, he drew them, one by one, into his own body where the magic that infused him and protected him destroyed it almost without volition.
He drew in a long breath. His vision sparkled, but he could not rest now. He felt Gawain’s hand on his shoulder, and Lancelot’s too, and he accepted their strength and drew on it. All that was left was the wound itself. Knitting flesh, easy peasy. Didn’t even need conscious thought. No need for him to be … …
“…Awake!” Merlin shouted, sitting bolt upright.
“There he is,” said a voice. He turned and saw Arthur, smiling affectionately at him. His bright blue eyes were the best thing Merlin had ever seen, and he’d seen a lot.
They were in a room Merlin didn’t recognize, bright sunlight streaming in through a narrow window. For a moment Merlin wondered if he’d been ill, and had dreamt the whole experience with the pool, and the boar, and accidentally turning Gawain into a werewolf. But the ceiling was low and he could see a bit of the ruined keep out the undressed window, and he guessed he must be in one of the rudimentary quarters Lancelot had found in the little story above the long hall.
He was laying on a pallet under thin blankets, completely nude. Arthur was sitting on the floor next to him, legs folded, looking relaxed. There was no sign of the others. Probably Lancelot and Gawain were out hunting—but in what form?
Arthur seemed to have been reading to pass the time while Merlin slept—at least there was a decent sized parchment codex in his lap, which as they hadn’t brought any books with them must have been discovered in the castle anywhere somewhere. Arthur saw where Merlin was looking and said, “Oh, yes, there’s a small library down the corridor. Very well preserved.” He flipped some pages. “Aeric was telling the truth, it seems. There was a whole priesthood here, and pilgrimages…”
“It’s good to see you, Arthur,” Merlin said. Arthur was wearing their new standard attire—breeches, and nothing else, and his gold-furred physique was a very pleasant sight indeed, especially the ungored belly where only a long white scar remained of the previous night’s traumas. He’d finished his work after all, and the remainder wasn’t the only mark of experience on Arthur’s fine, pale, generously muscled flesh.
But Arthur’s alluring torso wasn’t what Merlin had meant. Or at least, it wasn’t all of what he meant.
Arthur’s smile softened, and he reached over and took Merlin’s hand. “It’s good to see you too, Merlin,” he said, his voice saying more than his words.
Merlin blinked. “Hey! They told you!” he objected, but he squeezed Arthur’s hand as he said it.
“Come now,” Arthur admonished. “Do you think I wouldn’t recognize my own counsellor? I knew all along.”
Merlin gave him a shrewd look. “I… don’t believe you.”
The king shrugged, retrieving his hand, which Merlin missed a great deal. He took the book from his lap and set it aside on the floor. “Believe as you wish,” Arthur said airily. “You’re as free to think what you like as the rest of us. You’re a knight of the Round Table, after all!”
“I’m not, though,” Merlin said. “Not really.”
“You are, though,” said the king, and while the words were casual he said it in that serious, kingly voice he had.
Merlin met Arthur’s eyes and, as always, felt like he might lose himself in them. He swallowed. “Thank you… my liege.”
Those amazing blue eyes warmed… and darkened. “Arthur,” he said gruffly. “Always Arthur.”
Then, the lion pounced.
The rest of the trip was anticlimactic. The Black Keep of Kaerconan turned out to be an inn that had once, they said, been a manor house, or possibly a jail—though an outsized stable would have been Merlin’s guess. The publican was an old dear with a red nose and nearly white eyes who continually addressed the freshly-shaved Lancelot as “milady”, to Gawain and the others’ vast amusement. And the supposedly uncleavable Helm of Adragain, told or hinted of in no fewer than three ancient rhymes Arthur and Merlin had studied together in the past year while looking for portents of his reign, was an old Roman centurion’s helmet from Boudicca’s day with the horsehair crest long gone and replaced with hawk feathers. The old publican wore the helm on Sundays to draw a crowd from the surrounding townships for his “lute and flute” nights.
Nonetheless, they were content as they journeyed back to Camelot. They kept a leisurely pace, in no hurry to resume normal life; and there were no incidents to report save two. In the first, Merlin returned to camp from a piss, only for one of the horses to start whinnying mirthfully at him. Merlin froze and stared at the horse in horror—then whipped around to see Gawain laughing hard and loud. Gawain put his hands up, however, claiming total innocence. Merlin stalked off, giving both horse and man a dark look.
And in the second: one night under the countless stars, as they lay a little apart from the others, Arthur begged “my Sir Merlin” to make love to him with his mighty prick. Merlin complied with brio, and then, the second time, with fortitude and stamina, until they were both driven to a place of simple, shared, explosive serenity. Afterwards Merlin laughingly suggested they try a third time, this time with Lancelot’s sword in his hand so as to get the benefit of the other knight’s prowess and tirelessness; and only when Arthur pretended to consider it seriously did Merlin attack him with tickles, which became caresses, and kisses, and soon they were making love as if their passion could never be exhausted.
On the trip back Lancelot experimented with the number of arms he preferred. Not long after the events at the castle he’d released his new arms, just to make sure he could; but hardly a day had passed before he’d popped them out again, having felt oddly bereft when he didn’t have them. Eventually he added the third set he’d hinted at wanting more than once; and this soon became his default configuration, to the extent that on their return he had all his clothes and armor refit for six of his magnificent arms instead of two. He claimed the tailors relished the challenge, and he wasn’t wrong—though, like Merlin, Arthur, and Gawain, he never spent a single moment he wasn’t actually standing in a ball, a banquet, or a blizzard wearing a stitch of clothing above the waist. The four of them liked it that way, especially as it turned out that all four of them were, presumably thanks to the pool, thicker-muscled and better equipped than before, so that their old clothes didn’t fit as well as before the journey; and most of the people of Camelot did not mind that they often did without shirts and tunics. The four friends now trained together, learning all of Lancelot’s moves (at least, the ones they could do with two arms). Their sessions tended to draw impressive crowds, such that most of the other knights soon joined them, all of them stripped to the waist and sweating to keep up with their strangely beautiful multilimbed blade-master.
Gawain, for his part, loved being a man and a wolf equally, and often changed from one to the other; when Merlin had asked him if he didn’t wish he could be both at once, he replied that that was exactly what it felt like: when he was a man, he felt the wolf within him, and as a wold he felt the man. He would always be both. He had to be convinced not to terrorize the palace servants or spend too much time riling the excitable hunting dogs—mostly as both required quieting down after. But the truth was he liked his peaceful moments best, curled up before a fire in Lancelot’s quarters, his fur being stroked by many strong and attentive hands.
The biggest surprise occurred when they returned home. Evidently Merlin’s transference incantation, which had swapped the forms of himself and Tor, had undone itself the moment Arthur had gifted him with eternal youth, beauty, and wisdom: such a powerful spell had completely nullified Arthur’s effort, and Sir Tor was left suddenly looking like himself after five days of hiding behind Merlin’s face and long white beard. Supposedly, the switch had occurred in the middle of a conversation with Sir Kay: the temporary regent had cornered “Merlin” in the kitchens, wanting to ask him about a letter that had just arrived from Pellinore; only, when Kay turned to filch a sweet roll from a new batch fresh from the ovens, he turned to find Sir Tor standing there where old Merlin had been. Tor then scampered off, and Kay was left muttering to himself the whole rest of the week.
There was a great deal of confusion once the king and his party returned, naturally, since Merlin still looked like Tor, if more muscled and, as the king said, even more well-provided-for. The main giveaway was that Merlin was the one who was almost always shirtless; and he was also the one who tended to be kissing the king.