Twenty-four hours after Morgana cast her latest spell to bring about Arthur's downfall, the knights began to notice the effects of said spell.
“Arthur hit Merlin.”
Silence followed these three words, which had been uttered by Sir Elyan with an almost comical air of disbelief. Percival paused, his sword in mid-swing, and Gwaine tottered slightly, off-balance as he braced himself to parry a blow that never arrived. Leon spun around so quickly that his own hair nearly gave him whiplash.
On the other side of the training field King Arthur was slowly lowering his fist to his side. Sprawled on the ground in front of him was Merlin, looking like a deer who'd been startled by torchlight. His eyes were wide with shock, his mouth hanging open as he raised a hand to gingerly prod at his reddening cheek.
After an awkward moment in which everyone stood frozen, Arthur turned, back stiff and straight, and strode off towards the armoury.
“Arthur-” Gwaine broke off as Leon grabbed him and pushed him back.
“Gwaine, leave it,” the older knight ordered.
“Leave it?” Gwaine tossed his hair back, eyes flashing with outrage. “Leave it?”
“Now is not the time,” Leon said shortly. He let go of Gwaine and the four knights moved over to Merlin, Percival pulling him swiftly to his feet and steadying him.
“Um, thanks,” Merlin said, still looking a bit startled.
“You alright?” Gwaine asked, brow still furrowed in anger. He grasped Merlin by the shoulder as though this would somehow undo his injury.
Merlin rubbed the side of his face, which was already starting to bruise. “Fine.”
“What happened?” Elyan spoke up, glancing in the direction Arthur had vanished. “That wasn't like him...”
Understatement of the century, Leon thought, because in all the time he'd known Arthur, he'd never once seen him strike Merlin – not deliberately, not like that. Manhandle him, sure, yell at him, yes, but 99 percent of the time it was all in jest.
“I don't know.” Merlin seemed to have shaken off his state of shock now, his gaze hardening for a brief moment before he forced a grin. “I brought up Gwen... probably shouldn't have. He's been in a bad mood ever since he got out the wrong side of the bed this morning.”
Gwaine was still frowning, still had a hand on Merlin's shoulder. “That's no call for him to hit you!”
“It's fine, Gwaine.” Starting to sound slightly exasperated, Merlin pulled away and gathered up Arthur's sword and shield, which were lying on the ground nearby.
Leon had never known Merlin to sound so annoyed, but he supposed if he'd just been walloped by his best friend he'd be rather put out as well. The fact that Arthur had just left his gear lying about was also oddly out of character for the king. He filed these thoughts away at the back of his mind as he watched Merlin wave off Percival and Elyan's concern with a slightly strained laugh and follow in the same direction as Arthur.
“Something's wrong here.”
Elyan was the first to say it, but from the looks on his fellow knights' faces Leon could tell they'd all been thinking it.
Gwaine clucked his tongue thoughtfully. “Aye, you got that right.”
It all began, as most of the strange happenings in Camelot did, with Morgana, who had noticed that Agravaine had an alarming tendency to burst into her hovel without warning. If it hadn't been for the magic 'triggers' she'd set up around the area to warn her when someone approached, he may well have encountered the sight of her bathing.
As it was, she magicked away the tub and quickly pulled on a robe just as he marched in as though he owned the place.
“Ever heard of knocking?” she snapped, irritated at having been interrupted during a rare moment of downtime.
“Apologies,” he replied, inclining his head and eying her wet hair curiously. “I've brought you supplies,” he added, passing over a sack, which she supposed made up for his intrusion.
Morgana dug through the sack and pulled a face. “Do you people eat nothing but chicken, sausages and grapes?” she muttered, before pulling out a handful of fruits and setting the food aside. “What news have you for me?”
Agravaine made himself at home, sprawling down in a chair and narrowly avoiding knocking over a stack of vials that would have turned him into a rather unpleasant amphibian.
“Arthur,” he said with distaste, “Is progressing unfortunately well. Trade with Camelot's allies is blossoming. He's settled into his role as king well. He's even managed to reduce poverty in the outer villages. Tomorrow he announces the new fiscal policy and he intends to take away some of the taxes that Uther imposed.”
Morgana's face twisted into a scowl. “You told me he had found Guinevere's ring in the forest,” she murmured. At least that was one problem out of the way – as far as she knew, Gwen was dead, killed on a hunt while in the form of a deer. “Did that not have any effect on him?”
“Apparently not.” Agravaine leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows at her, obviously waiting for her to come up with a new plan.
They sat in silence for a while, Morgana gazing into the fire, lost in thought. After some time a slow smile spread across her face and Agravaine stirred, looking over at her expectantly.
“Why should I take down Arthur,” Morgana began slowly, “When I could let him take down himself?”
“I don't understand,” Agravaine said immediately.
Morgana turned to him, grinning now, her eyes gleaming with delight as the plan took shape in her mind. “What if the people saw me as a better choice for Queen? What if they no longer wanted Arthur on the throne?”
“That would be marvellous, but it would never happen,” Agravaine replied. At Morgana's filthy look, he shrugged. “Well, Morgana, when last you were on the throne you burned their crops and executed any who stood against you.”
She huffed. “But say Arthur became cruel. Say he became as bad as Uther was – nay, worse. Oppressive, selfish, raising taxes through the roof and working his people to death. Say he turned against his own friends, those faithful knights of his and that despicable Merlin.” This last name was said with a distaste she usually reserved for comments about her late father.
Agravaine still looked blank. “Arthur would never do that.”
“Not of his own volition, he wouldn't,” Morgana smirked, and wiggled her fingers in the air. Agravaine finally caught on.
“Bravo,” Morgana uttered, rolling her eyes. “Exactly. A spell that would take over his mind, twist his thoughts and actions, chill his blood and harden his heart until he becomes nothing more than a tyrant.”
Agravine smiled. “While I remain the voice of reason, fruitlessly trying to save the kingdom until finally the people welcome Arthur's downfall and you assume the throne, now the lesser of two evils.”
“Exactly!” Morgana strode over to the shelf on which she kept various brews and potions. Agravaine watched in fascination as she mixed bottles of strange-smelling substances, added a drop of venom from the fangs of a small serpent-like creature coiled in a basket atop a cupboard, and finally uttered words in the Old Tongue over the concoction, her eyes flashing briefly gold before a plume of steam rose from the beaker.
“Is that it?” Agravaine asked, aghast that such a potion could be created so simply.
Morgana arched her brows at him and poured it into a small glass bottle, pressing it into his hand. “That's it. Slip it into his food and it should begin to take effect after he has slept.”
“Excellent.” He tucked it into a pouch at his belt and made for the door, grinning over his shoulder at her. “I'll keep you informed.”
“Don't fail me, Agravaine,” she said as always, before settling by the fire again, her lips stretching into a blissful smile.
“Camelot won't know what's hit her.”
Agravaine was pleasantly surprised when fate gave him the perfect opportunity to put Morgana's plan into action that very night. It was Gaius' birthday, and it seemed that the physician had planned to keep the event quiet – and indeed, might have, if a certain manservant hadn't blabbed about it to a certain alcoholic knight, who had then, of course, organised a raucous celebration in the city's largest tavern.
Agravaine wasn't sure why he had been invited – probably out of politeness, as Leon had been the one arranging the guest list. As it was, he stood in the corner sipping a mug of mead and smiling simperingly around as though he wasn't the one responsible for Gaius' kidnapping some months ago.
I suppose there is reason to celebrate, he thought mockingly as he headed over towards Arthur, after all, one year older which means one less year until the old codger kicks the bucket.
The king was sitting between Gaius and Merlin and seemed to be having entirely too much fun, laughing over some story Gwaine was telling.
Gwaine, Agravaine thought, wrinkling his nose. Arthur's favourite knights were rowdy peasants, the lot of them, and Gwaine was the worst of the bunch.
“Your highness,” he interrupted, coming up to Arthur, “More drinks?”
“Don't worry, Merlin can get them,” was Arthur's response, giving his servant a grin and a shove. Merlin rolled his eyes and started to get up, but Agravaine pushed him back onto the bench.
“Really Arthur, give the poor boy a break for once,” he chuckled, taking up the tray of mugs. Arthur spluttered and the knights at the table roared in agreement and Merlin shot Agravaine a startled look before ducking his head and laughing.
Too easy, Agravaine thought as he moved to the counter where the bartender, obviously overjoyed at the amount of business he was getting tonight, happily refilled the drinks. Agravaine discreetly slipped the potion into Arthur's pitcher and returned to the table. There was a horrible moment where he thought he'd gotten the cups mixed up and given the potion to Percival instead, but he relaxed as he realised that no, everything had gone to plan.
He retreated to the side of the room and nursed his own drink. To anyone watching it seemed as though his grin was the result of good wine and pleasant company. Just a loyal servant of the king's enjoying the celebration.
Now it's just a matter of time. Watch out, Arthur...
If the way Arthur squinted and groaned when Merlin flung open the curtains was anything to go by, it seemed he had had a little too much to drink last night.
“Rise and shine!” Merlin exclaimed brightly, moving over to the bed and stripping Arthur's covers back. The king let out a shout of complaint, swatting at Merlin as he scrabbled for the covers. There was a bite in the air this morning and as usual he'd decided to sleep shirtless.
“Hungover, Arthur?” Merlin laughed as he clattered around with the fire poker. “Gwaine'll have a laugh at that – and after all your claims you could hold your drink better than him-”
“Would you just stop talking for once!” Arthur snapped, but not in his usual jovial tone.
Merlin stared at him over his shoulder and Arthur himself blinked, seeming startled by the vehemence in his own tone. After an awkward pause Arthur scrubbed at his eyes irritably.
“I have a splitting headache. Keep the noise down, would you?” he muttered, and Merlin smiled sympathetically and nodded.
“I'll see if Gaius has something to fix it.”
“Thanks,” Arthur mumbled, rolling out of bed. Merlin moved forward to dress him, thoughts whirling. A letter had arrived from his mother this morning. Apart from the usual news about what was happening at the village and inquiries about his health, she'd told him that Gwen was staying in Ealdor. Merlin was relieved to hear it, now reassured that she hadn't been captured or killed, but was torn about whether or not to tell Arthur. He supposed he should, considering if their roles were reversed he'd want to at least know she was safe, but at the same time bringing up mention of the woman always resulted in Arthur threatening him with banishment.
“Careful!” Arthur barked as Merlin fumbled with the laces of his shirt.
“Someone's grumpy,” Merlin muttered, tying the last knot and stepping back.
Arthur rubbed his temples and squinted about the room. He seemed to be steadily descending into anger, marching over to his desk and flipping violently through the stacks of papers.
“For heaven's sake, Merlin, where's my breakfast? I have a council meeting an hour and I don't want to discuss economics on an empty stomach!”
“I'm getting it, I'm getting it,” Merlin said, making a tactful retreat. Arthur's tone held no trace of its usual amusement – he seemed genuinely annoyed, and Merlin wondered if perhaps the stress of being King was starting to get to him.
The rest of the day didn't go any better. From what Merlin heard from passing servants, Arthur had been irritable in the court session, refusing to listen to the advice of his counsellors and Agravaine, turning away a peasant who attempted to come to him regarding some sort of potato disease affecting the crops, and going so far as to introduce a new tax on alcoholic substances. Gwaine wouldn't be happy about that.
Speaking of Gwaine, he waltzed into the stables as Merlin was mucking them out, treading right through the pile of horse dung that Merlin had carefully accumulated with the intention of shovelling it all away later.
“Her Royal Pratness has a royal stick up her backside today!” was the knight's greeting, spoken around the piece of hay sticking out of his mouth.
“Stop using prat, prat's my word,” was Merlin's amused response even as he began scraping at the dung again.
“But what else can I use? 'Chump'? 'Twit'? 'Meatball'? It doesn't quite have the same ring to it...” Gwaine trailed off, spat out the hay and began toeing through Merlin's carefully arranged pile of muddy straw. “What's up with him anyway?”
“Arthur?” Merlin paused, leaning against his pitchfork. “To be honest I've no idea. He just woke up in a really bad mood.”
“He kicked Lord Byron out of the courtroom,” Gwaine commented.
“Did he?” As far as Merlin knew Lord Byron was a lovely old gentleman. A tad outspoken, but generally someone whose opinion Arthur valued. “What did he do?”
“Nothing, far as I know. Told Arthur he was better off running a surplus budget.” Gwaine shrugged. “I suppose everyone has their bad days. Time of the month and all that.”
“Nothing, nothing.” Gwaine laughed at the confused look on Merlin face and reached over to ruffle his hair. “Best sharpen her highness' sword for training this afternoon or in the mood he's in, he may just have your hide.”
“Right, right, now if you don't mind, some of us actually work around here.” Merlin shooed out the laughing knight, but the smile dropped off his face as soon as Gwaine was out of sight.
What's up with Arthur? He couldn't help but wonder. Had something happened that he wasn't aware of, to throw the monarch's mood so frightfully out of whack.
An hour later Merlin found himself struggling to get to the training yard in time while balancing Arthur's chain mail, helmet, sword and shield. He tripped over a knoll in the grass and ended up sprawled on the floor much to the knights' amusement.
“Ladies and gentleman, Merlin!” Gwaine declared, throwing an arm out. Elyan moved to help Merlin up, but all joviality was gone a moment later as Arthur appeared on the field. The knights watched him warily, obviously acutely aware of his bad mood, but Arthur seemed quite calm, picking up his mail and waiting expectantly for Merlin to help him into it.
“Everything alright?” Merlin asked softly as he dressed Arthur.
“Fine, fine,” Arthur replied easily, and Merlin watched him cautiously.
“I hear you had some... heated discussion in court today,” Merlin continued.
Arthur shrugged, pulling his helmet on. “It's all sorted now,” he said, then added, “Don't worry your little head over it Merlin. These nobles always get so hot and bothered over economics.”
Merlin blinked a few times. Before he could say anything Arthur was turning and shouting for the knights to “pair off and begin warm-ups! We'll be working with maces later today.”
Because Merlin had a horrible sense of timing, he didn't quite register that despite Arthur's current calm demeanour, the events of today might indicate that he wasn't exactly in the mood to hear about his banished ex-significant-other. As it was, he decided that now was the time to bring it up.
“Arthur,” he said, “I have something to tell you.”
“What, that you've finally grown brains?”
If anything this jibe only encouraged Merlin that Arthur was back in his usual mood.
“It's about Gwen,” he blathered on, and Arthur's face clouded over. Unfortunately, Merlin couldn't see this behind his helmet.
“I've told you not to speak of Gwen,” Arthur said lowly, dangerously.
“I just thought you might want to know that she's alright. She's in Ealdor. My mother-”
And here Merlin broke off because suddenly he was on the ground and his face hurt like anything and Arthur's fist was raised in the air and heavens above, did Arthur just hit him? He did. Arthur just hit him.
Arthur just punched him.
Arthur had never punched him.
And that was the moment when Merlin looked up and met Arthur's eyes and saw nothing in them but pure anger and rage. No remorse. Not even surprise.
Something is very wrong here.
Merlin had never polished armour so hard in his life.
Seriously, the stuff was gleaming so brightly that if Merlin didn't know better, he'd say George had been the one who cleaned it. It was almost starting to hurt his eyes.
With a frustrated sigh he threw the cloth across the room and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.
You can't avoid him forever, he told himself.
Yes I can, the childish part of his brain responded.
The thing was, he wasn't even angry with Arthur. Well, a bit, but not really. Worried, mostly, because from what it seemed Arthur was in some sort of serious downward spiral if he'd been acting this way in the courtroom as well, and what if he was about to have a mental breakdown or something similarly dramatic?
There was a clatter of footsteps outside the door and Merlin straightened up and began to pack the armour away. After a moment the door opened and Agravaine stepped into the armoury, humming softly under his breath.
“Oh! Hello Merlin,” he greeted, heading over to the weapons rack.
Merlin shot him a suspicious glance and mumbled a greeting. It still irked him that such a traitor continued to live and work right under Arthur's nose.
Agravaine selected a sword and strapped it to his belt. At Merlin's curious gaze he explained, “I'm headed out on patrol. If Arthur asks, tell him I'll be back later tonight... what happened to your face?”
Merlin's hand flew to his cheek. “Nothing happened to my face,” was his immediate response, but suddenly Agravaine was striding over to him and whoah, okay, personal space.
“It looks like someone hit you,” Agravaine continued, going so far as to grasp Merlin's chin and turn his face this way and that.
“Someone did,” Merlin replied awkwardly, “in training today. Sometimes Percival doesn't know his own strength.”
“Hm.” Agravaine let go and backed off, much to Merlin's relief. “Well, put some meat on it, perhaps.”
Merlin nodded and watched him leave. If anything at least his 'medical' advice would give Gaius a laugh.
Gaius was not laughing. At all.
“Merlin, I've heard some very worrying reports about Arthur's behaviour today,” the physician said as he smeared some sort of balm over Merlin that didn't help the pain but did make his face feel annoyingly sticky. “He was throwing his weight around in the court session and raising taxes, of all things! Just yesterday he was telling me he intended to reduce them.”
“Gwaine said he kicked Lord Byron out.”
Gaius scoffed. “Well, you can't trust Gwaine. He reprimanded Byron, that's all.”
“And he hit me,” Merlin added, still put out over this.
Gaius nodded solemnly. “Even if you provoked him, that's not something I ever thought Arthur would do.”
“What do you think's wrong with him, then?” Merlin asked, as Gaius began to pack away his medicines. He moved to set the table for dinner.
Gaius thought for a long moment before finally turning to Merlin with an intense stare. “I'd say stress,” he said finally, “This time of year is busy for any king. It doesn't help that the other kingdoms now know Arthur turned down the Princess Mithian for a commoner girl. Even if Mithian doesn't mind, it's altered the kingdoms' view of him. He'll have to work hard to rebuild his reputation.”
“Have you got a tonic for that?” Merlin questioned.
“What, for reputation?”
“No, for stress!”
“Ah. I do, in fact.” Gaius rummaged through his cabinet and produced bottle of liquid that was an alarming shade of bright green. “Uther used to take this,” he muttered as he handed it over. Merlin's eyebrows rose so far they were in danger of flying right off his head.
“The symbolism of that is rather concerning,” he said. “I'll take it up with his dinner.”
It didn't help matters that Merlin was late to deliver Arthur's meal because Gwaine stopped him in the corridor.
“Here, put the tray down,” Gwaine said, snatching it before Merlin could react and plonking it on the floor. Soup sloshed everywhere and Merlin stifled a groan.
“Gwaine, what are you-” Merlin broke off as Gwaine took his hand and pressed his fingers into a fist.
“Now, if he comes at you again, you block him with your arm, like this, and then you jab him in the nose!” Gwaine moved Merlin's arm like a puppet in an attempt to teach him the movement.
Merlin yanked his arms away. “Look Gwaine, I appreciate the thought but I really don't need a self-defence lesson right now.”
“The events of the training field say otherwise.” While Gwaine's tone was light his stare was deadly serious. Merlin sighed.
“It's not going to happen again,” he reassured the knight, picking up the tray again. “And even if it did I'm hardly going to punch him back, am I?”
“Why not? I would!” Gwaine called after him.
“If you would, then I definitely shouldn't!” Merlin shouted over his shoulder.
As it was, he used magic to clean up the soup and stood outside the door for a good three minutes before entering. Arthur was at his desk, writing furiously, and he set the meal down on the table.
“Dinner,” he announced warily, trying to gauge the king's mood. Arthur looked up and for a moment they just stared at each other. Merlin expected something – he wasn't sure what; not an apology but at least an acknowledgement of what had happened earlier that day, but Arthur just stood and came over to the table.
“Water or wine?” Melin asked awkwardly.
“Wine,” Arthur replied shortly, and began to eat. Merlin pottered about cleaning up the room, having a mental argument with himself over whether he should try engage Arthur in conversation or not. When it came down to it, however, the one thing he was bad at was learning to shut his mouth.
“Arthur, is everything alright?” he blurted out.
Arthur paused mid-bite, drumstick halfway between his plate and his mouth.
“Excuse me?” he asked slowly.
Plunging out of the frying pan and into the fire, Merlin put down the bundle of laundry he was holding and walked over to the table.
“Gaius said to give this to you. For the stress,” he explained, handing the tonic over.
Arthur examined the bottle, looking puzzled, before setting it down on the table and continuing to eat. After a moment, he chuckled.
“I assure you, Merlin, I am not stressed. In fact, if anything, it's the opposite.”
“What do you mean?” Merlin asked, confused.
“I feel enlightened.” Arthur set his cutlery aside and closed his eyes for a moment. “The incident with Mithian has shown me that I've been too lenient this whole time. Camelot needs a strong king. A strong ruler.”
“Ok-ay,” was Merlin's only response. “But that doesn't explain you being, well, such a prat today.”
Arthur's brows furrowed in anger. The mood change was so startling that Merlin barely had time to react before Arthur was up out of his seat and striding towards him.
“When I said I'd been too lenient that extends to you as well,” Arthur growled, eyes flashing dangerously. “What sort of impression does it give people when I have my servant talking back to me?”
“You will address me as sire,” Arthur snapped, taking another step forward, and Merlin automatically stepped back. And then, because it was the only reason he could think of for Arthur's behaviour and he really, really didn't know when to keep his mouth shut:
“Is this about Gwen?”
A frozen pause.
Arthur didn't hit him again. He raised his hand, and Merlin flinched back, but the king just pinched the bridge of his nose and took several deep breaths.
“Merlin,” Arthur said slowly, “Do you like living in Camelot?”
Merlin blinked and after a moment, nodded.
“Then I suggest, if you wish to stay here, that you learn your place.” It was Arthur's lips moving and Arthur's voice but Merlin couldn't quite reconcile that with the words coming out of his mouth. “From now on you will do your duties promptly and efficiently. You will address me with the respect I deserve. You will not talk back to me, or impose your opinion on me. Is that understood?”
Merlin could do nothing but stare at him. What was more terrifying than Arthur's threat of banishment was the fact that he looked completely serious about this, his gaze hard and cold.
“Okay,” Merlin said finally, because he hadn't ever put up with this sort of behaviour from Arthur before and he wasn't about to start now. “Okay, if that's how it's gonna be. Keep acting like a great spoiled bully if you want. You know, I thought we were friends. I guess I was wrong. You haven't changed a bit since we met.” Which was strictly untrue, but it was the principle of the matter, you know. Biting back and all that.
Arthur's face twisted into a look of almost comical outrage.
“You are perilously close,” he said softly, “to being thrown in the stocks.”
Merlin swallowed, then let out a yelp of surprise as Arthur grabbed him roughly by the shirt and shoved him towards the door.
“Now get out of here and when you return tomorrow, I expect you to behave according to the proper protocol. Do you understand?”
Merlin blinked at him, shocked and hurt, then after a long pause he slowly bowed.
“Yes... sire,” he muttered, the words almost physically painful to utter, before he exited the room, shutting the door carefully behind him.
He made it halfway down the corridor before the full upset of the matter hit him, and slid down the wall before drawing his knees up to his chest. Arthur had never been so cruel – not even after Gwen's betrayal, not even back when they first met each other. Merlin just couldn't figure out how it had happened, and it hurt.
“Don't be such a girl, Merlin,” he told himself, which really only made things worse because he couldn't bear the thought that Arthur would never joke around with him like that again.
The part of his mind that was more sensible was already trying to console him, providing possible reasons for his behaviour. He's stressed. He's angry about Gwen and he's just taking it out on you. By tomorrow he'll regret everything he said. Arthur's not so unkind as that. It's the stress talking, not him.
You have a destiny together, remember?
Your friendship is stronger than this.
George was surprised when he was ordered by the chief of staff to report to the king's room early that morning. He wondered if something had happened to that Merlin again, the one who usually served the king – oh, it would be just dreadful if he'd gone missing again, really just dreadful.
Upon arriving, he opened the door a crack to check if the king was asleep. Finding that he was, he stepped into the room and almost fainted in shock.
The place was a mess. How any servant could leave the royal chambers in such a state was beyond George. If he had done such a thing he would have just died of guilt. No, no, his fingers twitched, he just had to clean up.
Last night's dinner dishes were still on the table. He cleared them away, stoked the fire, opened the windows to ventilate the room, neatly folded the clothes strewn about the floor and then began to sweep. Though he was as silent as possible, the little noise stirred the king, and he sat up in bed, blinking groggily.
George turned to greet him good morning but the words froze in his throat as he observed the most startling thing. The king's eyes widened suddenly, looking almost panicked, as though he had recalled some terrible memory. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but suddenly his expression turned blank, then hardened, his eyes turning mean and cold. He seemed to register George's presence for the first time.
“Good morning, my lord,” George said with a bow, his mouth suddenly inexplicably dry.
“George,” Arthur replied with a nod.
“Am I to take over your manservant's duties?” George ventured to ask, still curious as to why he'd been summoned here.
“Not all of them, but the room was in a mess and I know I can't trust that incompetent fool to clean it up.”
It took George a moment to realise who said incompetent fool was. He wasn't sure whether the King was joking or if he ought to laugh, but then he realised that Arthur appeared quite serious. He was a tad startled, having thought that the king and his manservant were... well, friends. He remembered being quite shocked at first by how casually they acted around each other, none of the master-servant boundaries that he himself stuck so strictly to in place.
“I... see,” he replied, momentarily flustered, then clapped his hands together. “Well! I've tidied the room; if my lord would like his breakfast I shall fetch it immediately!”
“Would you like sausages or bacon, my lord?”
“I wasn't aware there was bacon.”
“My lord, there is always bacon.”
Arthur snorted. “I suppose my idiot servant never bothered to ask. In any case, I'll have sausages.”
“Certainly.” George bowed again, so deeply that his head nearly touched the floor, and hurried out of the room. When he returned, expertly balancing two heavily loaded platters of hot foods and fruit along with a pitcher of wine, Arthur was out of bed and getting dressed.
“Sire! Let me help you with that.” George placed the food on the table and moved to help Arthur into his trousers. There was a patter of footsteps outside and they both turned to see Merlin enter the room. At the last moment he seemed to remember that he ought to knock, and wavered, rapping gently on the doorframe.
“Merlin. Late as usual,” Arthur said coldly, and George glanced between the two men. Merlin's gaze was fixed on the floor and there was a nasty bruise blossoming on the side of his faze. George swiftly tightened Arthur's belt, causing him to suck in his breath for a moment, before retreating respectfully to the side of the room.
“Ar- Sire,” Merlin corrected himself, his face falling miserably. George had no idea what was going on.
“I have a lot to do today, so I'll expect you to be at peak performance,” Arthur informed Merlin, who just nodded quietly, moving forward to shake a napkin over the king's lap.
Breakfast was an awkward experience for all involved. Even George, who should have been delighted with the amount of propriety exercised by everyone in the room, found himself growing uncomfortable at the icy silence between two men he was used to seeing engaging in constant friendly banter. It was hard not to cringe at the look on Merlin's face – he alternated between carefully blank to occasionally slipping into kicked-puppy-dog.
Arthur himself appeared not to notice, eating in silence before moving off to wash his face then striding out of the room to attend his usual state meetings. George rushed to open the door for him. Once he had left, the two servants stood in silence.
“You could ask him if he wants bacon,” George finally said stiffly, unsure exactly what to do.
Merlin turned to look at him. “Um, what?”
“That might please his kingship. He likes to have the option, you see.”
Merlin just stared at him a moment before giving a rather forced laugh and shuffling out. George just sighed, wondering what was up with everyone, and turned to clear away the breakfast dishes.
Agravaine was delighted with how things were working out. Morgana's spell seemed to have taken immediate effect. Arthur's inspection of the newest recruits into the military had been scathing. He had refused to attend the opening of a new bridge, had turned away three peasants who came seeking advice, and even ordered the beggars who tended to congregate around the east gate to be driven away.
Even better than this were the subtleties in his behaviour that inspired dislike. He snapped at nobles, ignored people who tried to speak to him, and shot down any opinions that contradicted his own. Agravaine had to fight not to smirk at the way he was treating Merlin – ignoring him except to bark orders and snatch objects from him, going so far as to jostle him roughly aside whenever he stood too close.
It was positively delightful.
Things came to a head when Arthur finally decided to grant an audience to a woman who had travelled from the far side of the kingdom. She was a withered old thing, with skin brown as a nut and wrinkled as a raisin, her back bent and hunched from years of toiling out in the fields. She bowed before the king and her spine made a rather ominous creaking sound.
“What do you want?” Arthur demanded, and all the nobles in the courtroom exchanged a collective wince, having never heard him speak so harshly to a petitioner.
“Your majesty,” the old woman croaked, “our village has, of late, been attacked by the most gruesome creature.”
“Pray describe,” Arthur replied in a bored tone.
“I have not seen it, but it lurks in the woods beyond our walls. A faceless being, they say. It has snatched livestock from our fields and last week a child went missing. It was then that I came to beg for your help.”
“How large is your village?” Arthur asked.
The woman swallowed. “Small, my lord,” was her answer, “barely a hundred citizens.”
“And what do you produce?”
“We... we have chickens, my lord, and wheat, and some pigs, but...” she trailed off, swallowing. “We do most of our trade within our own village.”
“I see.” Arthur leaned back in his throne, crossing his legs. “I'm afraid I can't help you.”
The woman reeled back as though hit, her eyes wide in surprise. Agravaine too adopted a look of startlement. The nobles began to mutter amongst themselves. On the other side of the room, Merlin was frowning.
“But... but my lord,” she stammered, and Arthur raised a hand, cutting her off.
“It is simply a matter of priorities. In the scheme of things, your village is tiny. It does not contribute to the production process. I cannot send my men and resources to assist you when I could be using them elsewhere.”
Deciding that he needed to put up a front of protest, Agravaine stepped forward.
“My lord, surely you could spare a few men!” he spoke up, and the rest of the court began to nod assent.
Arthur turned to him with a glare. “Uncle, this is my decision. I cannot help her.”
“But this beast could pose a danger to Camelot!”
“Or it might not even exist!” Arthur snapped back. “You know how superstitious these outer villages are.”
To everyone's surprise, it was Elyan who stepped forward. After a hesitant pause he bowed to Arthur, and said, “Your majesty, I am willing to go and investigate. If just Percival and I leave we can deal with the matter and be back within the week.”
“No, I need you here,” Arthur said immediately. When the knight began to protest, he scowled. “That's an order, Elyan. You're all dismissed.”
He stood to leave when suddenly the old woman was lurching forward and clutching at the hem of his cloak.
“You're a cruel man, Arthur Pendragon!” she hissed, leering up at him with chipped and yellowing teeth. “I won't forget this. The people won't forget this! We thought better of you.”
Arthur pulled away in disgust. “Guards! Arrest this woman!” he barked, and swept out of the courtroom.
Agravaine hid a smile as he watched Merlin exchange stunned glances with the knights before hurrying after him.
Yes, Morgana's plan was going very well indeed.
Something is seriously wrong here, was Merlin's first thought, because even back when they'd first met and Arthur was still in the spoiled-prat stages of life, he'd been nothing if not compassionate. He had always defied his father's 'practical' ruling regarding helping the lower classes with their problems. Even Uther had always issued help to villages experiencing trouble from bandits or supernatural creatures.
Arthur was standing in the empty courtyard when Merlin approached him. He was leaning against the wall and rubbing his temples as though he had a splitting headache. Merlin charged over, anger at the scene in the courtroom temporarily overcoming reason.
“Arthur, you can't do that!” were his first words. “What is wrong with you?”
Arthur glanced up at him, looking furious, and the next thing he knew Arthur had grabbed him and slammed him up against the wall, one hand fisted in the front of his shirt, the other grasping his wrist hard enough to bruise.
“Wrong with me?” Arthur snarled. “I'm not the one who just can't learn my place!”
“You've never turned away people asking help before – remember Ealdor? And Elyan? And the disease in Longstead?” Merlin prompted, but Arthur didn't react. “Why're you doing this?”
“I don't need to concern myself with these commoners,” Arthur spat.
Merlin glared at him, frustrated. “You're acting like Cenred!” he shouted. He yanked at his wrist, wanting nothing more than to grab Arthur by the shoulders and shake some sense into him, but Arthur's grip didn't let up.
“You just. Don't. Get it,” Arthur growled, shaking him with each word. “I am King. I will rule the way I want, not the way a mere servant tells me to. I should fire you on the spot.”
Merlin looked at the ground, breathing heavily. The words were ringing warning bells at the back of his mind. They seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn't quite place where he'd heard them before.
“I don't want to hear another peep out of you unless you're asking me whether there's anything else you can do for me,” Arthur snapped. “And if I hear of you running off to the knights I will be most displeased. You may not care about your job, but what about Gaius?”
And at that, Merlin's head snapped up, because Arthur wasn't just being the ultimate prat now, he was talking like the villains, the evil sorcerers who in Uther's reign used to sweep through Camelot and cause trouble, usually ending up with some innocent person being accused of sorcery. They were the ones who used to threaten Gaius or Gwen or any one of Merlin's other friends.
They were the ones who he'd never regretted having to kill.
He stared at Arthur silently, coldly, and finally the King let go of him and stepped back. He glared at Merlin a moment longer before departing.
Merlin rubbed his wrist. He looked down, biting his lip, flooded by a myriad of emotions. Anger was at the top of the list, because a great part of him was resentful, above everything else – resentful that Arthur had seemingly just woken up one morning and decided that everything the two of them had been through didn't matter – everything Merlin had inadvertently taught him about how to treat people vanishing in the blink of an eye.
Part of him wanted to give up in rage, because if Arthur could still act like this, could still be so utterly unappreciative of everything Merlin had done for him, well, it was his loss if Merlin waltzed off and left him to be killed and to hell with their 'destiny'. It wasn't the first time Merlin had felt exasperated, but it was definitely the most acute.
On top of all this he was sad, hurt, as anyone would be hurt if their best friend started treating them like dirt. And vaguely, in the back of his mind, there was fear. And that hurt even more because he'd never in his life been scared of Arthur, but now he was acting like the foreign dictators he'd always proclaimed to be disgusted by, and threatening Gaius was just the last straw.
“Merlin!” a voice called out, and he looked up to see Gwaine and Percival coming towards him.
“You look miserable as a slug,” Gwaine informed him, but he looked uncharacteristically serious. “Some display back there, huh?”
“Something's wrong with Arthur,” was all Merlin could say, and Gwaine scoffed.
“You can say that again! ...hey, you alright?” he added, rather more gently. Merlin vaguely wondered whether he looked as upset as he felt, and all he could do was nod mutely. Gwaine put an arm around him and suddenly all Merlin could think of were the times when Arthur had told him to cheer up or asked what was wrong and expressed affection in his usual emotionally constipated way, through a punch on the arm or knuckles rubbed against the top of Merlin's head. How did we come to this?
“He's like a completely different man,” Percival mused. “I can't explain it.”
“Perhaps he is mentally afflicted,” was Gwaine's valuable contribution to the conversation.
“Wait,” Merlin said suddenly, because something was still nagging at him from Arthur's words earlier. I will rule the way I want, not the way a mere servant tells me to...
And suddenly it was Leon's voice in his mind, you dare question our judgement? ...you are nothing but a servant!
“The Lamia,” he said aloud, and both Gwaine and Percival twitched at the mention of the name.
“What about her?” Percival asked quietly, his gaze flickering away guiltily.
“When she possessed you, you were acting... well, a bit like how Arthur's acting now,” Merlin pointed out. “It makes sense, doesn't it?” Now that he had a logical explanation for Arthur's behaviour he found himself relaxing. It could all be explained by magic, surely. There was no way Arthur, in his right mind, would ever treat him like that. Right?
Gwaine nodded thoughtfully. “You know, you have a point there Merlin. Except for the fact that as far as I know Arthur hasn't rescued any damsels in distress lately.”
“Maybe not a Lamia, but some sort of enchantment?” Merlin mused. “Why else would he suddenly... well, for lack of a better term, turn evil?” 'Evil' was perhaps a bit of a strong word to describe it, but it was the best he could come up with right now.
“You could be right,” was Gwaine's answer, and Merlin turned to him.
“Could be? Surely you don't think Arthur actually means everything he's been saying? And doing,” he added, reaching up to gingerly prod the bruise on his face.
The reminder of the blow Arthur had struck his servant seemed to shake Gwaine. He grinned and jostled Merlin's shoulder.
“Of course not. So, hypothetically, someone has enchanted Arthur to act like an ass.”
“Morgana?” Percival suggested, and Gwaine grunted and prodded him in the side.
“Score one for Percy. Well, who else would it be?”
“He has other enemies,” Merlin conceded. “But it doesn't matter who did it; right now we have to find a way to reverse it! I'd better go talk to Gaius.” He made to leave, but turned suddenly and glanced back at them. “We should probably keep this to ourselves for now.”
Gwaine mimed locking his mouth and throwing away the key, and Percival gave a reassuring nod.
Merlin felt startlingly lighter as he headed for Gaius' chambers, having to fight the urge not to smile.
It must be an enchantment, he thought – and a vicious one at that. Unlike the usual love spells that made Arthur unruly and rude but never actively mean, this had the potential to cause far more damage.
Gaius will know what to do, Merlin reassured himself, feeling better than he had all day.
“You're certain it's an enchantment?” Gaius asked as they sat around the table, the physician mixing potions while Merlin leaned back on the hind legs of his chair and chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully.
“What else could it be, Gaius? Nothing else explains why Arthur would just wake up one morning and start acting like a brute.”
“I suppose it does explain his behaviour.” Gaius corked the bottle he was holding and sat opposite Merlin, clasping his hands together in front of him. “So what symptoms do we have? Erratic and irritable disposition, hostile behaviour...”
“Physical violence,” Merlin put in, and Gaius gave him the Eyebrow of Suspicion.
“Are you alright, Merlin?” he asked.
“I'm fine. Umm, he's also been acting irrationally, seems to have a bit of a headache and apparently is craving bacon.”
“Bacon?” Gaius' expression switched to the Eyebrow of Disbelief.
Merlin shrugged. “According to George, anyway.”
“I see. Well, I'll get looking through these books. If I can't find anything I'll drop by Geoffrey and see if he has any other documents that might help. You can deliver these medicines for me,” Gaius said, packing bottles into his medicine bag and handing it over to Merlin.
“Right. Yes.” Merlin headed for the door, then paused. “What should I do?”
“Beg pardon?” Gaius looked over at him, puzzled. “'Do'?”
“With Arthur. I mean. If it takes some time for us to figure out how to reverse the spell.” Merlin shifted his feet awkwardly. “Should I be doing anything to... you know, keep him out of trouble? He won't listen to me.”
Gaius let out a weary sigh. He walked over to Merlin and rested a hand on his shoulder.
“You'll do what you've always done: protect him, even if he doesn't know it. Trust your instincts, Merlin, and you can't go wrong,” he said kindly. “Keep a low profile, but keep an eye out for any danger.”
Merlin nodded, and Gaius gave him a reassuring smile.
“And bear in mind that these actions aren't Arthur. They're nothing but the result of an enchantment. Don't let him get to you!”
Merlin nodded again and smiled back.
“Don't thank me, get those deliveries going!” Gaius ordered with a chuckle, and Merlin gave a mock salute before rushing out.
He hadn't been gone two minutes before Sir Leon crashed into the room. Gaius hurriedly snapped shut the book he'd been leafing through.
“Leon, what's the matter?” he demanded.
Leon gasped for breath, looking flustered, his hair dishevelled as though he'd run a great way. Gaius noted with alarm that there were stains of blood on his tunic.
“Come quickly!” Leon croaked, taking Gaius by the arm and hurrying for the door.
“I think he's gravely injured!”
Merlin always hated delivering medicines to Marm Beryl because he could never escape quickly. She always dragged him into her house where she gushed over him and asked a thousand questions about Gaius and Arthur and pinched his cheeks and informed him that he needed fattening up.
She was in the middle of interrogating him about Gaius' Yuletide plans when there was a thunderous rap at her door, making them both jump in surprise.
“Whoever could that be?” Beryl wondered aloud, waddling over to open it. Merlin was surprised to see Gwaine standing there, breathing heavily as though he'd sprinted some distance.
“Sir Gwaine!” suddenly Beryl's expression was blushing and coy and she was smiling like a schoolgirl and Merlin really didn't want to know if the two of them had been up to anything. “What a pleasant surprise! What can I-”
“Gaius needs Merlin,” Gwaine interrupted, and fixed Merlin with an intense stare. “Now.”
A cold pit of dread settled in Merlin's stomach as he realised that something was very, very wrong. Snatching up the bag, he followed Gwaine out, Beryl spluttering apologies and farewells and gazing after them in concern as they left.
As soon as they were out the door Gwaine broke into a run, and Merlin followed.
“What is it, what's happened?” he asked, glancing over at Gwaine in worry.
“It's Elyan,” Gwaine replied grimly, “he's hurt. Badly. Gaius is working on him now.”
“What?” Merlin stumbled over a piece of uneven pavement and Gwaine grabbed his elbow, steadying him before pulling him along. Just half an hour ago Elyan had been perfectly fine. “What happened?”
“Arthur happened, that's what,” Gwaine said darkly, and Merlin's heart plummeted. The knight went on to explain, “Elyan was insistent about going to help that woman's village. He had a bag packed and everything and was about to leave when Arthur came storming out and demanded he stop at once.”
“Elyan refused and they got into an argument. It 's been brewing for weeks, honestly, and I reckon Arthur's behaviour lately was the straw that broke the camel's back. Elyan brought up Gwen, which only made Arthur even angrier, and then he shouted for the guards to arrest him. They tried to pull him off the horse, and it bolted. He fell and cracked his head on the stone floor. Blood everywhere!” Gwaine grimaced at the memory.
“Oh, no.” Merlin bit his lip. The effects of this spell were only escalating, and a sudden new concern sprang to mind. If – when – they returned Arthur's mind to him, he would be devastated by what he had unintentionally done. It hit Merlin like a punch in the gut, because it had become instinct to protect Arthur – not just from physical dangers but from distress – his father's death, guilt over Morgana, anything that could cause him emotional harm. But this.... there was nothing he could do about this. Arthur cared for his knights like brothers. This would tear him apart. And Merlin was helpless to do anything about it.
Before he could say any more they arrived at Gaius' chambers. He hurried in, Gwaine following.
The table in the centre of the room had been cleared and a sheet lain over it. The unconscious form of Elyan lay on the makeshift surgeon's table. The knight was pale as death, breathing shallowly, one arm bent at an awkward angle. Worst of all was the amount of blood spreading from the back of his scalp, quickly staining the white sheet red.
Percival knelt beside him, looking stricken. It was no secret that the two of them were close friends. Leon sat in a chair by the side of the room, his head in his hands. An air of despondency hung over the whole room.
“Merlin! There you are.” Gaius emerged from where he'd been crouching behind the counter. “I need you to boil up the thyme and tarragon mix. I've staunched the worst of the bleeding but the skin is broken and we need to prevent infection.”
Merlin gave a curt nod and moved to do as he asked.
“How is he?” Gwaine asked, standing beside Percival and putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Not well. His head injury is severe, not to mention he's broken his arm. His body is under a lot of stress.” Gaius gently pushed the two knights aside as he set about splinting Elyan's arm. “I appreciate your concern, men, but I do need room to work.”
“Come on.” Leon stood abruptly. “We must leave Gaius to concentrate. Arthur won't be happy with us sitting around either.”
The mention of the king's name created a rather awkward atmosphere. By the fire, Merlin stiffened. This incident had only confirmed beyond doubt that Arthur was under enchantment – in his right mind he would never, never have caused one of his knights such an injury and not even cared about it.
“Let us know if anything changes!” Gwaine called to Gaius as Leon ushered he and Percival out. As soon as the door shut behind them Gaius strode over to Merlin.
“It's bad,” he said, and Merlin glanced over at Elyan.
“How bad?” he asked nervously, swallowing, his mouth suddenly very dry.
“I fear there is damage to his skull that is beyond my ability to repair. It is similar to what happened with Morgana last year,” Gaius explained, and Merlin frowned at the memory.
“Then I can do what I did last time... we don't have time to waste!” he dashed out of the room before Gaius had a chance to protest.
“Did he fall down the stairs as well?” was the first thing Kilgharrah asked. He seemed to find it slightly amusing, which Merlin personally thought was entirely inappropriate and wholly irreverent.
“No,” he replied shortly, “he fell off a horse. It was indirectly Arthur's fault.”
“Arthur?” the dragon's head tilted, its tone more cautious now, curious. “How so?”
Merlin swallowed. “He's been enchanted to behave... differently. Cruelly. I think Morgana means to turn us against him.”
Kilgharrah let out a noise of distaste. “This could all have been prevented if you hadn't insisted on my healing Morgana when this same thing happened to her a year ago.”
Merlin sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I know, I know, you can tell me you told me so. But right now I really need your help.”
“Merlin.” Kilgharrah's voice was gently chiding. “I cannot always be your go-to man for situations beyond your power. You cannot save everyone.”
“I know, but I don't see any other options here. And if... if Elyan dies...” he broke off for a moment, then soldiered on. “If Elyan dies, Arthur will never forgive himself. It's as much for his sake as Elyan's that we need to save him.”
Kilgharrah inclined his head. “You have a point, young warlock.” He craned his neck back, then opened his great maw and breathed in Merlin's face. Merlin closed his eyes as he felt the tingling sensation of new magic flowing into him.
“Thank you,” Merlin told him fervently.
Kilgharrah made a vague rumbling noise. “You'd best break this enchantment soon,” he warned. “It has the potential to do much damage.”
“I know.” And then, because he really needed some good news to cheer him up, “How's Aithusa?”
Kilgharrah chuckled. “She is well. And has been attempting to learn to fly, without much success.”
“That's good.” The thought of the baby dragon made Merlin smile. He raised a hand in farewell as Kilgharrah flew off before turning to head back to the castle. It always took a long time to walk out to a clearing far enough from Camelot that no one would see Kilgharrah land, and evening was almost upon him. He'd have to hurry to get in before the city gates shut.
Leon was currently having an internal crisis. He paced back and forth in his chambers, unsure what to do. Of all the knights he was the one who had always been closest to the monarchy – who had endeavoured to support Uther, and then Arthur, to try to help and subtly guide them even when they seemed to be making odd choices.
But this... this was going too far.
Leon still couldn't come to terms with the scene he'd witnessed in the courtyard earlier that day. Elyan crying out as he hit the ground with a sickening crack, blood pooling under him, Percival running forward to cradle him, Gwaine launching himself at the guards before Leon grabbed him and hauled him back.
And Arthur... Arthur observing the scene with a blank mien and a single twitching eyebrow before calmly striding back into the castle.
That wasn't the Arthur Leon knew.
And it wasn't an Arthur he was willing to support.
There was a knock at the door and Leon opened it, glad to have any sort of company rather than be left alone with his thoughts. Gwaine was outside – he seemed to have been doing a lot of turning up at doors of late.
“Elyan's awake,” Gwaine said, instead of 'hello', but Leon barely registered the lack of greeting because the news was so welcome.
“Thank heavens,” he replied, sinking against the wall and clutching at his hair in relief. He had honestly thought Elyan might die. There had just been so much blood.
Gwaine smiled a bit and tugged at his arm. “Come on then.”
“I'm going to need a stiff drink after this,” Leon muttered as they walked down to the physician's chambers, and Gwaine barked out a laugh.
“You and me both!” he responded, although Leon suspected he had had more than one already.
Elyan seemed to have made a remarkable recovery, Leon observed as he entered the room. He was sitting by the fire, a blanket around his shoulders and his head almost entirely encased in bandages, blinking blearily. Percival sat beside him, and his arm around Elyan's shoulders seemed to be the only thing keeping the injured man upright.
“Elyan!” Leon declared, moving over to him and giving him a manly one-armed hug. “How do you feel?”
“Tired, mostly,” was Elyan's quiet response as he stifled a yawn and winced as it pulled at the cut on his head.
“It will be a while until he recovers,” Gaius spoke up from the corner. Leon glanced over at him and cringed – the physician seemed to have aged ten years since he last saw him. “No strenuous physical activity – that's for the benefit of the arm as well as the head.”
“Gaius, you are amazing,” Gwaine spoke up. He grinned and gave the physician a friendly jostle. “I thought for sure he'd kick the bucket!”
“Your confidence in me is overwhelming,” Gaius said dryly. “I think we have Merlin to thank for most of it – he is a very skilled... potion-mixer.”
Merlin glanced up from the side of the room where he sat. Like Gaius, he looked exhausted, slumped on the bench as though if he stood up he'd collapse.
“Tired, Merlin?” Gwaine asked, going to sit next to him.
Merlin gave him a brief smile. “I've been doing a lot of running around.”
“We need to talk about Arthur,” Leon spoke up, and everyone turned to look at him, expressions suddenly as solemn as if they were at a funeral.
“Yes,” Percival said. He'd been rather quiet. “Yes, we do.”
“He's enchanted!” Gwaine said cheerfully, and Leon blinked. It hadn't been the first thing that sprung to mind – though with the times they lived it, it probably should have been – but suddenly the events of the last few days made much more sense.
“What vile spell could do such a thing?” he muttered. “We must tell Agravaine,” were his next words.
“No!” Merlin shouted, a bit too quickly.
Leon stared at him in surprise. “Why ever not? He must know – as Arthur's second in command he is in charge of enacting his decisions. If things continue on like this Camelot will be plunged into chaos.”
“We can't tell Agravaine...” Merlin trailed off, looking frustrated. “We should try and keep this from spreading to too many people.” He glanced at Gaius for help.
The physician nodded slowly. “Merlin is right. Agravaine has shown in the past an... unwillingness to believe us when we warn him of such things.”
“But if we tell people they'll know not to hold Arthur responsible for his actions,” Leon pointed out, a bit confused by their insistence.
Gaius shook his head. “Best to wait until after he's been cured. Then he can issue whatever public apologies and compensation are necessary.”
“If you say so,” Leon said a touch doubtfully, then shook himself. “No, I trust your judgement, Gaius.”
Both Gaius and Merlin visibly relaxed at that.
“I'll get to work on researching how to break this spell,” Gaius said, heading for the table, but Gwaine stopped him with a raised hand.
“No, you need to sleep.” He glanced over at Merlin and gave a slight grin. “Both of you.”
“We don't have time to lose,” Merlin began, but then gave such a massive yawn that his whole argument was rendered void. Gwaine slung an arm around him and hauled him towards the stairs to his room.
Leon turned to Gaius. “We must break this spell as soon as possible,” he told him quietly. “In the meantime, I'll do what I can to stop his insane orders being acted out.” And keep Gwaine out of trouble, he added mentally, he can provoke Arthur at the best of times and I shudder to think what he might unwittingly set off in this state.
Gaius nodded solemnly. “Thank you, Leon.” He moved over to check on Elyan again, who was starting to fall asleep himself, and arranged for him to stay in Percival's chambers for the night.
Upon returning to his own rooms Leon fell into an uneasy sleep, his thoughts still whirling. Arthur, enchanted yet again! It seemed Morgana was as determined as ever to take his place on the throne.
Merlin was late, and for once he wasn't to blame. Well, not directly. The long treks out to the clearing where he met Kilgharrah always left him exhausted and sore the day afterwards, and pained muscles really did not mix well with the castle's long winding staircases. So no, it wasn't really his fault that he had to pause several times while bringing Arthur's breakfast up to him. On the plus side, he did bring bacon.
“Where have you been?” was apparently the new 'good morning'... according to Arthur, at least, who was standing by the window looking down at the courtyard.
“Good morning, sire,” Merlin replied, setting the food down on the table. “Sorry I'm late, there was a, um... holdup in the kitchens.”
Arthur turned to him and Merlin's heart sake. Every day, despite knowing better, he hoped that Arthur would have reverted back to normal in the night, but if anything it seemed the enchantment was growing stronger. Arthur's eyes were narrowed, his stare hard and cold, his lips pressed together tightly to give him a mean expression. He strode over and slapped Merlin upside the head.
“Idiot. I meant yesterday. All your chores were left uncompleted – after the council session you just vanished.”
“Oh. I was helping Gaius,” Merlin replied, a bit flustered. He rubbed his head. “With Elyan. Since he was injured. But you know about that.” He couldn't help but feel a stab of anger, though he knew it was unwarranted.
This isn't Arthur, he reminded himself, but it was so hard when the person doing all this looked like Arthur, sounded like Arthur. Ate breakfast like Arthur, starting with the bread and cutting the eggs into small pieces.
“How is Elyan?” Arthur asked, and for a moment it almost sounded as though there was a flicker of concern in his tone.
Merlin moved to make the bed. “He'll be fine. The head wound will heal completely, Gaius says. He broke his arm as well, so no training for some time.”
“Hm,” was Arthur's noncommittal response. “So you were helping Gaius for the whole day yesterday?”
“For the most part, yes,” Merlin replied warily. It felt so foreign acting on-edge around someone who he... well, considered his best friend.
“Well from now on I expect you to answer to me before you help Gaius,” Arthur informed him, waving a butter knife in his direction. “If it hadn't been for George I would have been left unattended to all day. As it is, he is about ten times more competent than you.”
Merlin didn't dignify that with a response, instead rolling his eyes when he thought Arthur wasn't looking. Unfortunately for him, the king happened to glance over at him at that moment, and his face creased in anger.
“Such disrespect will not be tolerated, Merlin.”
Merlin swallowed, hating how the ensorcelled Arthur continued to say his name as though he was still in his right mind. It made the line between enchanted and unenchanted uncomfortably blurry.
“Sorry,” he said quietly, tugging the sheets straight and moving over to the changing screen to fold the clothes strewn on the floor around it.
“You really are useless, aren't you?” Arthur muttered, cruelly. “I don't know why we bother to keep you around. I don't think I've ever seen you do anything useful in your life.”
“You must have quite a bad memory then,” Merlin murmured, just a bit too loudly, as Arthur shot him a withering look. He quickly clamped his mouth shut and concentrated on his work. I really need to learn to keep these things inside my head.
It seemed Arthur was hankering for a fight. He shoved his chair back from the table with a loud scrape.
“Are you talking back to me?” he asked irritably.
“You're talking back to me.” Arthur's brows furrowed so deeply they nearly amalgamated into a single, bristling monobrow. “I can't believe it. You confront me yesterday as though your opinion actually means something, you abandon your duties, you waltz in here late and start rolling your eyes and muttering under your breath like some sort of unruly schoolchild... it's embarrassing, Merlin, you're really just one big embarrassment, aren't you?”
Merlin bit his lip and tried to ignore the comments, though they cut him to his core. It's not Arthur, he told himself, it's not Arthur, it's not Arthur, it's not Arthur. Just like how Leon wasn't Leon when he was possessed by the Lamia and Percival wasn't Percival and Gwaine wasn't Gwaine. It's not Arthur.
“Don't you agree, Merlin?” Arthur asked mockingly.
“Agree with what, sire?” Merlin replied wearily. He tried to cross the room but Arthur reached out and grabbed his wrist, yanking him back.
“That you're completely and utterly useless,” Arthur said smoothly, staring at Merlin intensely. The pure disdain in his eyes was too much to bear, and Merlin looked down at the floor instead. He absently noticed that Arthur's boots needed a bit of a polish.
“Well? Answer me!”
“Why are you doing this?” Merlin couldn't help asking, quietly.
“Why? This is exactly why, Merlin, I'm the king, I don't have to answer myself to a lowly servant! This stops now, okay?” Whatever this spell was, it was sending Arthur seriously out of control, because what had started as mild annoyance seemed to have blown out of proportion into a violent rage. His face was flushed with anger, lips curling into a snarl as his grip tightened, twisting Merlin's wrist until he cried out in pain.
“We're not friends, Merlin, do you get that? I am the king and you are a servant, drill that into your thick skull! You are a servant, and a rubbish one at that! You're worthless! You shouldn't even be allowed in the same room as me for fear you may contaminateme with your ineptitude. We aren't friends, and we never were friends! All this time you've been nothing but an annoyance, you get that?”
“You're hurting me,” Merlin said softly, pulling at his wrist.
“Don't talk to me!” And then Arthur raised a hand again, and something in Merlin just panicked. He ripped his arm from Arthur's grasp and stumbled back, eyes squeezing shut. For a few moments he stood, breathing heavily, and when he opened his eyes again Arthur had lowered his hand and was staring at him in disgust.
“Don't look at me,” Arthur ordered, and Merlin dropped his gaze to the floor, feeling numb.
“Get out of my sight,” Arthur continued, coldly. “George will serve me for today, but I expect you to polish my armour and clean out the stables. Be down in the training field with my weapons by this afternoon. If you're even a minute late... well, let's just say that being fired will be the least of your worries.”
Merlin croaked out something that vaguely resembled 'yes sire' and exited the room. When the door shut behind him he pressed himself against the wall. Raising a hand, he realised that he was trembling. His wrist where Arthur had grabbed him was reddened and throbbing slightly. If it wasn't sprained it was definitely badly bruised.
Shaken, that was probably the only word to describe how he was feeling. Stunned, too. The rational part of his mind was telling him that it's not. Arthur. Morgana is doing this deliberately. Trying to turn you against him. Don't. Let. It. Work.
But at the same time, running through his head over and over, we were never friends! You're worthless... just an annoyance... all this time... we're not friends, we were never friends.
Merlin took a deep breath. He rubbed his eyes, blinking away the few tears that had formed. Don't let him get to you, he told himself, but it was hard. It was so hard.
“Merlin?” came a tentative voice, and he looked up to see George. The other servant seemed painfully awkward as he came up to Merlin, raised a hand as though to touch his shoulder, then let it drop. Merlin swiped at his eyes again, trying to compose himself.
“Is everything alright?” George asked quietly, and Merlin nodded.
“Y-yeah. Fine,” he said, clearing his throat a few times. “I'm fine. You should probably go and serve his majesty.”
George stared at him a moment longer, blinking owlishly, then nodded. He gave Merlin's arm a brisk pat before entering the room.
Shaking himself, Merlin strode off back to Gaius' chambers, hoping he'd found some way to cure Arthur, and quickly.
Elyan winced as he adjusted the sling his arm was kept in. He was glad it wasn't his sword arm – that would have made things even more difficult than they already were. He let out a yelp of pain as Gaius prodded at a particularly sore spot on his head.
“Sorry,” the physician said, “It's healing up well. There's no sign of infection. Keep taking the medicine I gave you last night. Did Percival wake you every hour as I requested?”
“Down to the second,” Elyan replied with a slight grin.
There was a clatter as the door opened and Merlin came in. Elyan glanced over at him in concern – his face was pale and drawn, miserable, almost, and though he smiled at the knight as he entered, it looked painfully forced. It was a far cry from his usual cheerful demeanour, and was rather worrying – though Elyan couldn't exactly blame him. If his own experience was anything to go by, Arthur wasn't exactly a joy to be around right now.
He was almost glad that Gwen wasn't here to see her king and beloved in this state. He hated to think how she might be inadvertently hurt... though at the same time, it angered him to think of her banishment. Arthur's reaction had been rash – he'd never known his sister to deliberately do harm to anyone, and from what he'd heard she and Lancelot had merely kissed, and gone no further.
It was this partly this resentment that had led him to rebel against the king yesterday, and though he knew Arthur was not responsible for his actions, being enchanted, he still felt a lingering coldness towards the man.
“Merlin! Everything alright?” Gaius asked, rewrapping Elyan's head.
Merlin slumped down at the table and buried his head in his sleeves. “Arthur's being... well, you know,” he mumbled, voice muffled by his shirt.
Gaius patted him on the head as he walked by to the medicine cabinet. “Try keep your spirits up. I've been looking through my books and have found various spells that can induce this kind of behaviour. We'll have to narrow it down, but we're past square one.”
“What happened to your arm?” Elyan asked, moving to sit next to Merlin at the table and reaching over to pick at the hem of his sleeve.
Merlin shifted his arm away, moving it to his lap. “Nothing.”
“Was it Arthur?” Elyan gave him a sympathetic look and after a moment's hesitation Merlin turned his face to look up at him and gave a nod.
Elyan sighed. “I'll give this to Morgana – she's clever. It's going to be weeks before I can look at Arthur without wanting to punch him in the face.”
“And that is exactly what she wants.” Gaius sat down with them, dropping a heavy book down on the table and flipping it open. “The two of you – and the other knights – must remember that this is not Arthur. His behaviour is not his own. He's going to feel bad enough when he's recovered without the lot of you making it worse for him.”
“We won't make it worse for him,” Merlin grumbled. “Well, not much. I might rib him about the economics tantrum.” The talk of Arthur returning to his right state seemed to cheer him up a bit, and Elyan felt his anger ebb away slightly.
“You'll do no such thing,” Gaius said sternly. He slid the book across to Elyan. “Look at the bookmarked pages; see if any seem to fit Arthur's actions particularly. Merlin, let me see your arm.”
Elyan took the book and awkwardly began struggling to turn pages with only one hand. Merlin himself reluctantly stuck out his wrist to Gaius, who prodded at it, drawing monotonous 'ow's from his apprentice every two seconds.
They sat quietly for the next few minutes, Elyan poring over the pages while Gaius heated a poultice for Merlin, who then complained it was too hot.
“Does this sound like the one?” Elyan asked finally, turning the book to show Gaius the page he'd been looking at.
There was a long pause as the old man stared intensely at the page, Merlin peering over his shoulder. Slowly, the physician began to nod. A frown spread over his face.
“Well?” Merlin demanded impatiently.
“This is bad,” Gaius said finally. He gave them both a serious look, eyebrow descending solemnly over one eye. “This is very bad.”
“My lord,” Agravaine said with a bow as he entered the throne room. Arthur was seated in his chair, George kneeling at his feet polishing his boots.
“Yes, Uncle?” Arthur asked flatly. “What news?”
“I have issued your command for the grape farmers to double their production by next month, else their taxes will rise,” Agravaine said. “I still believe this is an unwise decision-”
“Didn't ask for your opinion, Uncle,” Arthur said with a yawn. “Have you anything else to tell me?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Agravaine said, stepping forward. He glanced down at George. “Alone, if I may.”
Arthur waved a hand and George obediently rose, snapping his polishing cloth as he clicked his heels together, bowed at the waist and swept out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Agravaine moved closer to Arthur. “I regret having to tell you this, Arthur, but in recent days I've noticed your knights engaging in... suspicious behaviour. I fear they may have designs against you.”
Arthur stiffened. “What do you mean?”
Agravaine adopted a worried expression. “It's nothing definite, my lord. As you know, Sir Elyan actively disobeyed you yesterday.... I fear that some of the other knights may follow suit. They seem to have taken issue with your decisions of late. In particular... Sir Gwaine.”
Arthur's expression hardened. He remained in thought for a moment, Agravaine watched him expectantly.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said finally. “I shall deal with the matter as I see fit.”
“I know you'll do what's in the best interests for Camelot,” Agravaine replied, and bowed.
He managed to refrain from smiling until he had left the room.
“What is that?” Elyan asked, pointing at the picture in the book – an ink sketch of a serpent-like creature. It had the hood of a cobra, long fangs protruding from its mouth and two small wings attached to its scaly, legless body. He had never seen such a creature before.
Gaius grimaced. “It is called a kholera. I had thought they were long extinct... where Morgana managed to find one is beyond me.”
“But what does it do?” Merlin questioned, shifting to get a better look at the book.
“The venom of this creature, when mixed with certain other chemicals, can cause an imbalance of humours in the body. An excess of choler, or yellow bile, can impact on a person's behaviour and habits,” Gaius explained. “Choler is associated with an irritable and easily angered temperament. When combined with magic this venom could easily produce the effects we've seen in Arthur.”
“So we've found it then,” Merlin said hopefully.
Gaius shook his head. “Not quite, I'm afraid... we still need to know which spell Morgana used to produce such potent effects.”
“How will you find that?” Elyan asked, and suddenly both Gaius and Merlin looked a bit shifty.
“We'll find a way,” was Gaius' rather meaningless response. “Now, Elyan, you should rest. I'm still worried about that head injury of yours.”
“You said it was healing nicely.”
“Well, yes, but we don't want you under too much strain... just in case.”
Elyan rolled his eyes, knowing when he was not wanted. “Alright. One last thing – what's so bad about this... coleric?”
“Kholera,” Gaius corrected, looking worried again. “The ingredients needed to counteract the poison are difficult to find... and if too much time passes, the body can adjust to the imbalance of humours and the effects may become permanent.”
Merlin blanched so violently at this last statement that Elyan was seriously worried he would faint.
“How much time do we have?” the servant asked hoarsely, and Gaius shook his head.
“I can't tell, not without knowing how large a dose of the venom Morgana gave him,” he said.
“How did she give it to him?” Elyan mused. “He hasn't been out of Camelot in weeks.”
“Even within Camelot Morgana has agents,” Gaius replied ominously, sharing a look with Merlin that Elyan didn't quite understand. Deciding to let them keep their secrets, he nodded, standing.
“I'll leave you to it, then... let me know if you need any help,” he added as he left.
“Thank you Elyan,” Gaius replied absently, already bending over the book with Merlin.
As soon as the door shut behind Elyan Merlin sat heavily in a chair and tried very hard not to start hyperventilating.
“You need to calm down,” Gaius told him, which Merlin thought was rather unhelpful. Oh, y'know, just keep calm and carry on when every moment Arthur was in danger of being stuck like this for, well, ever.
“We need to reverse this,” Merlin said flatly, resting his elbows on the table. “What ingredients do we need for the anti-venom?”
“Most of the chemical components I can acquire from the apothecary if I don't have them already. It's just these two that will be difficult to find.” Gaius tapped the page with one gnarled finger. “This flower grows only in the mountains far north of here, on the border of Lot's kingdom.”
Merlin tilted his head. “I might have a way to get that,” he said, thinking of Kilgharrah. The dragon might not be happy at being used as a courier so soon after he'd already done Merlin one favour, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
Gaius blinked at him. “Alright then,” he said. “We'll also need a sample of Arthur's fevered blood.”
“Fevered?” Merlin inquired. “As in, we'll have to make him ill?”
Gaius shook his head. “I believe it's metaphorical – the fever of rage, the symptom of a choleric.”
“We have to make Arthur angry,” Merlin said flatly. “And then get some of his blood.”
“Well, I said it wouldn't be easy,” Gaius replied. He shut the book with a weary sigh. “But you'll have to do it somehow.”
“Oh right, yeah, I'll have to do it,” Merlin muttered a bit petulantly, then sighed. He'd never been one to shy away from the hard tasks required by his destiny. “I'll get it for you. As for the spell...”
“There should be something in your book about how to detect enchantments cast by other magic users,” Gaius informed him. “Whatever it is, you'll have to make sure you stay in Arthur's employment so you can get close to him.”
Merlin grimaced, acknowledging that right now Arthur firing him was a distinct possibility. And speaking of firing...
“What time is it?!” he suddenly realised, leaping up from his seat and racing to the door. “I was meant to be at the training field!”
“Calm down, you're not late yet,” Gaius told him. “But you'd best hurry. And Merlin!” he called after his apprentice as he began to leave.
Merlin turned to look at him, and Gaius frowned slightly, his gaze flickering down to Merlin's arm before returning to his face.
“Try not to provoke him,” Gaius said quietly, and Merlin gave a solemn nod before dashing out.
Fortunately for Merlin, Arthur had been delayed in the meeting he was in, so Merlin managed to arrive there before him. A few of the knights greeted him with waves or smiles, and he managed some smiles back, absently noticed that most of the soldiers looked rather unhappy. He supposed those who weren't aware Arthur was under an enchantment must be rather put out by his recent behaviour.
“Merlin!” Leon was striding over to him, looking worried. He made as if to clap a hand down on Merlin's shoulder and the servant couldn't help automatically startling back. Arthur's violent behaviour of late had left him jumpy and skitterish. Leon gazed at him in concern before drawing his hand away.
“Are you and Gaius any closer to a cure?” he asked quietly. “He's getting worse. Demanding outlandish things of the farmers... I think some of them mean to go on strike. There's already mutterings among the nobles about his behaviour. Morgana's plan is working like a charm... pun not intended.”
“We know how to make part of the cure,” Merlin told him. “It shouldn't be long now...” he trailed off as he saw Arthur approaching over Leon's shoulder. George was with him, carrying his armour and weapons, somehow managing not to drop things all over the place. Merlin honestly didn't know how he did it; it was as though he had some sort of superhuman serving powers.
“Right men,” Arthur said, rubbing his hands together. He looked around as his knights gathered from their various spots around the field, Percival moving over to Leon and Merlin from where he'd been standing nearby sharpening his sword.
“We're going to break off into two groups. Leon, you'll work on drills with half the men. The rest of us will pair off and work on breaking through a shield defence.” Arthur began dividing the knights into two groups. Merlin looked around and frowned.
Leon looked to Percival, who shrugged.
“I haven't seen him all day,” he replied, “I figured he was out on patrol or maybe in the tavern.”
Merlin groaned. Surely Gwaine wouldn't be so stupid as to spend too much time in the tavern and risk setting Arthur off in this state.
Arthur now turning towards them, Leon gave Merlin a final worried glance before walking off to begin training, Percival trailing along behind him. George had helped Arthur into his armour in record time and was now being dismissed, bowing three times as he left. Merlin thought he must be quite dizzy from all the bobbing up and down.
Arthur stalked over to Merlin and thrust a shield into his arms. Merlin caught it automatically. Arthur didn't seem particularly bothered by Gwaine's absence and Merlin's alarm bells, which had been getting a lot of exercise lately, began to ring frantically.
“Um, sire, may I ask something?” he ventured cautiously.
“Ask away, Merlin,” Arthur replied with a sneer. “I imagine you must have many questions, being as ignorant and empty-headed as you are.”
Merlin ignored the jibe. “Where is Sir Gwaine?” he inquired, hoping that Arthur had merely sent him off to do something and that he wasn't getting his friend in trouble by revealing his absence.
Arthur didn't bat an eyelid. “Gwaine will not be joining us for training today,” he replied smoothly.
Merlin wasn't reassured. “Is he out on patrol?” he asked.
“I've never met such a nosey parker,” Arthur snapped. “What he's doing is none of your business. Unless there's something you'd like to tell me,” he added thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes at the servant.
Merlin had no idea what he was talking about. “Well, you did say I could ask away,” was all he came out with, which he promptly realised was completely the wrong thing to say as Arthur slapped him roughly on the back of the head.
“We really must work on this whole talking back thing, Merlin,” the king hissed. “You know, there hasn't been a flogging in quite some time. I don't want my royal flagellator to get out of shape, do I?”
Merlin's blood ran cold. The last time someone had been publicly whipped it had been a soldier who had deserted from Uther's army. It was a horrific sight, especially afterwards when the man was carried groaning into Gaius' workroom where Merlin had to clean the bloody streaks on his back. A horrible infection had set in days later and the man had died in agony.
Arthur was still looking at him expectantly and Merlin dropped his gaze, mumbling an apology, hating Morgana and trying his hardest not to hate Arthur. It's not his fault. He can't control it, he repeated to himself for the hundredth time that day.
Arthur gave a grunt of satisfaction before raising his sword and beginning his drills. Merlin raised the shield in silence, wincing as every blow jarred his bruised wrist. He felt utterly miserable, knowing that later that day he'd have to trek all the way out again to call the dragon, then walk back, and he still had to muck out the stables for Arthur or else face the consequences, and on top of all that Gwaine had now mysteriously vanished.
Life, Merlin decided, was royally against him.
Gaius rubbed his eyes as the writing on the page blurred in front of him. He hadn't realised so much time had passed since he started reading up on how to mix the antidote to the kholera venom. He was exhausted – and hungry, he realised as his stomach let out a rather absurd noise, but Merlin wasn't back yet and he didn't want to start eating without him.
There was a knock at the door, making him jump slightly.
“Come in!” Gaius called, and Leon and Percival entered.
“Gaius,” Leon said with a nod of greeting. He looked tired, dark shadows under his eyes, shoulders slumped under the thin shirt he wore in place of armour. It seemed both knights were off duty for the day – later than usual, as the enchanted Arthur was working everyone in his employment to full capacity.
“Leon,” Gaius replied. “Percival.” Percival gave him a smile and moved to sit by the fire.
“Where's Merlin?” Leon asked, looking around.
“Cleaning out the stables. He had to go... gather some things for me in the woods earlier,” Gaius said. Merlin had told him that they'd have the flower by tomorrow, which was one good thing, at least.
Leon sighed, rubbing a hand over his beard. “The situation in the court is bad. Nobles are leaving left right and centre, three fiefs have refused to obey Arthur's demands and the grape farmers are on the verge of striking.”
“We'll have a cure soon,” Gaius reassured him.
Leon sighed again. “That's not entirely why we came. Have you seen Gwaine at all?”
“Not since yesterday,” Gaius replied with a frown.
Leon and Percival exchanged a glance. Gaius' eyebrow shot up in alarm.
“Why, what is it?” he inquired, worried.
“We haven't seen him all day,” Percival said. “Merlin asked Arthur where he was but he wouldn't say. As far as the other knights know he isn't out on an assignment, either.”
“Have you checked the taverns?”
“Of course we've checked the taverns,” Leon replied. He was starting to look seriously stressed, and Gaius momentarily considered giving him the tonic he'd been going to give Arthur back when this all started.
The door opened then, and Merlin staggered in and slumped down on the nearest chair. He threw his jacket at the cloak rack and missed, the garment dropping to the floor.
“You alright?” Percival asked him, and Merlin gave a tired nod.
“Just exhausted,” he replied with a yawn, reaching up to loosen his neckerchief. “I swear Arthur's horses produce more dung than any other animal in Camelot. I don't know what he feeds them.”
“You didn't happen to see Gwaine around out there, did you?” Percival asked, not sounding very hopeful.
Merlin shook his head, face pinching with worry. “You still haven't found him?”
Both knights shook their heads. Gaius let out a worried sigh.
“We'll have the flower soon; Merlin just needs to get us the blood.”
“The blood?” Leon asked in alarm. “The sound of that concerns me.”
“Nothing to worry about, we just need to get Arthur angry and then somehow extract a bit of his bodily sanguine,” Merlin muttered. He tipped his chair back on its hind legs but in his tired state managed to overbalance and crash to the floor.
“Ow,” he said, after a moment of stunned silence.
Percival moved over to help him up. Leon appeared deep in thought, when suddenly he raised a finger.
“Got it!” he declared. “He has a council meeting early tomorrow morning – that's when messenger birds usually arrive and it's best to deal with them as quickly as possible. I'll tell him the grape farmers are refusing to work; that'll send him into a rage. Then he'll come back to his chambers for breakfast and you can... well, I don't know how you're going to get him to start bleeding all over the place.”
“I'll think of something,” Merlin replied grimly.
Gaius nodded. “It's a good plan. Better that Arthur is angry from council sessions and not because Merlin's deliberately provoked him.” The unspoken that way he's less likely to beat you up hung in the air around them.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, well... as long as no one's getting flogged, I'm good with the plan,” he joked weakly, but it fell flat as the three older men adopted grim expressions.
There was a rather awkward pause before Leon finally stood, clapping his hands together briskly.
“Well! We should all get some rest. If Gwaine's still not around tomorrow morning I'll talk to Agravaine about it.”
Gaius and Merlin exchanged displeased looks, but there was nothing much they could do to prevent that. The two knights exited, and the rest of the night was spent in rather dismal silence.
Merlin was really getting sick of walking out to this clearing. In order to make the journey and get back in time to serve Arthur breakfast, he had had to wake up three hours before dawn. It was pitch black and he'd fallen down the stairs and banged his knee, and his legs were already aching. Had already been aching from the walk the day before, not to mention the new bruises he'd acquired over his arms from Arthur's rigorous training session. And his wrist still hurt when he moved it too quickly.
Yes, there was certainly a lot to complain about this morning.
He didn't need to call Kilgharrah; the dragon was already waiting for him. The flower lay on the ground in front of him in a pool of dragon saliva, looking rather sad and wilted. It was a quite horrid looking flower – bright orange and covered in little black spots. Not the most attractive blossom, to be sure.
“Thank you,” Merlin said, mustering a tired smile as he bent and picked up the flower, wrapping it in his handkerchief.
Kilgharrah grunted, breath misting in the cold dawn air. “You know how to break the enchantment, then?”
“Working on it,” Merlin replied. His legs finally protested and gave out, and he sat heavily on the ground in a rather undignified manner. Kilgharrah snorted at him in concern and Merlin wafted mist out of his face.
“Do not let this event form a rift between you and Arthur,” Kilgharrah warned suddenly.
Easy for you to say, Merlin thought rather sourly. The dragon proceeded to do his usual blather about destiny, this time using a rather strange and disturbing vegetable analogy (intertwined roots beneath the soil! No euphemism intended... or at least, Merlin hoped not) and Merlin found himself zoning out. He felt vaguely guilty for not listening to the wise dragon's well-intentioned advice, but he was simply too tired to even think about destiny right now.
Finally Kilgharrah huffed at him, obviously realising his words were falling on deaf ears.
“Take care of yourself, young warlock,” were his parting words before he turned and flew off, wheeling once in the sky above before vanishing into the distance.
Merlin rose, wincing as his legs tingled, the limbs having gone to sleep. He wearily began the long walk back, tiredly hoping that this whole mess would be cleared up before it could give him a stomach ulcer.
The cooks had garnished Arthur's breakfast with cherries, which were out of season, obviously aiming to cheer him up. Had these been normal circumstances, Merlin would have nicked one of the fruits to try, but as it was he was too terrified of Arthur's wrath to even touch his meal, leaving it in the centre of the table before moving to clean up the room, waiting for the king to come in.
Angry, stomping footsteps foretold Arthur's arrival moments before the door burst open, crashing against the far wall and causing Merlin to jump nearly out of his skin, even though he was expecting the noise.
Whatever Leon had told Arthur, it had obviously worked – not that it took much to rile the king up nowadays. He swept a goblet off the table with a loud crash, then threw a plate at the wall.
“Those bloody peasants!” he roared. Merlin stood by the wall and kept his eyes trained on the floor, hating the way his heart was racing and his hands beginning to shake slightly. Damn you, Morgana, he thought, because it was a cruel, cruel thing, to make the sight of his own best friend inspire fear in him.
Arthur sat heavily at the table and Merlin crept forward to shut the door gently and pick up the fallen crockery, wiping it with a dishcloth before setting it back on the table.
“Breakfast, sire?” he asked in nearly a whisper. Arthur was rubbing his temples again, obviously in the grip of a splitting headache, and Merlin felt a stab of sympathy for him. He made a mental note to ask Gaius for a migraine tonic later on.
“Of course I want breakfast you moron, I haven't eaten all morning,” Arthur growled.
Merlin didn't react to his harsh tone, just set out the food in front of him and passed him a knife. He went to make the bed, watching from the corner of his eye as Arthur began to eat, muttering all the while about stubborn commoners and lost export revenue.
Finally, as Arthur moved to spear a piece of cheese, Merlin looked up and whispered a spell, his eyes flashing briefly golden. There was a pained yell as the knife slipped and sliced into Arthur's hand. Merlin winced at his miscalculation – he'd intended it to cut Arthur's fingers a little, not slash him across the palm.
“Merlin!” Arthur hollered, as though this was his servant's fault somehow – well, it kind of was, but he didn't know that.
“Arth- sire! Are you alright?” Merlin rushed forward, brandishing his hankie, and pressed it against the wound, blood quickly soaking through the thin fabric. The next thing he knew, Arthur was shoving him roughly backwards. He tripped over his own feet and landed on his backside on the floor.
Arthur clutched his injured hand, livid with rage.
“Don't touch me, you idiot! You'll just make it worse,” he snarled, snatching up a napkin and clenching his fist around it, blood already smearing the tablecloth and spattering onto the floor. Merlin scrambled to his feet.
“Don't clench your muscles like that,” he told the king, “you should hold your hand above your head.”
“Did I ask for your worthless opinion?” Arthur hissed, lashing out at him. The slap caught Merlin across the face. It wouldn't have been so bad if Arthur hadn't still been wearing his heavy signet ring from the earlier meeting. The metal cut Merlin across the lip and he tasted blood, falling to the floor again and grazing his palms against the floorboards.
“Umph,” was all he could manage, shocked from the pain and the suddenness of Arthur's violent reaction. He stayed down, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve, but it seemed Arthur wasn't finished yet. A boot drove into Merlin's side, knocking him flat to the ground as he yelped in surprise.
“I should have you whipped. I really should,” Arthur spat at him, and Merlin flinched, looking away, remaining curled on the floor. His heart was pounding, he could feel it in his chest, his ears, the tips of his fingers. He focused on the drip-drip-drip of blood from Arthur's hand to the floor. It was oddly mesmerising.
“Get up and clean up this mess,” Arthur finally said, coldly, turning away to wash his hand in the water basin.
Merlin scrambled to his feet, stumbling as he nearly tripped. He rubbed his side, which felt like it was already starting to bruise. He cleaned up in silence, grimacing at the stark red bloodstains on the white tablecloth. Those wouldn't be coming out any time soon.
“Pass me a bandage,” Arthur ordered after a bit, and Merlin cast about for a medicine box – one was usually kept in each of the royal bedchambers, in case of emergency. He found it quickly and gingerly handed a roll of bandages over, snatching his fingers back when they brushed Arthur's hand as if the contact burned.
Arthur seemed to be struggling to tie the bandage one-handed, but Merlin didn't particularly want to offer to help. He returned to his earlier chores, settling down to polish Arthur's shoes as the king sat down to finish his breakfast.
An uneasy calm settled over the room.
Merlin's lip stung. He prodded at it with his tongue and cringed as he accidentally opened the wound again. It was getting harder and harder, he realised with dismay, to separate Arthur's actions from Arthur himself. After three days with this new, cruel king, he found himself looking back on memories of happier times with almost a sense of hopelessness and regret. And how long ago had it been since he sat on this same floor, polishing boots, with an Arthur who sat down next to him and smiled and asked if he was alright, and apologised for throwing water over him (well, if one could call it an apology, considering it consisted more of playful roughhousing than words of regret)?
“Where were you yesterday?” Arthur asked suddenly.
Merlin looked up in surprise. “Here in Camelot,” he replied, and Arthur threw a cup at him. Merlin ducked and it hit the wall behind him.
“Don't even attempt to lie to me,” Arthur said coldly. “I had my guards monitoring all the exits and reporting who went in or out. Two hours after noon you left via the west gate and didn't return for some time. Where were you?”
Since he could hardly respond with 'visiting a dragon to save you, you prat', Merlin replied with his favourite excuse: “Picking herbs for Gaius.”
“Why would you lie about that?” Arthur pointed out. He sounded strangely calm, a far cry from his earlier erratic behaviour. Somehow it was even more terrifying. “I think, Merlin, that you are hiding something from me.”
“I think you may be plotting against me.”
And okay, didn't expect that one. Merlin blinked a few times and croaked out, “Sire, I assure you, I have nothing but the utmost loyalty.”
“My uncle has already reported to me that several people who I thought were close friends of mine were secretly working towards my downfall,” Arthur said cooly, and Merlin had a sudden sinking feeling. “Of course, I have yet to elicit confessions from them, but it's only a matter of time.”
Merlin was struck by the parallels he was drawing between Arthur's current behaviour and the late king's in regard to magic – Uther had obviously been a choleric. He wondered if excessive paranoia was another side effect of the enchantment. Most of his thoughts, however, were occupied with a whirling stream of oh no, oh no, what has he done with Gwaine?
“So let me tell you something, Merlin,” Arthur finally said, sucking cherry juice from his fingertips. “I have my eye on you. And if I see something I don't like..... well, let's just say that the punishment for treason is quite severe.”
Merlin found it very difficult to swallow, as all the saliva in his mouth seemed to have spontaneously evaporated. As it was, he nodded, stiffly, and slowly put the boots down.
Arthur chose that moment to rise, give Merlin one last intense stare, and stalk out, snatching his jacket along the way. Merlin remained seated on the floor and as soon as the door swung shut behind Arthur, he indulged in a brief moment of panic, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping trembling arms around them as he breathed in and out raggedly.
It took him almost five minutes to calm down, a fact which he tried not to dwell on as he rose. He forced himself to act normally, taking the plates back to the kitchen and forcing a smile for the cook. It dropped off his face as he hurried back towards Gaius' chambers, hand going to the bloodied handkerchief in his pocket.
They had to break this enchantment. Now.
Agravaine turned to see Sir Leon hurrying towards him. He stopped, pasting a pleasant smile on his face to cover his initial annoyance. He had been about to slip away to report back to Morgana.
“What is it, Sir Leon?” he asked.
Leon drew to a halt in front of him. “I must speak with you for a minute. It's about the king.”
“Ah.” Agravaine hadn't expected the knights to sit idly by and let Arthur do what he was doing – and with the facade he himself was putting on, as the concerned advisor trying vainly to protest Arthur's actions, it was natural that they would come to him for help. “Of course. Step in here a minute.”
They moved into a small antechamber and he shut the door behind them.
“Arthur has just informed me that he is sending a patrol of men to Canaad's kingdom.” Canaad had succeeded his cousin Cenred on the throne. A proud and vindictive men, he was no friend of Camelot and peace between the two countries was tenuous. “He fears that Canaad intends to invade, but sending a patrol out may be seen as an act of war.”
Agravaine nodded emphatically, internally cackling with glee. This was even better than he'd hoped! The prospect of bringing about a war would surely turn the people against Arthur – and if Morgana could step in to stop it happening, they'd see her as a heroine... and a prospective queen.
“Terrible!” was what he said out loud. “I will speak to him at once and see if I can deter him.”
Leon nodded, looking relieved. “One other thing.... Gwaine.”
Agravaine gave a solemn nod. “I'm sorry, Leon, but there was evidence that he was planning to overthrow Arthur... or at least take advantage of this precarious situation.”
“Gwaine would never do such a thing!”
“Perhaps Arthur misread the signs. It wasn't just Sir Gwaine – Sir Gavin, Lord Byron and three pages have also been thrown in the dungeons. I'll see what I can do about it, but I must say, it's not hopeful. All Arthur needs is a confession and he'll have them executed for treason.”
“But they're innocent!” Poor Leon had such a sense of justice. He sounded so indignant. Agravaine almost felt sorry for him.
Agravaine patted him on the shoulder. “I'll see what I can do,” he lied placatingly, and Leon gave a nod in return.
“Thank you,” he said, and Agravaine smiled at him reassuringly. Finally the knight left and after waiting a moment longer to ensure the coast was clear, he set off for the forest and Morgana.
Elyan seemed to have taken to lurking in Gaius' chambers, as with one arm out of action there was little he could do around the place.
Merlin had hoped that Gaius would be alone when he came in, not wanting any of the knights to see him in his current, rather miserable state. As it was, as soon as he entered the physician's chambers, Elyan rose from his seat and walked over to him with a cry of “Merlin!”
“What?” Merlin asked, hand rising to his mouth.
Elyan drew to a halt in front of him, hovering awkwardly for a moment before gesturing at his face. “Are you alright?” he asked finally. By now Gaius had emerged from where he'd been rummaging in the cupboard and was striding over, looking concerned.
“I'm fine,” Merlin replied, making a mental note to go to the nearest mirror and see how bad he looked. “I got the blood,” he added, producing the handkerchief and waving it triumphantly.
Gaius came over and took the square of cloth, giving Merlin a brief stare before turning away to his workbench where various bottles of coloured glass were laid out along with the flower. Finally they could get started on the cure.
“What happened?” Elyan asked quietly.
Merlin shifted, his gaze dropping automatically to the floor. “He was just angry, y'know.... I'm fine. But he thinks Gwaine's plotting to take over his kingdom,” he added worriedly, and Elyan's brows furrowed.
“That's not good,” the knight said, stating the obvious. “Well, at least we know he's not dead. Traitors are always publicly executed.”
“How reassuring.” Merlin moved to stand at Gaius' shoulder. The old man was painstakingly adding drops of different liquids to a mixing bowl. As Merlin watched, he crushed the flower with a pestle and mortar. A horrible smell like expired milk wafted into the air, and Merlin wrinkled his nose.
“How're we gonna get him to drink this?” he mused aloud.
“I'll tell him it's a headache tonic,” Gaius replied absently, dropping the handkerchief into a bowl of water. Red bloomed into the liquid as blood seeped out of the hankie. “Merlin,” he added under his breath, glancing up to make sure Elyan was distracted, “You need to find out what spell Morgana used. The book's on your bed; I marked the page.”
Merlin nodded. As he turned to leave, his chest twinged where Arthur had kicked him earlier, and he grimaced. Now that things were in action it wouldn't be long before the king was cured.
Then everything would be back to normal.
The spell to detect other spells was ridiculously hard to pronounce. Merlin fancied himself pretty good with the language of the Old Religion, but this one was practically a tongue twister and he'd never been that good at articulation to begin with (Gaius frequently told him to 'stop mumbling').
According to the book he needed to utter the spell either on Arthur himself or on a material object he had frequent contact with. Apparently he would then sense the nature of the enchantment that had been cast on him.
Seemed simple enough, right?
Wrong. Casting it on Arthur himself was out of the question (now would be literally the worst time for the king to find out about his magic) but he didn't have a chance to get into the king's chambers all day as he was kept running around doing various chores.
First Arthur decided to go on a hunt, which was a miserable experience for everyone that ended with three knights being sent to the stocks when Arthur decided they were too noisy, and Merlin being slapped twice more for scaring off prey. Poor Sir Leon had to watch on in distress – it had been silently agreed that it was best for him to try and remain on Arthur's good side, so he could do nothing but stand by and refrain from protesting the king's actions.
After the hunt came a long and painful court session. Percival and a troupe of soldiers were to be sent off to patrol Canaad's border, despite Agravaine's protests about “starting a completely unnecessary war!”
“Your majesty,” a plump counsellor piped up in a quivering voice. “If I may, should it come to war, we are heavily outnumbered by Canaad's men. Camelot would be in grave danger.”
“Conscription!” Arthur shouted cheerily, as though he was calling for a barmaid in a tavern.
Everyone in the room glanced at each other and discreetly pulled faces. And then, because life was against him, Merlin got shouted at for glaring at Agravaine and then accidentally looking Arthur in the eye, and was sent off to clean the castle latrines. He hadn't thought anything was more humiliating than mucking out stables, but the only thing worse than horse faeces were human faeces.
“I think we need to stop the cooks putting so much spice in things,” he declared as he stumbled into Gaius' chambers that evening, having finally been dismissed by Arthur five hours after sundown.
Gaius looked up. He was seated at the table, a potion bottle in front of him. Merlin flopped down in the chair opposite and muttered something about runny stool that Gaius really, really didn't need to know about. He pulled off his shirt and threw it across the room – thanks to Arthur's chores, laundry day was early this week.
“I've finished the potion,” Gaius informed him with a sympathetic smile.
“Thank heavens.” Merlin buried his head in his arms and stifled a yawn. “I think the whole castle's on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion. Can you believe Arthur's doubled all the patrols? He's certain that someone's going to betray him any minute and lead a raging army of rebels into Camelot.”
Gaius pulled a face. “Any word about Gwaine?” he asked. “Leon came by and told me he was in the dungeons.”
Merlin nodded. “I tried to get down to see him today but the guards wouldn't let me past,” he said, rubbing his arm where one of them had grabbed him and quite roughly marched him back up the stairs. He didn't blame the man; Arthur had been particularly hard on the foot soldiers. Half a dozen had already been fired.
“And the spell?” Gaius prompted, and Merlin sighed.
“I've not had the chance.”
Gaius' eyebrow spoke volumes. “Well go do it now, Merlin! We can't wait a moment longer!”
Merlin flinched back a bit at the exasperation in his voice and Gaius instantly looked stricken. Merlin hadn't thought it was possible to feel even more upset than he already did, but apparently it was.
“Sorry,” he murmured, swallowing.
Gaius shook his head and patted his arm. He grabbed a clean shirt that was hanging up to dry and handed it over to him. “You have nothing to apologise for,” he replied solemnly, and Merlin gave him a small smile.
For unknown reasons, Arthur was not asleep in his chambers, as he should have been at this hour. Merlin crept in, hoping that fate was on his side for once, and began poking about looking for an object he could use for the spell.
Arthur's sword wasn't there. Clothes were probably his next best option, but he wasn't sure if the fact that they were all freshly washed would affect it. He was rummaging through Arthur's desk looking for his royal seal, which he'd used a lot recently, when he heard the door opening and froze.
“What are you doing?” Arthur's voice demanded from behind him. Merlin slowly picked up the seal and put it in his belt pouch before turning around.
“Cleaning,” he replied hesitantly, looking at Arthur's boots. Boots! Now there would have been a good choice; Arthur never seemed to take the things off except for when he was sleeping. Unfortunately he'd probably miss their absence. No, the seal would do.
“Cleaning.” Arthur's tone dripped with disbelief. He strode over to Merlin, who cringed back, trapped between the king and the desk. “Why were you rifling through my documents?”
“I was organising them,” Merlin told the floor. The excuse sounded weak even to his own ears.
Suddenly Arthur's sword was drawn and pointing at him and Merlin's heart nearly stopped. He's going to kill me was his first frantic, panicked thought. A second later he realised how ridiculous that was. No he's not. Even enchanted he can't just murder a servant in his rooms for no reason... right?
“Raise your hands and step away from the desk,” Arthur ordered coldly, in the tone Merlin had heard him use when speaking to prisoners of war. He swallowed and did as he was commanded. Arthur kept the tip of the sword against his chest as he leaned forward and checked the desk, obviously seeing if anything was missing. He didn't seem to notice the lack of the seal, which Merlin was insanely relieved about.
As if the situation couldn't get any worse, Merlin just had to get himself deeper into trouble by spinning lies on top of lies. “I was, um, looking for the budget papers... Agravaine wanted to look at them.”
“I was just speaking to my uncle,” Arthur said flatly, “he seemed rather more concerned about war with Canaad.”
“Did I say Agravaine? I meant Byron.”
“Byron's in the dungeon,” Arthur said with a sneer. “Along with Sir Gwaine, who you seem to have a vested interest in.”
Merlin swallowed. “He's my friend,” he said softly.
“He's a traitor to Camelot and has been stirring the people against me. I've had him arrested for sedition. And you might very quickly be joining him.” The sword jabbed harder against Merlin's chest, pricking his skin slightly, and he stiffened, standing as still as possible.
Suddenly Arthur grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the wall. His head rebounded off the stone, sending stars flashing across his vision. Arthur squeezed his neck, crushing his windpipe and forcing the air from his lungs.
“What are you plotting?” Arthur hissed, his face very close to Merlin's. His eyes were narrowed and full of hate and rage. Merlin shoved ineffectually at his chest, trying to get him off. His lungs tightened; he couldn't breathe.
“Arthur,” he coughed, and Arthur slammed him against the wall again.
“Tell me what you were looking for! Was it my war plans?” Something seemed to click in Arthur's mind. “You're working for Canaad, not Gwaine.”
Merlin couldn't care less about what he was talking about, he just needed air, and needed some now. He dug his nails into Arthur's wrist, but the king's grip didn't loosen.
“Ealdor's in Cenred's kingdom, isn't it?” Arthur growled. “Your loyalties have never lain with Camelot.”
“I'm not...” Merlin choked out. He wanted to remind Arthur of all the times he'd fought against Cenred, of all his loyalties to Arthur's kingdom, but he didn't have the breath to do it. He felt his magic rising up, wanting to protect him and blast Arthur away from him, and desperately forced it back down.
Arthur abruptly let him go and Merlin collapsed to the floor, gasping and choking, wheezing pathetically. Blood roared in his ears and the room spun around him as he coughed.
“You're fired,” Arthur said cooly, the words distant and echoing in Merlin's ears, like something out of a nightmare. “I could have you executed, but I might yet have use for you. You're not to leave Camelot. My guards will be watching you.”
Merlin didn't respond. A part of him vaguely registered that for enchanted Arthur, this was quite lenient, but mostly he was focused on the burning in his throat and the fact that he still couldn't draw a full breath. Tears were spilling down his cheeks and he angrily wiped them away.
Arthur hauled him to his feet and propelled him out of the room. With an obnoxious “Goodnight!” he thrust Merlin into the hallway and slammed the door behind him.
Merlin collapsed against the wall, breathing raggedly, still trying to recover his senses. After what seemed like an age, the tightness in his throat and chest eased. He touched his neck gingerly and winced, pulling his neckerchief up higher to cover the bruises.
You have the seal, that's what matters, he told himself, but the look in Arthur's eyes haunted him, and he could still feel the hands choking him, pushing him against the wall... the same hands that had a thousand times patted him on the back, grasped his shoulder or ruffled his hair.
Not Arthur, he reminded himself, but the words, used so many times over the last few days, seemed to have lost their meaning from being repeated so often.
Morgana had used a spell that translated roughly to 'harden heart, induce rage'. To undo it, Merlin would have to combine two other spells together, 'unlock true heart' and 'restore balance'... which was easier said than done.
The next three days were gruelling. Despite being fired from Arthur's immediate service, he found himself busy during all his waking hours – all the castle servants had had their workloads doubled and as he was seen to be 'in disgrace' with the king, any odd jobs that no one else wanted landed on him. At nights he didn't sleep, poring over books, trying out spells and staring at the damned seal so often that the sight of it started to make him feel genuinely nauseous.
He missed Lancelot fiercely, suddenly feeling his absence more keenly than ever... and Gwen, and Gwaine. Sometimes, in the darkest hour of the night, he would find himself throwing the seal aside, overcome with waves of hopelessness and despair, tears pricking at his eyes.
Finally, when he felt stretched thin as paper, head pounding and hands trembling from exhaustion, he closed his eyes, picked up Gaius' potion, and whispered the spell. He didn't expect it to work, because his pronunciation was terrible and his mind dull from lack of sleep and overall he just wasn't bothered any more.
To his surprise, the bottle warmed in his hand, and he opened his eyes just in time to see the liquid glow briefly golden before settling on its usual putrid green colour.
“Gaius!” he called out, voice-cracking midway, and when the physician turned he handed him the bottle with a proud grin.
And promptly collapsed from fatigue.
George stared at his reflection in the Royal Boots, which had been polished until they were almost dangerously shiny. He allowed a half-smile to linger on his face as he set the shoes down and set to work on the Royal Belt, which needed to be taken in. The king had lost weight recently, being so engaged in all his duties - war plans, taxes… public floggings, as was the case with the leader of the grape farmers who had been on strike. George grimaced at the memory, though he polished the belt buckle as vigorously as ever. He never allowed his person opinions to interfere with the quality of his work.
In bed, the king stirred, and as he had for the last few days George had served him, the manservant noticed him grimacing as though his head was in great pain, rubbing his eyes vigorously as if that would alleviate some pressure.
"Good morning, my lord," George said, bowing even though Arthur was facing away and couldn't see him. "Breakfast is on the table! This morning looks set to be a touch humid, so I have selected a light tunic and your usual overcoat."
Arthur nodded vaguely, rolling out of bed and heading over to the wash basin - the water heated to perfection as always. There was a knock at the door and Arthur winced, clutching at his temples.
"Tell whatever idiot's making a clatter to leave, or they'll be fined for disturbing the peace," he told George, who nodded and went to open the door.
Gaius and Merlin stood beyond, the servant lurking a little way back. He looked pale and drawn, a bruise on his jaw leading into a scab on his bottom lip, but he offered George a small smile, and George returned it. He had, in recent days, become quite fond of Merlin…. in the way one is fond of a small child who blunders about trying to imitate adult life. Merlin attempted his duties with great zeal but never quite managed the standard that George was accustomed to. Still, he was a decent chap.
"His majesty would rather not be disturbed right now," George told them.
"I have a tonic for his headache," Gaius replied, and Arthur, hearing this, strode over. Merlin cringed back a bit at his approach, but the king didn't notice, instead snatching the potion from Gaius' hands.
"Give it here!" he snapped, uncorking it and taking a long swig. George grimaced as a strange and unpleasant smell hit his nostrils. Arthur must have hit the aftertaste, for he gagged, throwing the bottle to the ground in irritation.
"What the devil was that?" he demanded, spitting and wiping his mouth. He turned to Gaius with a furious glower. "Are you trying to poison me?"
"The herbs used in the potion are quite bitter, sire, you may expect a slightly unpleasant taste," Gaius replied evenly.
Arthur was still frowning. He began to clutch at his stomach as though in great pain. "Ugh… what… you have poisoned me!" his eyes flickered to Merlin. "You're working together! Guards! Guar-"
He broke off with a choked sound and his eyes promptly rolled back into his head. His back stiffened and arched, his arms flailing and whole body convulsing for a moment before he flopped limply over, unconscious. George dashed forward and caught him before he could hit the ground, staring in shock, stunned speechless.
There was a moment of silence as Gaius came forward and checked his pulse. The king appeared to be simply asleep - though he looked a touch pale, he was breathing regularly.
"Well," Gaius said finally. "I'm glad that's over with."
George still had no idea what to say. Finally Merlin turned to him and grinned.
Arthur regained consciousness slowly and painfully.
He became aware of a pounding pain in his head, as though his brain had swollen to twice its size and was straining against the confines of his skull, wanting to burst out through his ears, his nostrils, anything to relieve the building pressure.
When he opened his eyes the light stabbed at them like needles and he squeezed them shut again, groaning loudly. His mouth tasted like something had crawled in there and died.
After a few moments the pain eased up, and he cracked his eyes open, allowing them time to adjust to the light.
The first thing he realised was that he was not in his bed.
The mattress under him was thin and stiff, and the walls were simple whitewashed stone, morning light spilling through an open window. Confused and disoriented, Arthur sat up, glancing down at his clothes, and whoahkay, someone had changed his shirt while he was sleeping. He'd worn his white tunic to bed the night after Gaius' party; he remembered it distinctly because Merlin had offered him wine and he had declined, having drunk enough of that at the tavern, and then the clumsy oaf had nearly turned his shirt purple by tripping and spilling it all over the floor.
Looking around, Arthur's eyes widened as he realised that he was in the castle infirmary. Was he ill? Usually when he was ill he woke up in his room, or in Gaius' chambers. There was someone in the bed next to him, and as Arthur turned to look he was startled by the sound of a throat being cleared and a hoarse declaration of, “G'morning sunshine!”
“Gwaine?” Arthur asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. Did we get ragingly drunk at the party and end up with alcohol poisoning? It was the only plausible explanation he could think of.
Gwaine was staring at him, and the more Arthur looked at him the more confused he got. The knight was propped up against a pile of pillows, one wrist bound in a sling. His hair was wildly tangled, bruises visible on his face and the exposed parts of his arms and torso, and his shirt hung off him as though he'd lost weight.
“About time! You've been snoring there for hours now.” Gwaine's tone was joking, but he was looking at Arthur in an odd way. Warily. Arthur couldn't understand it.
“Why are we here? What happened to your arm?” Arthur tried to get out of bed but was hit by a wave of dizziness and had to flop back against the mattress as he waited for it to subside. His head was starting to hurt again.
“You don't remember?” Gwaine was frowning now, and Arthur couldn't make head nor tail of it.
“The last thing I recall is Gaius' birthday party...” Arthur racked his brains for any further memories, but all he got was fuzziness and an even worse headache. “What happened?”
“You really don't remember anything?” Gwaine asked, and Arthur shook his head in frustration.
“No! I don't! Now tell me what...” he trailed off as footsteps approached the infirmary door and it swung open. Merlin entered, and Arthur relaxed – his servant would surely explain everything that had happened.
“Merlin!” he declared gladly, and Merlin's gaze flickered over to him as he froze in the doorway. Arthur frowned again – Merlin looked exhausted, dark shadows under his eyes, shoulders slumped, one hand propping him up against the doorframe. Worse than that were the faded bruises on the side of his face, and a cut on his lip that looked like it was just starting to heal.
Arthur tried to meet his eyes but Merlin's gaze skittered away.
“You're awake,” was what he said first, entering the room and crossing to Gwaine's bed first, where he sat down on a chair next to him and frowned at the knight. “You shouldn't be awake. Why aren't you sleeping?”
Gwaine shrugged while Arthur spluttered in indignation at being ignored. “Well, I regained consciousness, opened my eyes and here I am!”
“Percival found you in the dungeons. You fainted,” Merlin said drily, and Gwaine huffed.
“Collapsed,” he corrected, and Merlin cracked a small grin.
“Swooned, more like it,” he teased.
“Collapsed, in a manly fashion,” Gwaine insisted. He reached up to ruffle Merlin's hair but Merlin grabbed his arm and pushed it back down, expression suddenly serious.
“Gwaine, you need to stop moving around,” he ordered, sounding rather like Gaius. “You're badly hurt.”
“I don't feel badly hurt,” Gwaine replied, though the smile had dropped off his face as well.
“That's Gaius' painkilling potion for you. He didn't want to give it to you because he knew you'd just end up overstraining yourself if you couldn't feel all your wounds.”
Arthur cleared his throat pointedly and the two of them turned to look at him... well, Gwaine did at least, Merlin seemed to have a sudden interest in his bedsheets.
“Is anyone going to explain what's going on here?” Arthur demanded, exasperated. The two exchanged a glance, and there was a moment of uneasy silence.
“He doesn't remember,” Gwaine told Merlin finally, and Arthur frowned as Merlin's expression flickered between annoyed and relieved before finally settling on blank.
“You don't remember anything?” Merlin questioned, still looking at Gwaine, and Arthur shook his head, starting to get rather irritated now.
“No! As I've said about five times already, the last thing I remember is Gaius' party! And now suddenly I wake up here feeling like a hammer's been taken to the inside of my skull, and you two look like you were trampled by bloody wildren! So will someone, before I go mad, explain what's going on-?!” Arthur broke off his outburst as pain split through his head, blinding him for a moment. When his vision cleared Gwaine had moved on the bed, leaning forward so that he was between Arthur and Merlin. He was glaring furiously at Arthur, his hands curled into fists. Merlin himself had scooted his chair back slightly and turned his head away.
The king blinked, wondering what was going on.
“Lie back down,” Merlin said quietly, pushing Gwaine back against the pillow. “Si... Arthur,” he finally said, dragging his eyes up to meet Arthur's. “It's been just over a week since Gaius' birthday.”
Arthur stared at him. “...what?” he said finally. A whole week?
“You've been under an enchantment,” Merlin explained. “Morgana put you under a spell to... influence your behaviour, to turn the people against you.”
Arthur gaped. “What did I do?” he asked, trying to imagine what had occurred.
Merlin's eyes shifted away again. Gwaine opened his mouth but closed it again when Merlin gave him a Gaius-esque look.
“Nothing that can't be fixed,” Merlin said finally. “You fired some of the soldiers and servants, nearly started a war with Canaad and created rather a lot of new taxes-”
“Speaking of, the one on alcohol had better be removed,” Gwaine cut in, and Merlin glared at him.
“-and some farmers went on strike, but if you explain everything I don't think there's been any permanent harm done,” Merlin finished. “...although you might have to revise some of your paperwork.”
Arthur blinked a few times, trying to take all this in. He didn't remember any of these actions, and it was disconcerting. He liked to know exactly what he had been doing and when.
“So... is that all?” he asked finally, and after a moment's hesitation Merlin nodded. Gwaine was frowning deeply, but he was also rubbing his wrist as though it pained him, so Arthur put that down to Gaius' drug wearing off.
“What happened to you two then?” he asked.
Merlin floundered. “Um,” he said, but was saved from answering when the door opened again and Leon entered along with Gaius. Merlin stood and retreated to the side of the room. Arthur watched him curiously a moment longer before turning his attention to the newcomers. Like Gwaine, they were both watching him warily.
“Gaius, Leon,” Arthur greeted. “Merlin's just informed me that I've been enchanted for the last week. I don't remember a jot of it.”
Gaius nodded. “Indeed. You seem to be perfectly recovered, although your head may be sore for a few days, but I'll give you a tonic for that. In the meantime you have a meeting with Agravaine – you have a lot of making up to do.”
Arthur blinked a few times. What, just like that? He thought. He still felt like he'd just woken up and suddenly he was being booted out of the room to continue working as though nothing had happened. It almost seemed like they were trying to get rid of him. He glanced towards Merlin, as he usually did, trying to gauge what his servant was thinking, but Merlin's face was turned away.
Feeling slightly irritated, impatient and above all confused, Arthur decided that he'd better speak to Agravaine and find out exactly what had gone on.
“Right...” he said, finally, getting out of bed and taking a moment to steady himself. He straightened up, grabbed his jacket, which was hanging over the end of the bed, and with a final glance back at the others, left the room in search of some answers.
As soon as Arthur left the room both Gwaine and Merlin visibly relaxed, the latter slumping back against the wall as though all his bones had turned to jelly.
That, Merlin thought miserably, was the most awkward situation I've ever been in. Despite how anticlimactic Arthur's return to his usual self had been, he felt almost... disappointed. Of course, he was relieved that Arthur had absolutely no memory of what had occurred, but at the same time, it meant he didn't know how to act around the other. He still wanted to shield the king from the pain he knew he'd go through if he discovered what he had done. But at the same time, in a small, vindictive part of himself that found it hard to separate enchanted from unenchanted, he almost wanted Arthur to know. But that part of him was little and miserly and he quashed it down quickly and turned to face Gaius.
“He seemed perfectly fine,” he said, voice flat, and Gaius nodded.
A rasping cough from Gwaine attracted all their attention, and in an instant Gaius was at his bedside, checking on him.
“Steady, Gwaine,” he said. Leon and Merlin gathered around as well, faces creased with concern.
Gwaine swatted a hand at the physician. “M'fine...” he slurred, but his eyes had glazed over slightly and his shoulders were tense and trembling.
“What's wrong with him?” Leon asked worriedly, placing a hand on his back and giving him an awkward pat.
“He just needs to rest. I've done what I can to patch you up, but sleep is what you need to heal,” Gaius told his patient, rearranging some pillows in the massive stack of cushions Gwaine was leaning on. “I don't want to alarm anyone, but you could go downhill at any moment.”
“Lovely,” Gwaine croaked. Merlin passed him a beaker of water and helped him take a few sips.
“What are we going to tell Arthur?” Leon asked, still watching Gwaine as though if he took his eyes off him for one second the knight would collapse. Merlin still didn't know the details of what had gone down in the dungeons – Gaius and Percival had been rather quiet about it.
“I've told him the basics of what he did – the ones we can't avoid and that he'll have to fix to keep his public image intact,” Merlin said. “But.... I don't think he should know the rest.”
“Are you sure?” Leon pushed, and Merlin didn't even need to think before he gave a sincere nod.
“Even if Morgana's initial plan has failed, she'll still be hoping that this can undermine Arthur's confidence in himself,” Merlin explained. “He... he doesn't need this on his conscience. It wasn't his fault.”
Gaius gave him a small smile and Merlin felt warmed to know the physician was proud of his response, though inwardly, he felt almost guilty about saying such words when he knew he, himself, wasn't entirely over the whole situation. Might never be entirely over it. But he didn't want to think about that right now.
“So what're we gonna tell him?” Gwaine asked, eyes closed. “That you, Elyan and I all happened to fall down the stairs? Not to mention Byron, Gavin and those pages that got chucked in a cell with us. I mean, that's one deadly staircase.”
“Elyan fell off his horse,” Merlin replied simply. “You and I went to deal with bandits in the forest and there were more than we expected. Byron and the others will keep quiet and lie low if we explain it to them.”
“And sweeten the deal with a little gold,” Gwaine mused thoughtfully. He smiled a bit. “I'm impressed, Merlin! And here I always thought you were a right honest fellow. You're sneakier than I imagined.”
Merlin gave a weak smile. He wanted to talk to Gwaine further – ask him how he was coping, how he could look Arthur in the face after what had happened to him, make sure that he wasn't about to punch the king as soon as he could get up and walk in a straight line... but Leon and Gaius were still in the room and Gwaine's eyes kept slipping shut, so he decided to save that conversation for later.
“Okay,” Leon said, still sounding a touch doubtful. “I'd better go let Elyan and Percival know.”
“We'll leave you to rest. I'll check on you soon,” Gaius told Gwaine, who gave a bleary nod.
“Merlin! Come here a sec,” Gwaine called as they turned to leave. Merlin approached the bed. He started to protest when Gwaine began levering himself into a sitting position, but trailed off when the knight leaned forward and wrapped him in a hug. Merlin gently hugged him back, mindful of his injuries, feeling tears well in his eyes from stress and relief.
“What was that for?” he asked with a smile when Gwaine pulled back.
The knight grinned tiredly at him. “You looked like you needed it.”
Gaius was giving them both a disapproving look for aggravating Gwaine's injuries, but his eyebrows betrayed his affection. He put a hand on Merlin's shoulder and they walked out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind them.
“How is he?” Leon asked in a hushed tone, and Gaius shook his head.
“The painkillers are doing their job, but he was badly beaten. There's still the possibility of infection in some of the wounds on his back,” the physician said worriedly. “The malnutrition isn't helping either.”
Merlin's heart sank. Arthur may have been restored to his normal self, but they weren't out of the woods yet.
“How are you holding up?” Leon asked Merlin, sounding concerned.
“I'm fine,” Merlin replied automatically. He forced a smile at their disbelieving looks. “Just tired... and to be honest I'm not sure how I'm going to act around Arthur.” He adjusted his neck-scarf. The skin beneath was still bruised and tender from where Arthur had strangled him.
There was a rather depressing moment of silence.
“Well, you can't put it off forever.” Gaius patted his arm encouragingly. His words didn't really help much, but Merlin nodded wearily.
Arthur still felt disoriented, as anyone would when they were plucked out of their time period and suddenly deposited a week later with absolutely no memory of what had happened in between. He was seated in the dining hall eating, having realised that he was absolutely ravenous. Agravaine sat opposite him, revising the disastrous budget that Arthur had apparently issued but didn't remember.
In the twenty-four hours since Arthur passed out and then woke up in the infirmary, it seemed that Gaius had informed the court that he had been enchanted and the majority of apologies had already been issued. Most of those who had been directly affected by his actions had been compensated and seemed to bear him no ill will. Arthur found himself swelling with pride at the forgiving nature of the people of his kingdom.
“One has to wonder just how Morgana managed to cast the spell on me,” Arthur mused aloud, and Agravaine glanced up at him.
“A traitor within the palace... a servant, perhaps? Or someone slipping something into your drink at the tavern? The possibilities are endless. You must be more careful, Arthur,” he chided, and Arthur nodded, giving him an odd glance. His uncle sounded slightly irritated. He supposed it must have been a stressful week, but so far he'd been slotting back into his usual routine as if nothing had ever happened. It was almost surreal.
“The political ramifications of this little.... incident.... were fortunately quite small,” Agravaine went on to say with a tight smile. “We are lucky.”
Arthur nodded. “Still, I ought to make it up to the people. I'll think of some way.”
Agravaine stood, shuffling the papers into a neat pile. “You'd better rest today, in case the enchantment has any after effects,” he advised. “Perhaps do some training with the knights. I'll tie up any loose ends and you can give a speech tonight telling people what's happened and giving a formal apology for any actions you may have unwillingly committed while under the spell's influence. I'll arrange for the heralds to be there so they can spread the word.”
Arthur nodded. A few moments after Agravaine had left there was a knock at the door.
“Come in!” Arthur called, and Merlin entered the room. He was as hesitant as he had been earlier in the infirmary, and Arthur frowned.
“I see someone's taught you the proper etiquette regarding entering a royal chamber,” he joked, but to his surprise Merlin just gave a weak smile and moved to clear away the breakfast dishes.
“How are you feeling?” the servant asked finally.
Arthur leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. “Much recovered, though I still can't remember a thing.”
“Best not strain yourself. You were even more of a prat than usual last week,” Merlin informed him, but his tone was off somehow. Arthur frowned. He wasn't stupid, and he certainly wasn't blind.
“Who hit you, Merlin?” he asked, gaze lingering on Merlin's bruised face. The sight of the injuries made something stir in his gut, because for some reason the thought of anyone actively hurting him made him feel... angry. Enraged, almost.
“Some bandit,” Merlin replied, turning away to get some fresh clothes for Arthur from the cupboard. “Gwaine and I went out to the forests to investigate reports of a camp. They caught sight of us and we had to fight them off... that's how he got so badly injured.”
Arthur scoffed. “I suppose the two of you were crashing about like great loons,” he teased, and Merlin glanced over his shoulder and gave a small grin.
“Well, bright red cloaks amongst green foliage aren't exactly subtle.”
“We've never had problems with them before,” Arthur retorted. He stood and walked over to Merlin, ready to be dressed, but as he lifted his arms for Merlin to take his shirt off, the servant flinched back suddenly. It was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it motion, a brief startling back, some unidentifiable emotion flashing in his eyes for a moment before he regained face and stepped forward to help Arthur out of his shirt. Arthur frowned, confused, but wrote it off as the jumpiness Merlin sometimes got – after he had gone missing that one time, after Longstead, after Elyan's possession by the druid boy – a few days of his servant being twitchy and skitterish before settling back to normal. Arthur didn't tend to question him about it, since Merlin never seemed inclined to bring it up.
“Anything else happen this week that I should be aware of?” he asked.
“Elyan fell off his horse and broke his arm,” Merlin replied, and Arthur grimaced.
“Can't take care of yourselves for one week, can you?” he said, though there was an undercurrent of worry beneath the humour. Gwaine had looked pretty beat up in the infirmary, and now Elyan injured as well.
“Well. Let's get to training then... if there are even any knights left standing,” he said, and Merlin nodded, stepping back. He was still looking at the floor, and Arthur's eyebrows rose.
“Think the boards need a polish, Merlin?” he asked, and Merlin turned his head a bit but didn't say anything. Arthur frowned at him, confused.
Merlin shifted nervously. “I... sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?” Arthur demanded. “Look at me Merlin, I hardly want to talk to the top of your head, do I?”
Merlin lifted his head but seemed to be staring just past Arthur instead of meeting his eyes. “I... I have to get something for Gaius,” he said suddenly, and left the room before Arthur could reply.
The king blinked a few times, more confused than ever.
Merlin found his feet taking him to the catacombs, feeling his way through the darkness until he wound up in what he recognised as the same spot he had left Freya, what seemed like a lifetime ago, but simultaneously just yesterday. The thought of her had tears welling in his throat, but he pushed them away, sitting down and clasping his hands together tightly until they stopped shaking.
Awkward, that quite accurately described how he felt around Arthur. Nothing he told himself could have prepared him for how it felt to be in the same room as him again, after the day Arthur had accused him of treason and then fired him. The effort it had taken to casually stand so close to the king, help him get dressed, and smile and lie like nothing was wrong... when all the time his heart was pounding and he could barely think of anything but pain, pain in his throat, pain in his chest, seizing his ability to breathe, and above all the pain of betrayal as he remembered his best friend turning against him like that.
I can't face him, Merlin admitted to himself finally, burying his head in his arms. I'm.... scared of him. And the thought disgusted him, and much as he wanted nothing more than for his relationship with Arthur to be back to normal, he legitimately couldn't see himself ever looking his friend in the eyes again without worrying if he was going to be hit for it.
He sat in the darkness a while longer, trying in vain to think of how he could fix this... feeling almost as though it was his responsibility to fix this, the same way he tried to fix everything else involving Arthur. But maybe, in the same way that his treatment of Mithian couldn't resolve the rift between Arthur and Gwen, this was something that he would never be able to put right.
“He's not there.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes, he's doing his rounds in the lower town. He's not there.”
A passing laundry maid was startled by the sight of three knights of Camelot attempting to sneak into the infirmary. The bright red capes and the tall stature of two of them rather reduced any hope of stealthiness.
Leon opened the door a crack and, finding Gaius nowhere in sight, ushered the others into the room. The sound woke Gwaine, who seemed to have been dozing, and he sat up with a grin, then winced and clutched at his ribs as the movement pained him.
“Easy now,” Percival warned. He sat on the edge of the bed and the mattress creaked under his weight. Leon shut the door and the other knights clustered around.
“Thought Gaius said no visitors?” Gwaine chuckled, the grin not leaving his face.
“Yeah, well, what he doesn't know won't hurt him,” Elyan replied, taking a chair next to the bed. “How are you doing?”
“Still breathing. Hankering for some ale though,” Gwaine said pointedly, accompanied by emphatic eyebrow movements.
Leon laughed. “Until you can get out of bed without suffering some sort of permanent damage, my friend, you will not be getting within a metre of ale!”
Gwaine pouted. “Leon, I thought we were brothers.”
“Seriously, though, are you alright?” Percival asked, eyes shadowed with concern. Gwaine squirmed a bit and looked away, seeming embarrassed by the other's worry.
“I'm fine. Can we say the same for Merlin?” It was an obvious switching of the topic but one that the other knights latched onto eagerly.
“Oh heavens, Merlin. He's so tense around Arthur I'm worried he'll sprain something,” Leon groaned, head in his hands. “I wish I could do something about it, but I don't know what.”
“How bad did it get?” Gwaine asked, not having been filled in on what had happened during the four or five days he was in the dungeon.
Elyan shook his head with a grimace. “From what I saw of it, pretty bad. He got fired towards the end as well.”
Gwaine's lips pressed together tightly. There was a moment of silence.
“I know it's not Arthur's fault,” Elyan said finally, eyes dropping to the sling around his arm, “But I still want to punch him. Multiple times.”
Percival let out a heavy sigh. “As do I, but I try to keep in mind... how must Arthur be feeling right now. Remember the Lamia?”
They all winced. Lamia was a subject they tried not to bring up too much.
“Imagine if we had gone just a bit further,” Percival said, sounding pained. “I couldn't have lived with myself. We know what it's like to not be in control of our actions.”
They all nodded solemnly, but Leon noticed that Gwaine was frowning and had an odd look in his eyes. He didn't push the subject, however, noticing that the injured knight was starting to grimace, obviously in pain and trying not to show it.
“We'll leave you to rest,” he said, rising, and Percival and Elyan turned towards Gwaine with alarmed looks.
He rolled his eyes, but even that motion seemed to exhaust him. “Go on then. Gaius will be back any minute anyway. Keep an eye on Merlin for me.”
Arthur was starting to get frustrated by the looks people kept giving him. About half an hour into training the knights seemed to come around to the fact that he wasn't enchanted any more, and began to act more like their normal selves, but servants and nobles still crept around him tentatively. It disturbed him, and made him feel as though things during his week of enchantment hadn't been as trivial as Agravaine had led him to believe.
Merlin was in his room when he got there, and for once his dinner was already on the table.
“Have you become George overnight?” Arthur joked, but stopped when he noticed that Merlin seemed as miserable as he had been earlier – even more, if that was even possible. He was sat on the floor polishing Arthur's daggers, but his usual smile was gone. He looked tired, his eyes red rimmed as though he'd been trying not to cry, sitting slumped in on himself. He acknowledged Arthur's presence with a flicker of his eyes before turning back to polishing.
“Merlin!” Arthur walked over to him and Merlin scrambled backwards almost instinctively before catching himself, looking up at Arthur with a smile so fake it was almost painful to look at.
“Yes, sire? I mean, Arthur?”
Something was definitely very wrong here, Arthur realised. He sat down next to Merlin, who leaned away from him, and despite the fact that the king was about as emotionally proficient as a sweet potato, he couldn't fight the concern that was welling up in him.
“Nothing,” was the flat reply. He continued to polish the dagger like his life depended on it.
“You lie like you clean my room, Merlin. Terribly. What are you upset about?” Arthur asked, more gently, but somehow that seemed to upset Merlin even more. He continued to keep his face turned away, and Arthur noticed that he was trembling slightly.
“Heavens, Merlin, what's wrong with you?” He reached out to take the dagger from Merlin's shaking hands, but Merlin flinched violently away, scooting out of his reach, the knife and polishing cloth clattering to the floor.
Merlin's sudden motion had knocked his neckerchief askew, and sitting this close to him, Arthur could see bruises framing his servant's neck. The dark impressions of two thumbprints were actually visible on either side of his throat. Arthur felt rage uncoil deep inside him.
“Who did that?” he growled, and Merlin's hands rose protectively to adjust his scarf. Arthur felt his fists clenching, because the thought of someone actively hurting Merlin enough to make him flinch away like this was… distressing. Sickening. It would be like hitting a cowering, defenceless puppy dog. A puppy dog with blue eyes. Inhuman.
The fact that Merlin was putting on his 'I'm about to blatantly lie to your face' expression wasn't helping either.
“No one. Some bandit. I'm fine.”
“Merlin...” Arthur trailed off, unsure what to do or say, because he was still rather confused about what had happened. So apparently Gwaine and Merlin had gone out to some forest – why would just the two of them have gone? – and bandits had beaten Gwaine to within an inch of his life and then abused Merlin until he started flinching away from Arthur, even... it just didn't add up. And now Merlin was upset and he had no idea what to do.
Finally he reached out to put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, only to find that that was the worst possible thing he could have done. Merlin snatched his arm away as though Arthur's touch burned. He was breathing heavily now. Arthur was almost worried he'd work himself into a hysterical fit.
“Merlin! Calm down, it's just me.”
But Merlin was staring at him now, wildly, afraid, and Arthur felt sick, really sick, and suddenly he remembered. Just a brief flash of a memory, but he remembered deep, nauseating rage. He remembered standing in this room and he remembered the feel of Merlin's wrist in his grasp, twisting, holding him so tightly he could feel bones in his grip, and Merlin trying to pull away, you're hurting me, and he recalled the same panic and fear in his servant's eyes that he could see now.
The memory flared into life only for a short moment before retreating to the back of his mind again, so quickly that he couldn't be certain if it was an actual memory, part of a dream or just something his imagination had cooked up. But Merlin was still standing there, staring at the floor as though he wished it would swallow him up, and Arthur tried to speak but his mouth was too dry. He coughed a few times.
“Merlin... you look tired.” He sounded calm, detached, though inside his thoughts were whirling. “Have the night off.”
“Okay,” Merlin whispered, just one simple word that seemed to take a lot of effort. He left the room, the sound of his footsteps and the door closing seeming almost blasphemously loud in the silence.
And Arthur remained on the floor, working himself into a headache as he wracked his brains trying to remember, but at the same time afraid of what he might find, and half hoping that he wouldn't be able to.
The piercing shriek cut through the quiet, peaceful forest dawn, causing several birds to flutter from their perches in alarm.
Agravaine stood his ground as he faced Morgana's expression of utter wrath. Those pursed lips could curdle milk.
“It was perfect – perfect!” Morgana's eyes flashed angrily and the fire in the hearth flared to twice its usual size. Agravaine glanced over at it in alarm. “How did it fail?”
"Gaius and Merlin,” Agravaine replied with distaste. “They realised Arthur was enchanted and they somehow managed to break the spell.”
“But they shouldn't have been able to! Not without using magic...” Morgana trailed off, her face paling suddenly. “Emrys.”
Agravaine scowled at the mention of the name. “We still don't know who he is.”
“Somehow, he's helping them.” With a huff, Morgana threw herself into the chair by the fire and stretched out, her feet perilously close to setting alight. “He's doing this deliberately. Taunting me.”
“What shall we do now?” Agravaine asked, eager to move off the topic of Emrys, who always put Morgana in a foul(er) mood.
Morgana's lips twisted. “Guinevere is dead, but what of her brother? Does he still remain in Camelot?”
Agravaine gave a sly smile. “Indeed he does, though his relationship with Arthur is tenuous... and what's more, he was injured by Arthur while under the enchantment. Nearly died, from what I heard of it.”
“Perfect,” Morgana purred. “I need you to get him out of the city to a place where I can meet with him.”
“Easy,” Agravaine smiled. “I have just the idea.”
Merlin stood outside the king's door for almost five minutes before he raised a hand to knock. Passing maids were starting to give him odd looks. After last night's... incident... he felt embarrassed and edgy, already steeling himself to try and act as normally as possible around Arthur. He hadn't anticipated that he'd have such a violent reaction when the king tried to touch him, but something inside him had just instinctively reacted, the fear and tension the last few days having built up, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.
Knock, go in, put breakfast down, open curtains, he recited mentally, and before he could procrastinate any further, he rapped smartly on the door. There was no response, as he expected, as Arthur was likely still asleep – the knocking was more out of courtesy than anything – and he entered the room, only to do a double take to find Arthur sitting on the edge of his bed already dressed.
Merlin nearly dropped the tray he was carrying in surprise. He recovered quickly and gave a swift bow. “Good morning,” he said, injecting cheerfulness into his tone.
Arthur looked up. There were dark shadows under his eyes as though he hadn't gotten much sleep. “What are you being so polite for?” he asked, almost suspiciously, and Merlin found himself automatically reading unfriendliness into his tone – an abject reaction to something that he would normally have put down to Arthur's morning grumpiness.
“Um,” was all he came out with, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
“Eloquent as usual, Merlin,” he said, getting up and crossing to the table. His head tilted, a curious frown spreading across his face as he observed the tray. “What's this?”
“Your capacity to state the obvious astounds me. What is this?” he reached out with a fork and speared a piece of bacon, squinting at it thoughtfully. “Where are the sausages?”
Looks like I just can't do anything right, Merlin thought a bit miserably. “Just switching things up a bit,” he replied, and it came out rather more defensively than he intended. Arthur gave him an odd look and Merlin quickly turned away and moved to start tidying the room, which somehow always managed to acquire mess overnight.
After a few moments of rather strained silence, Arthur cleared his throat.
“Are we going to talk about what happened last night?” he asked, which was rather ironic considering it was usually Merlin who wanted to talk about things.
Merlin licked his lips nervously. “What do you mean?” he asked cautiously. When in doubt, play dumb.
"Well. You're obviously upset about something. I thought you liked doing this, Merlin. Discussing feelings and all that.” Arthur's tone was lightly mocking andthoroughlyawkward, as though he was as uncertain about this as Merlin was. At any other time Merlin would have teased him about being a softie at heart or something to the like, but right now he was just frantically trying to come up with ways to divert the subject.
“I'm worried about Gwaine,” he said finally, which was only half a lie, really. He and Gaius had checked in on the knight earlier that morning to find that he wasn't healing as quickly or as well as they had hoped.
The thought of his friend lying bruised and battered in the infirmary served to wipe away any trace of happiness Merlin had managed to muster. He let out a heavy sigh, suddenly feeling very tired.
Arthur's face pinched into something closely resembling sympathy. “He'll be fine,” he said stiffly. “You know Gwaine... he takes a licking and bounces right back.”
Merlin nodded dubiously. Arthur took another bite of bacon.
“You sure that's all that's bothering you?” the king asked after a moment, and Merlin nodded again. It took all his effort to give Arthur a reassuring smile, but it was worth it when Arthur smiled back a moment later and for a second Merlin almost felt their usual camaraderie returning.
Until Arthur accidentally knocked over his goblet and the loud crash had Merlin nearly jumping out of his skin, the shock sending his heart racing, and suddenly he was on edge again. He moved forward to wipe up the spilled water, keeping his head ducked, acutely aware of Arthur watching his every move.
Suddenly Arthur reached out and grabbed his arm, and Merlin froze, his whole body stiffening. He's not enchanted any more; he's not going to hurt you, he told himself firmly, but that didn't stop him from tensing as Arthur pulled his arm towards him and pushed his sleeve up a bit. Over the last few days the bruises from where Arthur had grabbed him had faded to a dull yellow.
Arthur swallowed, staring at Merlin's wrist with a frown on his face before flicking his eyes up to the servant's face. Merlin didn't know what to say. After a moment he pulled at his arm and Arthur let him go readily.
“Are you okay?” Merlin asked after a minute, because Arthur was sitting with his shoulders hunched staring at his breakfast plate as though he'd find the secrets of the universe in his boiled egg.
“...yes,” Arthur said slowly, “I just need to go... talk to someone.” He pushed his chair away from the table and walked out, leaving a puzzled Merlin to stand awkwardly for a moment before continuing to wipe up the spilled water.
Arthur felt strangely nervous, and he couldn't place why – his stomach churning, heart pounding as he strode down the castle hallways towards the infirmary. The memory of the bruises around Merlin's wrist wouldn't leave him alone – he stared at his own hand and grimaced. Last night.... why do I remember grabbing him like that? It never happened.... did it? It was bandits; they were out in the forest with bandits...
Reaching the infirmary, he paused a moment, listening for Gaius' voice, but heard nothing. Deducing that the physician was out, he stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.
Gwaine was asleep – or at least, Arthur hoped he was sleeping, for he was lying still as death, his breath coming shallowly, his chest barely moving. Arthur felt a vague flash of worry, as he always did when one of his knights was injured.
Reaching out, he shook Gwaine's shoulder, and the other man woke with a start. For a moment he looked disoriented, snatching his arm away from Arthur and giving him a death-glare to rival Morgana's, then he broke off into a coughing fit. Arthur looked about for water and saw a pitcher on the floor. He handed it over and Gwaine took it with his uninjured hand, his glare not fading until after he'd had a drink and managed to recover his breath.
“Princess,” he greeted finally, the nickname not having worn off despite the fact that Arthur was king now.
“Gwaine. How are you feeling?”
“Oh, you know, like I fell off a moving cart then got trampled by a hoard of Serket.” Gwaine was still eying Arthur almost warily and he had absolutely no idea why. Then again, that was what he was here for – answers.
“I need to talk to you,” Arthur continued on. “About... Merlin.”
“Ye-es,” Gwaine said slowly, looking, if possible, even more suspicious. “What about him?”
“What exactly happened with these bandits?” Arthur asked. It was still frustrating him, having an entire week missing from his memory. He felt the niggling beginnings of a headache at the back of his skull.
Gwaine sucked thoughtfully on his bottom lip. “So there was this report of a camp out in the forest that kept attacking merchant caravans when they tried to get past. You, being enchanted and acting like more of a royal twit than usual, refused to let us go and help out. So I decided to go deal with it myself, and Merlin insisted on coming with me-”
“Why did none of the other knights go?” Arthur cut in. This wasn't adding up – Agravaine had read him a list of damages done during the week and there was no mention of bandits or merchants.
“Well, Elyan's arm was broken and Leon was trying to stay on your good side and Percival wasn't around right then.”
“Where was he?”
“What is this, an interrogation?” Gwaine's eyes narrowed. “The fact o'the matter is, I went out to the forest and Merlin came with me. There were bandits. They overwhelmed us. I got knocked around a bit, but we managed to fight them off, Merlin got me back to the castle and that was that.”
Arthur stared at him. Gwaine stared back. The headache grew.
“Merlin's been acting oddly around me,” Arthur found himself admitting, and Gwaine gave a rasping laugh.
“As would anyone if their friend had spent the last week being a complete arse. I think everyone has been too polite to tell you, princess, but you weren't just pulling a Cenred on the farmers these last few days, you were doing it to everybody.”
Arthur's brain began to throb again, pounding a steady rhythm against the inside of his skull. “What did I do?” he asked through clenched teeth.
Gwaine just studied him, head tilted. “Merlin doesn't want me talking about this, and I respect his choice,” he said, but Arthur barely registered the words because there was a flare of pain in his head that had him crying out loud, clutching at his hair with his hands, and suddenly another memory sprang to life behind his eyes.
He remembered pain, searing through his hand, he remembered being angry and there being blood and Merlin fluttering about, trying to help. He didn't recall exactly what was said, but there was frustration and impatience and he remembered lashing out, striking Merlin across the face, the ring on his finger dragging through skin, drawing blood, and Merlin falling to the floor.
“Arthur,” he could hear Gwaine saying dimly, but he couldn't focus on the words because suddenly more and more memories were springing to life. He remembered the flicking torchlight and the cold damp of the dungeons. He remembered Gwaine kneeling before him, glaring defiantly. He remembered how it had felt to drive his fist across the knight's face and he remembered the words on his tongue as he ordered the guards to beat him.
“Traitor!” he remembered saying, and Gwaine had just given a resigned smile, and then it was Merlin again, Merlin sprawled on the floor before him and Arthur swinging his foot, the kick connecting with his servant's side-
He blinked, the headache fading away as suddenly as it had come. Gwaine was staring at him, eyes wide and face pale. His efforts in sitting up and reaching for Arthur had knocked half the pillows on the bed to the floor.
Arthur stood abruptly, the chair falling over behind him. He looked down at his hand and noticed the faint healing scar across the palm. The longer he stared at it the clearer became the memory of his knife slipping and cutting him as he carved his meat at dinner.
“Arthur,” Gwaine was saying, and Arthur looked at him, really looked, and now he could recall where each bruise had come from, where the blows had landed as he watched the dungeon guards – just men doing their jobs, afraid of the King's wrath – beat the knight with fists and boots and the hilts of their swords.
“There...” his voice came out as a croak and Arthur swallowed painfully. “There were no bandits, were there?”
For once in his life Gwaine didn't seem to know what to say. He just shook his head, silently, seeming almost relieved that the secret was out.
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment. He felt sick. Merlin's skitterish behaviour over the last few days, flinching away from Arthur's touch, suddenly made an awful kind of sense.
“For what it's worth,” Gwaine said, breaking the silence that had fallen, “We all know you had no control over it. But that doesn't mean I'm not still mad about it.” He gave a humourless laugh. “I mean, it's not even about this,” and he gestured at himself, the bruises and the broken wrist and gods, Arthur thought with horror, I did that to him.
“It's just... y'know, Merlin,” Gwaine continued, giving Arthur an intense look. “It's Merlin.”
And Arthur silently agreed with him, because the thought of anyone hurting his stupid, skinny, grinning manservant made him want to punch their face in. And he had done it. He had done it. And then, with a lurch, he remembered the bruises around Merlin's neck, the handprints, and while he still couldn't remember being the one who put them there it all fit together horribly and suddenly he needed to be sick.
He dashed out of the room and barely made it outdoors before he was retching into a flowerpot, bringing up everything he'd had for breakfast and then dry-heaving for a few moments longer. He leaned against the wall, breathing heavily.
One part of him couldn't quite believe it. Didn't want to believe it, but he had the memories. And not just the memories of the actions, but of the rationale behind them – anger, frustration, contempt towards both Merlin and Gwaine. Wanting to take it out on someone and seeing them as the closest choice.
He must hate me, he realised then, the image of Merlin's frightened eyes haunting him. He must hate me so much. He probably doesn't want to be anywhere near me.
He clenched his fists, a whirlwind of guilt and shame and anger raging inside him. He couldn't face Merlin – not yet, not knowing what he now knew – and shoving the newfound memories to the back of his mind, he marched off towards the training field, intending on taking out his emotions the way he usually did – on a training dummy.
It was surprisingly difficult to hunt down Elyan. Agravaine had checked the knight's quarters, the training field, the barracks, and even popped into the infirmary where he had been roped into picking up all the pillows that Gwaine had somehow managed to knock all over the floor.
“One has to wonder,” the knight had said casually as Agravaine was forced to bend over like a common servant and collect the cushions, “Exactly where Arthur got the idea I was a traitor in the first place.”
“He was enchanted. Paranoid. He thought Canaad was going to attack... and you've never displayed behaviour entirely fitting a knight,” Agravaine replied, trying as hard as he could to keep the annoyance out of his tone.
Gwaine was still squinting at him, and Agravaine knew well enough not to underestimate him – yes, he was a drunken fool, but he could also be strangely astute at times, and after the Gaius incident he knew the knight didn't completely trust him. But still, Agravaine was nothing if not careful, and as long as Arthur didn't remember Agravaine warning him about Gwaine and the others, he would be safe.
He checked the tavern next, though he knew Elyan wasn't a big drinker, to no avail. Finally, after two hours wandering through town, he heard sounds coming from the forge, and wandered in casually as though he had just happened to be passing by.
Elyan was in the back room of the blacksmith's shop, awkwardly clearing out the place with only one arm.
“Elyan! Do you need any assistance?” Agravaine asked, and the knight jumped at his voice, spinning around in surprise.
“Lord Agravaine. What are you doing here?” Elyan used his hip to push a box back onto the shelf before turning around completely.
“Oh, you know, just...” Agravaine trailed off, waving a hand vaguely. “What are you doing?”
“Cleaning out. I don't have much else to be doing right now,” Elyan said, hefting his arm in its sling. “Gwen never really sorted this place out after father's death, and I hadn't been here since I arrived in Camelot... a new blacksmith has set up down the road so there's not much call for this place any more.”
“How is Guinevere?” Agravaine asked, and Elyan's eyes flickered away. He offered a kind smile. “She may have been banished but there's no rule saying you can't keep in touch with her.”
“She's well,” Elyan admitted. “Well, as well as she can be. She's staying in Merlin's village.”
“You should visit her,” Agravaine suggested. Elyan blinked as though the idea had never occurred to him.
“Well, why not?” Agravaine continued, as though this plan was just coming to him as he spoke and wasn't the result of plotting with Morgana. “As you said, there's not much for you to do around here with your arm injured like that. It would be a good opportunity for you to go see your sister... Merlin would probably be glad for you to check in on his mother as well.”
Elyan nodded slowly. “I suppose I could,” he said thoughtfully. “Yes.... that is actually a very good idea.”
“You should leave tomorrow.”
“That soon?” Elyan asked, and Agravaine shrugged.
“Why delay? I'm sure Guinevere misses you. It would be a nice surprise for her. Why don't you tell me where this village is and I can plan out a route for you? There shouldn't be any trouble arranging the trip.”
“Uh... sure.” Elyan seemed a bit startled by Agravaine's readiness to help him, but he smiled at Agravaine, who smiled back and put a hand on his shoulder, leading him from the room.
“I said no visitors but it seems like the whole castle's been in and out of here,” Gaius tutted disapprovingly as he entered the infirmary, Merlin in tow, to find a maid just leaving. Gwaine grinned from the bed.
“What can I say, people love me,” was his response to that. “Even Agravaine came by.”
Merlin stiffened suspiciously. “Agravaine?” he asked, and Gwaine nodded. Merlin frowned. What's he up to...? he wondered, unable to fathom what Agravaine would want with Gwaine. Murdering the knight in cold blood while he was unable to fight back seemed just a bit too much, even for Arthur's uncle.
“He didn't give you anything to drink, did he?” Merlin asked, fighting back panic at the thought that Morgana might pull the same thing on Gwaine that she had on Arthur. Gwaine shook his head, giving Merlin a curious stare before subjecting himself to Gaius' prodding.
“You really need to rest, Gwaine,” Gaius murmured. “I'll lock the door if I have to. All this moving about in bed is doing you no favours.”
“Mmm hm- ow!” Gwaine broke off with a hiss. He gave Gaius an affronted look. Gaius counter-attacked with a disappointed eyebrow and Gwaine's glare back off with its tail between its legs.
“Merlin,” he said, eyes flicking to the manservant as Gaius did something painful looking with his wrist. “I need to talk to you. Arthur came in here before.”
A chill ran down Merlin's spine as he stepped closer to the bed, sitting on the floor so that he was level with Gwaine. “What did he say?” he asked cautiously.
“Sorry, mate.... I didn't want to tell him, but-”
“You told him?” Merlin most definitely did not shriek, but his voice did get alarmingly higher on the last few words.
“No! Well, not really... I think he's starting to remember,” Gwaine replied, uncharacteristically solemn. “He sort of zoned out and then he didn't believe the bandit story any more, and you should have seen his face. Guilty as anything. He ran out of here all of a sudden.”
Merlin let his head thud back against the wall as he closed his eyes. Arthur knows. Okay. Arthur knows.
A part of him was relieved that he didn't have to keep his guard up so much now – all the trying to act normally had been wearing him out – but still... it was embarrassing, almost. It made him feel pathetic, to have Arthur know that he'd let himself get pushed around, that all his starting and shying away arose from his inability to get over it. He half thought Arthur would think him a coward, or a fool, for not being able to realise that the enchantment was gone now and there was no need to worry.
He opened his eyes. Both Gwaine and Gaius were watching him worriedly.
“It'll be okay,” Gaius said reassuringly, and Merlin looked away, sheepish at the fact that he had to be comforted all the time like some weakling, some maiden.
Gaius finished his work in silence, and Gwaine looked like he was on the verge of falling asleep again. Merlin got to his feet, realising that the day had passed quicker than he'd liked. He hadn't seen Arthur since breakfast that morning, and now it was time for him to bring the evening meal. There was no avoiding it.
For some reason, everyonethat Merlin ran into between the kitchens and Arthur's chambers seemed to find it necessary to give him sympathetic looks. It only served to make him feel like there was something they should be feeling sorry for. Even Agravaine had given him a simpering smile, which made his blood boil, and he had to fight not to use magic to make the rug trip up the traitorous worm.
Arthur's door was open, but Merlin shut it out of habit as soon as he went in. He soon wished he hadn't, because the enclosed space filled with tension as soon as Arthur, who had been standing by the window, turned to look at him.
Merlin put the tray down and clenched his hands in his sleeves to stop them shaking.
Arthur looked terrible. His eyes were wide and dark and haunted, face creased with worry and stress. His knuckles were scraped and battered as though he'd been punching walls – and the thought of Arthur punching anything just made Merlin automatically shudder – his shoulders were so tense that Merlin could see the outline of clenched muscles through his shirt.
For a moment they just stared at each other, and Merlin saw Arthur's eyes flick to his neck, his wrist, his side. Any doubts he had about the king knowing were swiftly erased.
Then Arthur stepped forward, and Merlin, despite his attempts to stand his ground, automatically stepped back. For a moment Arthur looked stricken. He glanced down at his hands, then pressed his lips together and took another step forward, eyes determined beneath the pain.
Merlin's mother had only ever hit him once.
To be fair, he had deserved it – had probably deserved more than one reasonably hard slap on the cheek, because he'd been at that difficult stage of around eleven to twelve, his mother at her wit's end trying to stop him playing around with his magic, and he had just almost dropped a tree on Will.
Hunith had been a gentle mother, perhaps a bit too gentle, and she had looked so sorry afterwards even though she had no reason to be. She had stared at him with tears in her eyes and said “Oh Merlin,” and chided him for not being careful enough, and then she had crushed him to her bosom.
Arthur had the same look in his eyes now, only magnified tenfold, but if he attempted any crushing-to-bosoms Merlin refused to be held accountable for what actions he may undertake in self-defence.
As it was Merlin stared at him as they stood on opposite sides of the room, and Arthur stared back, and there was a very frozen silence. Merlin was torn between breaking it and holding his tongue.
“Gwaine's not a traitor,” was what he finally blurted out, unsure where that had even come from.
Arthur nodded, seeming to sag in on himself, the creases around his eyes darkening further. “I know.”
I know you know, Merlin thought, but couldn't quite seem to convince himself of the fact.
“I...” Arthur ran a hand over his face. “Look, Merlin, I just don't know what to say. I'm sorry. Heavens, I'm sorry, you know I would never-”
“I know,” Merlin repeated, quietly.
You know I know, he thought, feeling oddly detached from the whole situation. That's what's so stupid about all this.... I know, you know, Gwaine knows... we all know that this would never have happened without Morgana's interference. Yet here we are... still falling in circles...
Arthur took another step forward and Merlin stepped back again, before he could stop himself. His back hit the wall. Arthur looked pained.
“You can go if you like,” he said suddenly, sounding uncertain, and it was a tone so foreign to Arthur's voice that Merlin couldn't have obeyed if he wanted to. And no, he had to stay, he had to fix this. This was why he'd hidden this in the first place, to avoid this whole messy confrontation, to prevent Arthur from having to go through this distress.
“I mean, you can go,” Arthur continued, and suddenly Merlin realised what he meant.
“What? No! I don't want to leave. Unless you want me to leave. Although technically I've already been fired,” he babbled.
“I fired you?” Arthur asked, and Merlin nodded.
“Well then... I offer to re-employ you, if you'll agree.”
“Even if George gives you the choice of having bacon?” Merlin questioned softly, because it was a stupid little thing and yet something that had stuck in his head throughout the whole week.
“What?” Arthur blinked. “I don't even like bacon that much, Merlin. I prefer sausages.”
And somehow that one little fact brought a smile to Merlin's face, and Arthur smiled back, tentatively, and the tension in the room went down a few notches.
“Can I come over there?” Arthur asked, and Merlin nodded. It still felt a bit weird that Arthur was asking permission, but, you know, whatever it took. The king crossed the room and they both sat down against the wall. Merlin fought not to lean away from Arthur's close proximity, and after a moment he found himself relaxing.
“Were you ever going to tell me?” Arthur asked after a few moments. Neither of them were looking at each other, staring straight ahead across the room. The candles from the dinner table reflected in the glass window.
“Probably not,” Merlin admitted.
“Because,” Merlin shrugged, the conversation flowing more easily now. “I knew it would hurt you... to know about Gwaine and me and Elyan. And that's what Morgana wants.”
“Elyan?” Arthur questioned, and Merlin winced as he realised that he had let the cat loose accidentally. “I thought he fell off his horse?”
“Well, technically he did, but... it doesn't matter,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “We know it wasn't you.”
“I want to know,” Arthur said firmly, and Merlin darted a glance over at him. The king's eyes were still full of pain, guilt, but his jaw was set in determination, and Merlin felt a sudden warmth towards him, because this was the Arthur he knew – an Arthur who would dedicate himself to setting right whatever wrongs he may have committed even without having control over it.
“He wanted to go help some village, you ordered him to be arrested, the horse spooked and he fell. He nearly died,” Merlin added in a softer tone, and this time Arthur was the one who flinched.
“It wasn't your fault,” Merlin said, but the sincerity in his tone came out sounding faker than he would have liked.
“You don't need to keep reassuring me, Merlin.” Arthur turned to him, face miserable. “I know it wasn't my fault. That doesn't mean I don't feel bad about it.”
“But you shouldn't.”
“But I do!” Arthur barked, and Merlin startled back a bit. Arthur let out a frustrated groan, covering his face with his hands.
“You're scared of me.” It was a statement, not a question. Merlin just watched him silently.
“Dammit, Merlin, she's ruined everything! You shouldn't... you shouldn't cower back all the time like you think I'll hit you if you so much as look at me, and the peasants shouldn't be afraid to come to me because they think I'll have them arrested, and Gwaine shouldn't look at me like he's expecting me to turn into a tyrant the moment he shuts his eyes, and even Gaius looks like he's just waiting for me to start storming about all over the place like, like my father-”
It took all Merlin's effort to lift a hand and put it on Arthur's shoulder, because dressing the king was one thing but the enchanted Arthur he'd been in contact with over the last week had been so detached, so aloof, glaring about as though if a lowly commoner dared to so much as touch him they'd have their hand lopped off and fed to the pigs. But he did it – forcing his restless mind to shut up and stop yelling at him to retreat, abort! – he raised a hand and rested it consolingly on Arthur's arm.
The king fell silent. He watched Merlin, expression unreadable, and the servant felt suddenly embarrassed, but he kept his hand there and after a moment Arthur lifted his own hand and put it on Merlin's shoulder – slowly, making no sudden movements, and for the first time in a week Merlin didn't flinch at the touch.
“It's okay,” he whispered. And somehow it seemed that the words were to reassure himself as much as Arthur.
“No. Stop. Percival, stop, that's an order.”
Leon wondered just when the other knights had stopped listening to him. He stood by flailing his hands and glaring and spluttering as he watched Percival help Gwaine up out of his bed. The injured knight tilted almost immediately and Percival grabbed him around the waist, holding him up.
“See? You can't even stand! Now get back in bed.”
Percival barely spared him a glance, and Leon made a mental note that Gwaine was starting to become a really, really bad influence on the others.
“Relax, Leon,” the knight in question tutted as he wobbled this way and that, gripping to Percival for dear life as he tried to balance himself. “You're such an old woman. I just want to get back to my own chambers. A bed's a bed; it doesn't matter if I'm lying in this room or mine.”
“At least let me call Gaius! He can get you a stretcher,” Leon offered, but they continued to ignore him. Percival lifted Gwaine's arm over his shoulders and they took a few steps. Gwaine started wincing, the blood draining from his face, and they hurriedly sat on the bed again.
“Maybe I should carry you,” Percival suggested, and Gwaine managed to muster the energy to give him an affronted glare and a slap on the arm.
“Maybe you should grow a brain,” was his rather lame retort.
“I guess you'll be staying in here then,” Leon said with more than a touch of smugness. A sound at the door had them turning to see Elyan entering, carrying a travel pack. Leon's eyebrows rose in surprise.
“You're not out on patrol, surely! Not with your arm still injured.”
Elyan shook his head. “I'm going to Ealdor. Agravaine's arranged for me to visit Gwen.”
“What, right now?” Percival questioned, and Elyan nodded.
“I'm not much use around here with my arm like this, so it's as good a time as any,” he pointed out. “Merlin's given me some letters for his mother as well.”
“Give her my regards,” Leon said. Percival nodded agreement and pulled Elyan into a manly one-armed hug.
Gwaine waved from where he was sprawled on the bed. “Ta, then. Watch out for bandits.”
“Agravaine's planned out a route for me; I should be fine,” Elyan told him. Gwaine's eyebrows waggled so vigorously that for a moment Leon thought he might be about to have a seizure.
“Right. Well. I'll see you all in a few weeks,” Elyan said finally, and made his departure.
“Bit sudden, that,” Gwaine commented after he'd left.
Leon blinked at him. “Whatever do you mean? I think it's quite natural he should want to visit his sister.”
“Hmmm,” Gwaine said non-committally, and any further discussion was cut off when Gaius walked in and chased them out of the infirmary.
Arthur woke in a cold sweat with his heart racing, flashes of the nightmare he'd had just slipping out of his mind – there had been Agravaine, and an old woman, and Merlin, but he let them slide away into the vagueness that comes with forgetting dreams. Maybe he was a coward, but he didn't want to remember.
Merlin was late with his breakfast but Arthur forgave him when the servant entered without knocking, because heavens, was he sick of the knocking. Merlin managed to refrain from staring at the floor as well, instead giving Arthur a tentative grin which he readily returned.
“No 'rise and shine' this morning?” Arthur questioned as he moved to sit at the table, pulling on a shirt as he went.
“Well, you've already risen and you never shine, so there's not much point,” Merlin replied with a small smirk. He plonked the breakfast plate down and proceeded to potter about the room with a feather duster, creating more mess than he was cleaning up. Arthur couldn't help the rush of relief that overcame him as he realised that they were taking the first steps back towards their normal dynamic.
The morning looked to be a quiet one, Arthur noted as he moved over to his desk a short while later to get stuck into paperwork. Merlin had finished his dusting and had just lugged a bucket of water up the stairs to start mopping the floor when Arthur reached for his seal and found his hand closing around nothing but air.
He rummaged about the desk a few minutes before giving up. “Merlin, have you seen my seal?”
“What? Oh. Yeah,” Merlin said, coming over and pulling it from his belt pouch. Arthur reached to take it a bit too quickly and Merlin flinched back. There was an awkward pause.
“Sorry,” Merlin said, dropping the seal into Arthur's palm, embarrassment and frustration flashing over his face.
“S'fine,” Arthur replied a bit stiffly, turning back to his work, though he couldn't hide the slight pang of hurt. He knew it would be a while – a long while – before they were both completely back to normal, but in the mean time it put him out a bit that Merlin was still so uncomfortable around him. Every time he startled back, or Arthur made sure to act more slowly or gently around him, it was nothing but a nasty reminder of what had happened over the last week.
And, in some deep recess of his mind, an irrational part of Arthur was hurt, because the flinching and the looking down all seemed to indicate that Merlin thought Arthur would strike him, even though he knew he wasn't enchanted. And Arthur would never do that, and he knew Merlin knew that, but it still irritated him, just a little bit.
He tried not to think about that.
Agravaine was starting to get a touch worried. Arthur didn't seem suspicious but he was remembering more and more every day, and it was only a matter of time. Not to mention the fact that he was pretty sure Gwaine was on to him. Unfortunately, he was unable to initiate any unfortunate accidents regarding the knight because with Elyan gone, Percival had switched his attentions to Gwaine and now tended to lurk about his room like a big, bare-armed guard dog. Like most people Agravaine was just a little afraid of Percival, mostly because the man was ridiculously stoic and he could never tell what he was thinking.
In any case, Arthur definitely needed to be distracted, if only to buy time for Morgana to set her latest plan in motion.
“Canaad's army is mobilising,” Leon informed the council as they began to wrap up the meeting. “As of yet we don't know what we may have done to provoke him – or even if he's planning to attack us. It may just be a precaution, or a domestic disturbance.”
“Or he could be at odds with Annis' queendom. She shares a border with him,” Agravaine put in, and Arthur nodded thoughtfully.
“Best not mobilise ourselves. We don't want to get involved in something if it turns out to have nothing to do with us,” he decided. “But keep an eye on him, and perhaps send a messenger to Annis to find out what's going on.”
“We are fortunate to have her as an ally,” Agravaine commented as the council stood and began to file out of the room.
Arthur nodded. As he always did after a meeting, his eyes flickered around the room, seeking out Merlin. The servant was seated in a recess at the back of the room, napping and not being very subtle about it.
“Arthur, is everything alright with your manservant?” Agravaine asked, seizing the opportunity.
Arthur glanced over at him, eyebrows rising. “Fine,” he said shortly. “Why do you ask?”
Agravaine shifted. “I'm not sure if anyone's told you, but there were a few.... incidents while you were enchanted-”
“I am well aware of what happened,” Arthur snapped. “Is there a point to this, uncle?”
Agravaine fixed him with a mellow look. “Merely wondering if things were alright between the two of you. I know he was quite... shaken, by the whole situation.”
“Merlin and I have resolved things already,” Arthur replied curtly, though his eyes kept darting over to the servant.
“Alright, if you say so,” Agravaine said, deliberately sounding dubious. He bowed and made his exit, making sure to pause and give the sleeping Merlin a smotheringly concerned look as he passed.
Arthur was overly fond of the boy, this he knew for a fact, and if anything could distract him it would be this. Not to mention that causing a rift between the two of them would bleed over onto the knights as well. If wouldn't do to have everything return to hunky-dory so quickly, after all.
“Gwaine said to give you this from him,” Percival grinned as he sauntered onto the training field and pulled Merlin into a hug.
The servant laughed and returned the embrace before stepping back. Percival's smile faded slightly as he said softly, “Between you and me, he's not doing so well. He still can barely sit up without pain.”
“Gaius knows what he's doing,” Merlin replied, although the news brought a black cloud over his mood. He frowned, and at that moment Arthur came onto the field and glanced over at him before looking away quickly.
Merlin picked up the king's shield and they settled into practice. It was oddly quiet today, with Elyan and Gwaine gone and another troupe of knights having been sent off to deal with the supernatural threat that the old woman had brought to Camelot at the start of Arthur's enchanted period.
Merlin was distracted throughout the session, his mood turned gloomy by Percival's words. What was more disturbing, however, was how quiet Arthur was being – the king didn't attempt to banter or exchange words with him, merely watching him silently. It send a chill down Merlin's spine but he felt too awkward to ask Arthur if anything was wrong. He got the nagging feeling that the king was angry with him for some reason.
A slightly too-hard blow had Merlin backing up a step as the shield rattled his arm, and he cringed when Arthur raised his sword again. To his surprise, an odd expression flickered over the king's face before he lowered his arm.
“That's enough for today,” he called, though they'd barely been out there an hour.
Merlin stared at Arthur as he walked quickly towards the armoury, leaving Merlin standing on the field. A nervous feeling sprang up in his gut.
What's wrong with him? Is it because I can't get over the flinching thing? I don't want to keep doing it, but I can't control it... is he angry with me because he thinks I hate him...?
Suddenly he didn't feel as though they'd rebuilt their friendship as solidly as he'd thought over the last day. Filled with new doubts and turmoil, he slowly gathered up Arthur's gear and followed the king at a slow pace, guessing that Arthur's running off so suddenly meant he was trying to get away.
Arthur was fairly certain that Merlin was angry with him. After his uncle's odd hints in the court room the first thing he'd seen when stepping onto the training field was Merlin frowning at him, which wasn't exactly promising. And then throughout training he'd been quiet, distracted, and he was still flinching away...
He hasn't forgiven me after all, Arthur thought as he took off his gauntlets and hung them up. He glanced over his shoulder to find Merlin moving oddly, deliberately slowly towards the weapons room.
He's avoiding me, he thought with a pang. Stupid, stupid me, to think we could fix this so easily...
Morgana kept her hood up, obscuring her features, as she stepped into the warm depths of the roadside inn. It was raining outside and the travellers' stop was crowded, mostly with merchants moving between Camelot and Canaad's kingdom. Despite the heavy tariffs between the two empires there was still a reasonable amount of trade, and this time of year was generally busy.
It didn't take long to spy Elyan nursing his drink at a table in the back corner of the room. It took even less time to spy her other target – a large, beer-bellied, hairy-faced drunkard causing a bit of rowdiness at the bar.
Morgana knew perfectly well how to play the damsel in distress. She sat gingerly on the barstool next to him and turned her head away, pretending to be disgusted by the oaf's drunken ramblings and belches. Sure enough, her aloof demeanour attracted him like a magnet and moments later a heavy arm was dropped around her shoulders and rank breath was wafting into her ear.
“He-ey, pretty lady,” the drunkard crooned. She shoved his arm away and shifted over on the barstool.
“Please leave me alone,” she said curtly, and his great hand pawed at her shoulder.
“Awww, don't be like that-”
“I said to leave me alone!” she let a shrill note creep into her voice and sure enough, Elyan perked up in the corner. Another swipe from the drunkard knocked her hood off and moments later the knight was at her side. Despite the fact that one arm was in a sling, he had his sword whipped out within the second and pointed at the drunkard's throat.
“She said she wants to be left alone,” he said, dangerously. Morgana took advantage of the distraction to pull her hood back up.
The drunk man whimpered, eyes rolling wildly in his face. Morgana slipped out from under his arm and stepped behind Elyan as if afraid. Mentally she rolled her eyes – these knights of Camelot were all the same, so valiant, so noble, so willing to answer the call of chivalry. It was almost too easy.
“Sorry, sorry lady,” the drunk man mumbled finally, turning back to the counter where he promptly vomited all over the unfortunate bartender.
Apparently satisfied, Elyan sheathed his sword and turned to Morgana. He took her elbow, steering her to the table he'd been drinking at and pulling out a chair for her. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” she said in a soft tone, accepting the seat. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure... where are you headed? It's not safe for a woman to be travelling alone. Not in these parts.”
“I can take care of myself.” Time for the dramatic reveal – he was getting curious, leaning down to try and see under her hood.
“Your voice... it sounds familiar,” he said.
“I'm not surprised,” she replied with a smile, and looked up at him. The expression on his face switched from startled to confused to furious in a matter of seconds.
“Morgana!” he hissed, hand going to the hilt of his sword, but with a whispered word and a flash of gold in her eyes, the weapon became stuck in its scabbard.
“Please, Elyan.” She kept her tone gentle. “I haven't attacked you, have I? I just happen to be here, enjoying a drink.... travelling... we're not even in Camelot, so I don't see what the big cause for alarm is.”
“You... you...” he leaned across the table to grab her but she leaned back out of reach.
“Oh, don't start. Besides, how would it look, a man attacking a lady like that? Especially just after appearing to save her from someone else? Some people might think you were taking advantage of me.” She glanced around the inn at the other patrons, many of whom looked quite rough.
Elyan narrowed his eyes at her. “What are you doing here, Morgana?”
“Would you believe me if I just said I was travelling?” she asked. He didn't dignify that with a response. She sighed.
“Well, it's true... after all, Arthur has made it quite clear that I'm not welcome in his kingdom.”
“Are you really so surprised? You betrayed him, you killed his men, you drove his father to madness-”
“Oh, don't protect Uther.” She spat the name in disgust. “Or have you forgotten exactly who killed your father?”
“I tried to protect him, you know,” she told him. “I've protected your sister. How many times have I stood up against Uther for innocent people? But that's all been forgotten, hasn't it. I've been cast out. Just like Guinevere was.”
Elyan was watching her silently now. Morgana slowly reached across the table and patted his hand, her eyes softening.
“By the way, Elyan... I was so sorry to hear about her....”
He stiffened. “What do you mean?” he asked, slowly.
He thinks she's still alive, Morgana thought, feeling almost, almost sympathetic. Agravaine had told her everything – that Elyan thought he was going to visit her. That he had heard somewhere that she was hiding out in Ealdor, with Merlin's mother. Oh, how she would crush this dream of his.
“You don't know?” she allowed herself to sound surprised, then saddened. “Oh, Elyan... I'm so sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” he was getting angry now, getting desperate. Too easy, too easy...
“You lie.” He snatched his hand away, wincing when the movement jolted his injured arm.
“Do I look like I'm lying to you.” She gave him an earnest stare and for a moment they just looked into each other's eyes. Elyan's breath hitched.
“Arthur had her killed,” she breathed. “He might have said she was banished, but he can be so terribly, terribly jealous.... what else did he tell you? Did he say that Lancelot killed himself? He didn't. Arthur killed him.” Poison, dripping into his ear.... Elyan's eyes were wide. No spells necessary, Morgana thought smugly, he would fall right into the lie....
And abruptly he pushed his chair back with a scrape, breaking the moment.
“No, Morgana,” he said firmly, and fixed her with such an intense stare that for a moment she was actually frozen, transfixed.
“I know what you're doing,” he said, and he sounded more sad, resigned, than anything else. “I won't be so easy to manipulate as that. I know that you've been betrayed, and you've betrayed others, and you expect that people like me can be persuaded to join your cause, but we won't. I won't. I'm not like you. I know Arthur and I believe in him. I trust him. And I know that you're the one who enchanted him to do this,” he waved his broken arm at her, “So if you think I'm going to believe a word you say, you're mistaken.”
And then he peered at her as though he felt sorry for her, and that was more than Morgana could bear. Contempt, she could deal with, but pity? She didn't need pity from anyone, least of all a blacksmith-cum-knight whose sister had been destined to sit on her throne.
And if she felt just a little bit shocked that her plan had failed – because she had thought, honestly thought, that she could make him come around to her point of view, that she could manipulate him without magic to join her – she didn't let it show.
“I guess,” she said with a smirk, “that that means we'll be doing this the hard way.”
Before Elyan could react she was pointing a finger at him, muttering a spell, her eyes flashing golden. Elyan slumped suddenly, eyes glazing over as the spell swept him away from consciousness, and Morgana glanced over to two black-clad men sitting in the corner, her hired muscle for this evening. They caught her eye and came over to her, grabbing Elyan's arms and dragging him out of the inn. No one gave them a second glance, as it wasn't an uncommon sight for several men to haul their drunken comrades out of a night.
Morgana picked up Elyan's half-finished tankard and drank the rest, soothing her frayed nerves. She didn't need to hear about how dear old Arthur had anyone's belief or trust.
But he would come for his knight, she was sure of it – he was weak that way. Placed too much value in friends who would only end up disappointing him. He would come for his knight, and she would be ready.
And this time, she would bring him down for good.
“So...” Gwaine said, after almost half an hour of staring at the ceiling while Merlin sat silently beside him, lost in thought. “Are you here to talk to me, or just admire the view?”
Merlin stirred. “Sorry,” he said a touch sheepishly. “Just thinking.”
“Dangerous sport, thinking,” Gwaine replied with a grin. “First you think, then you form ideas and next thing you know you're naked in-”
“Thank you, Gwaine, but I don't really need to hear your personal experience regarding the matter,” Merlin chuckled. He shifted in his chair, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the bed. “I think Arthur's angry with me.”
A frown slowly descended over Gwaine's face, like clouds settling before a storm. “Angry with you?”
“Yeah.” Merlin looked away.
“Why?” Gwaine asked incredulously, still looking annoyed. “As if he has any right to be mad at you after what he did. It should be the other way around! He-”
“I know, I know... but I don't blame him, I'd be angry with me too.” Merlin leaned back in his chair and tilted his head back, staring up at the rafters of the infirmary. “I mean, I know he couldn't control it and all that, I've said it a thousand times, but I can't... I can't forgive him, you know? Because he's apologised, but it's like he doesn't really mean it because we both know he would never have done it in his right mind, so he shouldn't really be apologising anyway, and I can't get over it. And it's not like he even acts really angry at me, but I just think he's angry because he's being sort of quiet and... well, he's not ignoring me but he's not acting normally, so-”
“You're babbling,” Gwaine said gently, and Merlin stopped talking abruptly. They sat in silence for a little while, Merlin miserable, Gwaine thoughtful, and Merlin wondered if coming to him for advice had been the best idea. Gwaine's way of fixing things usually involved an inordinate amount of alcohol and pickled eggs.
But it was a relief, in any case, to get it off his chest, because if nothing else, Gwaine listened.
“How are you dealing with it?” Merlin asked after a moment.
Gwaine scoffed a bit. “I'm not. I have it easy, Merlin, I just lounge about in here. You have to see him every day.”
“But still, you must... have you forgiven him?” Merlin asked.
Gwaine raised and lowered one shoulder. “Like you said, Merlin, there's nothing to forgive him for. If you're asking if I'm still angry with him, I am – more about what he did to you than me – but dwelling on it isn't going to get me anywhere. And after the Lamia...” he trailed off with a frown.
Merlin rubbed a hand over his face and groaned, frustrated to no end with himself and with Arthur. He felt almost envious of Gwaine, who was so easily able to brush things off without letting them affect him – or, if they did affect him, could easily maintain a front of callousness, drown his sorrows in drink and keep everyone else none the wiser.
Strength, the dwarf at the bridge had dubbed the knight, and it fit him well. It couldn't have meant physical strength, because that was Percival – even Leon and possibly Arthur had one over Gwaine on that – but in terms of resilience? Gwaine was strong mentally, emotionally. Nothing could break him.
Merlin, on the other hand... magic, he had been called, which was fair enough considering he was magic, was a creature of magic, as Kilgharrah was so fond of saying, but at the same time it almost hurt, to know that his powers defined him and he was, presumably, nothing without them. If Arthur got courage and Gwaine got strength, why couldn't Merlin have been loyalty? He certainly deserved the title after sticking with Arthur through all this.
But there was no point dwelling on that now.
“Sorry mate,” Gwaine said finally with a wry smile, “I don't know what you want me to tell you. If you want my honest opinion, I reckon you've been pushing yourself to get over this faster than you should. You have the right to take your time about it.... it's understandable that you're not just gonna snap back to normal and be fine around Arthur. And he should understand that. And if he's angry with you for it, then he doesn't deserve your friendship and I will slug him in the face as soon as I can get out of this bed.”
Merlin smiled a bit – it wasn't quite the practical advice he'd been hoping for, but it did make him feel better.
“No problem. You're still my best friend,” he added with a grin, because after Morgana and being knighted and Arthur's coronation they hadn't been spending as much time together as they used to.
Merlin smiled back at him and for a moment he had the sudden urge to tell Gwaine about his magic. With Lancelot gone, a lot of his opportunities for using it discreetly on missions and quests had vanished, not to mention that it was lonely, not having someone to talk to about it.
But the usual paranoia and fear of judgement overcame him, yet again, and hating himself for being such a coward, he bid Gwaine a quiet farewell before slipping out, mulling over what the knight had told him.
It had been a long time since Arthur felt so alone in the world.
He didn't often wander the castle grounds, but abruptly he found himself with nothing to do – he'd been flooded with duties since he became regent, and then king, but right now Leon was organising the soldiers and Agravaine was organising the nobles, and no one had come to him with any problems, the paperwork was all filed and there wasn't a hunt on today.... so he had, for the first time in a while, free time.
And he was spending it, of all things, watching ducks.
He hadn't even known there was a duck pond in the palace garden, but apparently there was. An overweight mother duck, fattened from the scraps that got thrown her way by the kitchen boys, drifted lazily across the pond's clear surface, three rotund little ducklings sailing happily behind her.
Arthur sat and watched and ran his fingers over the scar on his hand, overcome with a strange sense of loneliness. Merlin was still angry with him – had been quiet, withdrawn, still darting him almost frightened glances whenever he moved too quickly or spoke too suddenly. He felt like he'd lost his best friend without even realising it.
He missed Gwen – oh, he tried not to think about her, but there was the truth. He missed her. She could have told him what to do, how to fix things with Merlin, but she was gone. He'd pushed her away as well.
He even missed Morgana, missed the times when they had been close. She would probably have known what to do too. Or Lancelot, he'd been close to Merlin – gone as well. Gwaine? Arthur had no idea how to act around him any more. The knight didn't seem angry or frightened of him the way Merlin was, but it felt stifling being in his presence, too many unspoken apologies and accusations hanging in the air around them. Leon was a last resort but he was stressing out over Essetir's army mobilising and always seemed about two seconds away from a nervous breakdown.
Which left Arthur alone with his thoughts and doubts and regrets.
I have royally stuffed things up, he thought, burying his face in his hands and trying to quell the headache that had been building up all day. The migraines had been getting worse, and he made the sudden decision to go and see Gaius about them.
The physician was alone in his chambers, which was a relief because Arthur wasn't sure what he'd have done if Merlin had been in there with him. I wonder if Gaius hates me as well now, Arthur thought. I'd hate me.
“Gaius,” he greeted, and the old man turned from where he'd been stirring something in a pot over the fire. It was a bit too warm and stuffy down here, and Arthur shrugged his jacket off.
“Arthur. What can I do for you?” Gaius was smiling at him kindly and the sentiment made Arthur feel oddly upset for some reason.
“I've been getting bad headaches lately,” he explained. “Do you have a tonic...?”
“Of course, of course. An aftereffect of the cholera's poison, I imagine,” Gaius replied, turning away and rifling through his cupboard where, from what Arthur could tell, he seemed to keep potions and deadly poisons alike on the same shelf. He really needed to inspect Gaius' labelling system one day – while he knew the physician was too responsible to make any unfortunate mistakes, he wasn't as confident about Merlin, and the whole setup was just an accident waiting to happen. Occupational health and safety hazard, ahoy!
Gaius finally handed over a bottle of a cloudy white liquid. “Take it with your next meal, it should ease the pain.”
“Thank you.” Arthur made to leave when suddenly a gentle hand was on his elbow, turning him back around. He looked down at Gaius curiously. “Yes?”
“Is everything alright, Arthur?” Gaius sounded so concerned, and Arthur suddenly wanted to push him away. I don't deserve your sympathy, he thought, frustrated.
“You look like there's a lot on your mind.”
“There is,” Arthur replied shortly, but Gaius just gave him The Eyebrow. Arthur sighed – he'd never been able to get one over on the family physician; not when he was growing up and certainly not now.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Gaius asked kindly, and Arthur sat down on a nearby bench. Again with the talking-about-feelings, he thought grudgingly, but he did want to get it off his chest – and he did trust Gaius.
“Does Merlin want to leave my service?” was what came out of his mouth first, surprising even him, before he realised that he did genuinely want – need – to know.
Gaius appeared startled by the question. “Not that I know of,” he said, sitting opposite and reaching for the kettle boiling over the fire. “Has he said anything to you?”
“No... I just... I mean, I know what I did,” Arthur said. He cracked the knuckles of each finger one at a time, a nervous habit. “And I apologised... I thought we were fine. That we would be fine, eventually. But I feel like he's uncomfortable around me, like he doesn't want to work for me anymore. And if he wants to leave, I'll understand. He could be your apprentice full time. I wouldn't try to stop him.”
Gaius sighed and poured him a cup of tea, pushing it across the table towards him. “Believe me, the last thing Merlin wants is to leave his job. It's only natural for him to feel a bit uncomfortable around you. I know, it's hard, but it's not your fault and it's not his fault.”
Arthur just sighed, sipped his tea and burned his tongue.
Gaius gave him a small smile. “I feel that in some ways you've been hit the hardest by this enchantment – you have to carry guilt that you don't deserve, along with a distinct lack of sympathy from everyone else.”
Arthur just gave a small snort, not particularly wanting to agree or disagree with that.
Gaius patted his elbow. “It'll be alright, Arthur. Just give him time.”
“It's a domestic disturbance,” Leon announced before the council. “A civil war, short but bloody. King Canaad has been dethroned and Lot has taken his place as ruler of Essetir.”
“Has he sent word to the kingdoms about where he stands in regard to alliances?” Arthur asked, and Leon shook his head.
“Not that I've heard of.”
“Alright,” Arthur said. He fought the urge to stretch, beginning to get fidgety at the end of the long meeting. “Keep us updated and stay in touch with Annis. I don't want us to be caught by surprise by any developments.”
Leon inclined his head and the council stood and began to file out the doors. Arthur made for the door and saw Merlin lurking by the side of the room. There was a small frown on his face, his brow furrowed, and Arthur moved over to him, trying not to appear too gawkish.
“Everything alright, Merlin?” he asked a touch stiffly.
To his surprise, Merlin looked at him and seemed willing to open up about whatever was bothering him. “Just hoping that everyone at home's alright,” he replied. “I mean... Ealdor's in Essetir. I don't know how this will have affected them.”
Arthur felt a chill spread over his body. He hadn't even thought of that. “Have you had word from your mother?”
“Not since she wrote to me about...” Merlin trailed off, looking slightly upset for some reason. “Um. Do you remember?”
“I told you last week that she had written about Gwen going to stay in Ealdor.” Merlin's gaze turned to the floor again and he seemed to be bracing himself slightly. Arthur froze, waiting for a pain in his head or a new memory to spring to life, but nothing happened.
“I don't remember, but okay,” he said, his heart suddenly seeming to beat very hard. Gwen's in Ealdor. She's safe, at least.... not that I care about her any more. Oh, who am I kidding. “Agravaine mentioned Elyan going to visit her,” he said suddenly, and Merlin nodded.
“He'll have reached the border by now,” the servant said, then his eyes widened slightly. “Oh heavens, I hope Lot hasn't got soldiers trying to stop people crossing.”
“There's nothing we can do about it now if he has,” Arthur assured him, though he was starting to feel a bit sick at the thought of his knight wandering obliviously into danger. “Elyan's smart, and he's well-travelled. He's not likely to get involved if trouble of that sort. If there are border patrols, he'll stay away, or tell them he's visiting family.”
Merlin nodded, still looking far too worried and stressed, and on a whim Arthur started to reach out to put a hand on his shoulder-
He drew his hand back unnoticed as Agravaine hurried towards him. He was waving a scroll and a newly arrived messenger was standing in the doorway of the hall.
“What is it?” Arthur demanded, walking to meet him with a frown.
Agravaine thrust the scroll towards him. “Bad news.”
There were a lot of abandoned buildings scattered about Camelot, remnants of wars or plagues or supernatural disturbances that people had cleared out of and never bothered moving back into. It was in one of these empty villages that Morgana had set up an abandoned lair, which was always semi-populated with her own hired muscle and troops of Helios' men.
Helios himself had just arrived. Morgana, who liked to pretend she was seated in a throne, was sprawled in a large chair at one end of what had once been a communal dining room. The warlord approached and stood in front of her, inclining his head in greeting.
“Welcome,” Morgana said to him.
“Hello,” he said to Morgana's chest.
Morgana raised her eyebrows until he looked at her face and grinned at her. She gave him a tight smile back, feigning more annoyance than she actually felt – while she didn't completely trust Helios, she liked him well enough. He was easy going, he knew his flaws and he was no trouble at all to manipulate.
“I sent you a messenger bird but never got a reply. I wasn't sure you were coming,” she said, pointedly.
Helios flashed teeth at her as he laughed. “I got your bird while I was on the road. I couldn't send it back because we ate it.”
“You... ate it.”
“Apologies.” He laughed again. “We were held up by bad weather and ran out of supplies on the way here. I'll arrange to have another bird sent to you.”
“Be sure you do,” Morgana replied dryly. She stood up from her throne and Helios, being the womanising gentleman he was, took her elbow and helped her down the hall steps towards the doors. “I've called you here because there were some changes to my initial plan.”
“The one where you enchant Arthur to have the people turn against him?”
“Indeed. It didn't quite work out – that meddling fool Gaius somehow managed to break the enchantment,” she spat. “But fortunately another opportunity has fallen into our hands – I've captured a knight of Camelot.”
Helios' lips stretched back from his teeth in a sneer. “Excellent. And what shall we do with him?”
“Use him as bait, obviously,” Morgana replied.
Helios' eyebrows scrambled up his forehead. “I was expecting something a little more original.”
“If it's not broken, don't fix it,” she retorted. “Arthur is too soft-hearted for his own good. I don't want him to know I'm involved just yet, so I've taken the liberty of sending him a note from you.”
“I see,” Helios said. “So what have I told him?”
“That you are in possession of one of his knights and if he ever wants to see him alive again he will come to your fortress-”
Helios interrupted her with a snort. “Soft-hearted he may be, Morgana, but no king will walk into such an obvious trap. Not for just one knight.”
“I hadn't finished,” she said frostily. “You have informed him that you wish to negotiate a possible alliance between your men and Camelot, that he may bring a few of his own soldiers and advisors with him, and that if he refuses you will bring his knight to Lot and inform the king that he was found spying. Lot's volatile and that would certainly spark a war.”
Helios nodded, eyes glinting. “Simple but effective. Even if he brings his best men they're no match for a sorceress like you.”
“Exactly,” Morgana smirked. “Exactly.”
There was an awkward silence in Arthur's chambers as Merlin folded shirts and stuffed them into Arthur's travelling pack. The lack of their usual pre-mission banter was glaringly obvious, but Arthur was poring over maps on the table and Merlin didn't want to bother him, assuming that he didn't want to talk.
“Do you have a bad feeling about this, Merlin?” Arthur asked suddenly, making him jump.
Merlin swallowed a few times. “What?”
“Before we set off on this trips you always tell me you have a bad feeling,” Arthur continued, still not looking up from his map. “Invariably something goes wrong but we're both still in one piece and we haven't started any wars, so I'm not sure if that counts as you being right, per say. Are you going to try to convince me not to go?”
Merlin wasn't quite sure what to say to that, having gotten out of the habit of inflicting his opinion of Arthur whether it was wanted or not.
“Um. No,” he said eventually, and Arthur looked up at him. Their eyes met and Merlin wasn't quite sure what expression he could read in the king's face. He didn't look angry, not really, but definitely tense – upset – almost disappointed.
“This 'Helios' lives some distance from here. It'll be a long trip.” Arthur moved past Merlin, close enough to him that Merlin expected some sort of touch – a hand on the shoulder, a clap on the back – but it never came, Arthur carefully sidestepping him and making for the door. “You should get some sleep, we leave early.”
“Yes... Arthur,” Merlin replied, buckling the bag's strap and placing it on the floor beside the bed. Arthur was holding the door open for him and he stared at the floor as he walked out, confused beyond measure.
This trip looks set to be incredibly awkward, he thought miserably. And, though he would never admit it to himself, he was starting to lose hope.
If things continued the way they were going, it was unlikely they would ever restore their friendship to what it had been.
Arthur woke up to find that he could recall, quite clearly, seizing Merlin by the throat and accusing him of treason.
He promptly staggered over to the window and threw up. Fortunately it was early enough that there was no one out in the courtyard below, or else they'd have received a rather unpleasant surprise. He sagged against the wall, feeling feverish and heady, trying to push the memory from his mind.
The self-disgust he felt was intense, piercing, like a dagger thrust into his stomach, twisting in his innards, causing him actual, physical pain. This whole situation was causing everyone grief, but himself in particular – yes, he knew that he hadn't had control over his actions, but he still couldn't forgive himself. For the hundredth time he tried to figure out what he had done to make Morgana hate him so much, but drew nothing but blanks.
Getting to his feet, he glanced out the window again. It was almost dawn and in a few hours they would be leaving to find Elyan. Moving over to the wardrobe, he got dressed and strode out of the room with a purpose. He had to make things right and there was someone he had to see before they left.
“Seriously?” Gwaine said before Arthur was even halfway through the door. “Don't tell me – you're here to pour out your sorrows about how you're wracked with guilt and can't look at Merlin without wanting to break down and cry and you need advice on how to fix everything.”
“I should start a counselling business,” Gwaine barrelled on. “I should charge people for making me listen to their problems. I should charge them in beer.”
“I reckon you people are just messing with me,” Gwaine continued. “Because I'm bedridden, I've become a captive audience. Did you know Leon and Percival have already come in here – I was trying to sleep, I was actually listening to Gaius for once – Leon was having a bit of a breakdown over Elyan and I don't even know what Percy wanted me to reassure him about.” Though his tone was indignant, there was a small smile on his face as he spoke of his fellow knights and Arthur felt suddenly, painfully, acutely left out.
There was a moment of silence as he and Gwaine stared at each other.
“Well,” Arthur said finally.
“Well,” Gwaine repeated. “What did you want, then?”
Arthur shifted, not entirely certain how to go about this. He didn't tend to spend much time alone with Gwaine – there were always other knights there, or Merlin, or bandits, enemy soldiers, creatures to distract them. He still wasn't entirely certain where he stood with the other man.... which only served to make this all the harder.
“I just wanted to say,” he ground out finally, “That I... apologise for what happened while I was under Morgana's spell. I don't think I told you before. But... I know you would never betray me. And I'm sorry.”
Gwaine blinked at him, mouth opening and shutting in a rather accurate impersonation of a goldfish. Finally he broke out into a grin.
“Come again? Did you just apologise to me?”
“I'll not say it again,” Arthur said through gritted teeth, though he struggled not to smile, feeling overcome with relief... though at the same time, Gwaine's response reminded him too much of something Merlin would normally say, and he felt a pang of despair.
Gwaine chuckled. “Don't worry about it,” he said. Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed loudly, drawing their attention.
Gwaine sighed. “Guess you lot will be off to save Elyan, then.”
“Leon and Agravaine will be here to keep you company,” Arthur told him with a smirk. “...and Gaius.”
“Joy of joys. Try not to run into too much trouble,” Gwaine called after him as he headed for the door. “And keep an eye on Merlin!”
The trip didn't get off to a good start, as everything seemed to be against them – even the weather. The sky was overcast, thick black clouds rolling ominously on the horizon with the promise of later rain, and there was a chilly breeze in the air.
For some reason everyone was rather disorganised. The horses weren't ready, the men Arthur had selected to accompany him kept hurrying off to attend to last minute things, and Agravaine was at his wit's end trying to arrange the runners who would carry news between Arthur's party and Camelot.
Amidst the confusion, Arthur spotted Merlin, talking to Gaius by the side of the courtyard. He was pleased to see that, physically at least, his manservant was looking better. He seemed less tired and the bruises on his face had mostly faded. As he watched, Merlin glanced up and their eyes met for a moment. Arthur looked away first.
Finally, half an hour late, they were ready to leave, and rode out of Camelot accompanied by sputtering blasts from the trumpeter who always announced whenever the monarch entered or left the city.
The silence was stifling.
The counsellors who Arthur had brought to assist with negotiations were talking quietly amongst themselves, as were the soldiers, but amongst the King's personal party, no one spoke.... probably due to the fact that said party consisted only of Arthur, Merlin and Percival. The lack of the other knights was glaring and Arthur found himself missing Gwaine's usual inane chatter and Merlin's prattling.
“So,” Percival said finally, and both Arthur and Merlin looked over at him expectantly. The knight shifted on his horse, and continued, “I missed part of the brief – where exactly is this 'Helios' and what exactly is the plan?”
Merlin nodded agreement to the question, and Arthur recalled that he hadn't been present at the council meeting where they discussed what their response to the ransom note would be.
“The fortress where we are to meet this warlord is on the border between Camelot and Essetir,” Arthur explained. “Helios thinks he's forced my hand by taking Elyan but what he doesn't know is that I've sent messages to Lot requesting an alliance between our two kingdoms as well as warning him of Helios' plan and explaining Elyan's presence in his land. Even if negotiations go wrong we'll still have nothing to lose. What I'm more interested in is why a warlord I know nothing about would want to ally himself with Camelot.”
“Probably a trap,” Merlin muttered, and Arthur inclined his head.
“Exactly, which is why we have the runners between us and Agravaine. If anything happens the rest of our army will be here in days. I'm fairly certain we outman a group of mercenaries.”
They rode on.
The sun was beginning to set when the rain started – spitting at first, but quickly descending into a torrential downpour that left everyone soaked to the skin. Reaching a clearing in the forest, Arthur called for the party to halt and they began to set up tents and lean-tos, a few unfortunate men chosen to remain out in the rain as sentries around the area.
Arthur tied his horse with the others under a small overhang and retreated to his tent after making sure that the watches were organised. He paused in the entranceway, searching for Merlin, and found him standing a little way away, zoned out, staring into space as rain dripped from his clothes and the tips of his hair. He fought the urge to roll his eyes – his servant really could be a dill sometimes.
“Merlin! Get in here,” he called, grabbing Merlin's arm and pulling him into the tent. Merlin startled, apparently having been lost in thought, before shooting him a cautious grin and wringing out his neckerchief.
Arthur smiled back hesitantly and there followed a thoroughly awkward moment in which they stood staring at each other. The tent was small, with a low ceiling that caused them both to stoop slightly, and narrow walls that left only a metre or so between them. The rain drummed down noisily on the canvas around them and Arthur abruptly sat down.
“You'd best take your armour off,” Merlin suggested, the moment broken. “I'll give it a polish so it doesn't rust.”
“Alright,” Arthur agreed, though he usually tended to wear his armour for the whole of these trips. Any damage to the metal, however, would just mean more work for everyone when they returned to Camelot. Merlin moved over and sat next to him, helping him undo the armour straps.
The same physical distance they'd kept between each other remained, both taking an almost embarrassing amount of care not to let their hands touch as they fiddled with straps and buckles. Arthur wanted to say something to break the silence, but he couldn't think what. He kept his eyes trained on the floor in front of him because he wasn't entirely certain what he would do if they made eye contact accidentally.
Merlin himself made absolutely no effort to start a conversation, so Arthur assumed he preferred the silence. Finally the armour was off and Arthur was left in his tunic and breeches. He pulled a blanket around him, as the temperature had dropped along with the sun, and realised that Merlin was still soaking wet.
“Have you got a change of clothes?” Arthur asked, and Merlin shook his head. Come to think, Arthur had never seen him in anything other than two different sets of clothing, so either he really liked red and blue or he for some reason was unwilling to spend his salary on new shirts.
“You can borrow some of mine,” Arthur continued, and Merlin just nodded. Arthur turned away to give him some privacy, feeling another pang of loss for the camaraderie they used to share. This would normally be the time when Merlin made some reassuring comment about how things would be fine, they'd find whoever they were looking for and bring them back alive and well. But his servant kept his silence and Arthur did nothing to push it.
If there was one thing worse than an unexpected attack by bandits, it was an unexpected attack by bandits in the middle of a raging thunderstorm.
Merlin was woken by the sensation of dread he always got before something went horribly wrong. A great flash of lightning lit up the tent and through the thin material he caught sight of several silhouettes moving about outside.
That was all the warning he got before the crashes and yells started, the chaotic noises merging together with the drumbeat of rain and the rumbling crashes of thunder. Arthur had woken by now and snatched up his sword. He shouted something at Merlin that might have been “stay here”, though it was hard to tell in all the confusion, before running out into the rain still wearing only his nightshirt and breeches.
Merlin, naturally, followed him.
The problem was, in the dark and the rain it was near impossible to tell who was friend and who was foe. Merlin was hard pressed to keep track of Arthur, dodging under swinging swords and flailing arms as he watched Arthur engage in battle with a large, hefty man wielding an axe.
Merlin took out several bandits with a flash of gold eyes and seemingly convenient falling branches, right before he was caught by the backswing of a large club and sent flying sideways to crash into a tree.
Everything went a bit foggy after that. For a few moments all he could do was grit his teeth and try to breathe through the pain that had exploded in his arm and side, and in the back of his head where it had struck the tree trunk. Water dripped from his fringe, obscuring his vision.
When it returned, the first thing he saw was Arthur falling under a hard blow from the man he was fighting.
Merlin's heart skipped a beat.
“Arthur!” he shouted, voice breaking midway, as he struggled painfully to his feet. Thrusting out a hand, he shouted a word in the Old Tongue and the bandits around the fallen king were thrown backwards by some invisible force.
A quick glance around the clearing as he ran over to Arthur revealed that the Camelot soldiers were still engaged in battle. They were heavily outnumbered – and now more bandits were crashing through the undergrowth, spilling into the battlefield – where had they all come from?
Dropping to his knees at Arthur's side, Merlin could see a rather alarming amount of blood. Forcing himself to remain calm, he swiped rain from his eyes and noticed to his relief that Arthur was still breathing.
A roar behind him had him ducking as a blade swung over his head. Merlin scrambled backwards to see a heavyset man with mutton-chop whiskers, looming over him and brandishing a rather large knife. The first thing he noted was that the man didn't look much like a bandit, with scuffed leather armour and the tattered remains of a cape hanging from his shoulders. He had no time to dwell on it, however, before the man's boot drove into his wounded side.
Pain. Pain pain pain pain pain, was all he was aware of. He struggled for breath, black spots dancing across his vision, and his magic lashed out automatically in self defence, flinging the man away from him with a startled yell.
Forcing himself to pull it together, Merlin grabbed Arthur under the arms and hauled him towards the tree line. The king's waterlogged clothes made him a dead weight but the slippery mud on the ground made for easier dragging as Merlin heaved him away from the battlefield, focusing completely on the one task of get Arthur to safety, get Arthur to safety.
Arthur opened his eyes and wished that he hadn't. The sunlight sent searing bursts of pain through head and he squeezed his eyes shut again. As he lay there, breathing heavily through his nose, he took in the hard ground under him, a tree root digging into his spine, then, as his thoughts became clearer, the fact that he was shivering, his clothes cold and sodden against his skin, and a dull pain on the side of his head.
He opened his eyes again, cautiously, and a blue cloudy sky swam into view, entirely too cheerful looking.
"Merlin?" he croaked out, and someone stirred next to him. Pushing himself upright, he looked over to see his manservant huddled next to him, knees drawn up to his chest. Like Arthur, he was dripping wet, his hair plastered to his forehead, lines of exhaustion creasing his features. If Arthur had thought yesterday morning that he was looking better, then all that had just been undone, because he seemed about to drop dead any second.
"You're awake," Merlin observed, unnecessarily. "How's your head?"
"Sore as anything. What happened?" Arthur looked about for his sword and found it alarmingly absent.
"We were attacked. I don't think they were bandits... There were a lot of them. You were knocked out. I dragged you away from the battle," Merlin explained.
Arthur frowned as he staggered to his feet and looked around. "And the rest of the party?"
"I don't know," Merlin replied, tiredly.
"Where are we? How far did you drag me?"
"I don't know! I was rather more focused on getting you out of there than leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. By the way, remember all those diets I used to put you on? They didn't work! So no, I don't know where we are, or where the others are, or where the not-bandits are-" Merlin broke off, snapping his mouth shut as he seemed to register his outburst. His eyes dropped to the ground.
Arthur tried and failed to hold back a grin, because even grumpy-Merlin was better than awkwardly-silent Merlin.
“Well. I suppose we ought to look for them, then.” He looked around and in the bright daylight, and with the ground so muddy, he could quite clearly see the tracks where Merlin had dragged him. He turned to set off, but stopped as behind him, Merlin let out a snort that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
“What?” Arthur asked, turning back to him.
A smile was tugging at Merlin's lips, which somehow made Arthur feel much better despite his throbbing headache.
“Sorry. Um. You have dirt all down your back.” Merlin levered himself to his feet, wincing slightly and favouring one side. Arthur frowned, wondering if he was injured, but was distracted a moment later as Merlin began to briskly brush the dried mud and leaves from his shirt. It was the most physical contact they'd had pretty much all week, and he stood stiffly, feeling as though if he moved in the slightest Merlin would skitter away.
“At least the rain's all gone,” Arthur observed finally, looking up at the sky. “And looks like it won't be coming back.”
“Touch wood,” Merlin muttered immediately, straightening Arthur's shirt before stepping away to press a hand against the nearest tree. Arthur rolled his eyes.
“Come on then.”
The forest was almost alarmingly peaceful. The fresh smell of rain hung in the air, the insects and birds starting to emerge now that the downpour was over. It was altogether too bright, too sunny, too happy and chirpy, and Merlin was just waiting for some evil magical creature to jump out at them.
At least Arthur seemed less annoyed with him, which was one good thing. Being thrust into a situation of peril with only each other to rely on restored a sense of normalcy to their relationship.
But, of course, not everything could be perfect. Despite the sunlight there was still a bite in the air and his clothes were refusing to dry, leaving him cold and uncomfortable, not to mention that his ribs were bruised beyond belief and his arms were sore both from being struck with the club and dragging Arthur several kilometres through perilous woodland.
“You alright back there Merlin?” Arthur called back to him, because even with a probable head injury the king was irritatingly observant.
Merlin pushed himself to walk a bit faster and winced when his ribs protested. “Fine. We almost there?”
“The clearing's just up ahead...” Arthur trailed off as they emerged into last night's campsite. The destroyed remains of their tents and lean-tos were strewn about the area, as well as several fallen trees and branches (not all courtesy of Merlin's magic – the storm seemed to have played a part in knocking things down as well).
There was no sign of Percival, the nobles or the foot soldiers, save for a few bodies strewn about in the mud. Arthur drifted between the corpses, pausing to check each one, shutting their eyes and murmuring short prayers whenever he came across a soldier from Camelot. Merlin stood silently, watching him.
Finally Arthur straightened up.
“You're right, they're not bandits,” he said. His voice was hard and cold, and though Merlin knew the anger wasn't directed at him, it brought back too many bad memories for him not to shift his gaze away to the ground.
“Who are they then?” he asked quietly.
“They seem to be Canaad's leftover men fleeing Essetir.” Arthur's scowl deepened. “I'll have to arrange to have them hunted down. We can't have them running about all over Camelot.”
“What will we do now?” Merlin cast about and saw their tent, which had caved in on itself under the strong winds and rain. After a bit of digging around he located his jacket and scarf – they were covered in mud but he was glad he hadn't lost them.
Arthur picked up a sword from one of the dead soldiers. “Well, there's no sign of Percival or any of the others. They wouldn't have gone on without us so we can only assume they're making their way back to Camelot.”
“Or looking for us,” Merlin piped up, but Arthur shook his head.
“Percival's practical beyond anything else. The counsellors we brought would only slow him down. He'll likely return to Camelot and fetch some of the other knights before searching for us.”
Merlin nodded agreement.
“We'll just have to go on alone,” Arthur decided, and Merlin blinked.
“Well, we can't exactly turn back and leave Elyan there,” Arthur pointed out, and Merlin shook his head.
“Just the two of us? Walk into a blatantly obvious trap? I really don't think-”
“You don't get to have an opinion about this, Merlin. I'm going, and you can come if you like, or else go back to Camelot,” Arthur said firmly. With a final glance at his fallen men, he took a resigned breath and straightened his shoulders before marching off into the forest.
Merlin glared at his back for a moment. I should let him go alone, I really should, he thought angrily, emotion temporarily overtaking reason.
He hated it when Arthur did this – gave him ultimatums, pushed him into things. It was one thing for the two of them to go off into danger when they were healthy, with horses and weapons and backup plans. It was another thing entirely when they were both sodden, covered in mud, injured and sleep deprived, with nothing but one sword between them. This 'Helios' would get the laugh of his life if Arthur waltzed into his fortress with his hair dishevelled wearing only a muddied nightshirt.
Not to mention that Arthur's words had cut him to the bone. Half the time the king would go on about Merlin being 'unexpectedly wise' or 'the only person he trusted', yet every time, every time, he would ignore Merlin's advice and blunder off into danger while Merlin protests went unheard. It was irritating and unwarranted and only made him more acutely aware of the difference in station between them. 'Just a servant' indeed.
After a moment of watching Arthur's retreating back, Merlin let out a frustrated sigh and marched after him. His bruises protested and he dug his nails into the palms of his hands, distracting himself.
To make matters worse, Arthur had tempted fate earlier and no amount of patting trees would stop the weather from turning against him. Merlin could smell fresh rain brewing in the air and dark clouds were already threatening to overtake the sky again.
It was going to be a very, very long walk.
The rage and frustration that had been building up in Arthur over the last few days was quickly reaching its boiling point. Everything had so quickly gone wrong – and now half his men were dead, the others were heaven-knows-where, and Elyan was still the captive of this warlord.
He was wet, and cold, and his head hurt and was sticky with blood where he'd been hit with something, and he hadn't even had the time to bury his soldiers.
And to make matters worse, the weather chose that moment to start raining again.
“Damn it!” Arthur shouted suddenly, pulling to a halt and slamming his fist against the nearest tree.
Behind him, Merlin jumped violently. Arthur paid him little heed, breathing heavily as he fought to push down his worry and irritation. He trudged on, the already damp ground quickly turning to a slippery sludge beneath them.
“Are we going the right way?” Merlin asked quietly after a while, the words almost lost in the pattering of the rainfall.
“Yes,” Arthur replied curtly, and they didn't speak again as they continued walking.
As afternoon turned to evening, the light dropped until a combination of darkness and the fact that the ground was by now practically a swamp forced them to stop. Arthur wasn't sure how much progress they had made – the maps had been lost in the attack – but he was positive they were going in the right direction. Trying to console himself with that thought, he headed towards a rocky overhang he could see nearby, Merlin splashing along after him.
The ridge provided a small patch of dry ground and cover from the rain. Definitely not enough room for them to avoid touching each other, as Arthur found when he sat down and Merlin hesitantly huddled up next to him. They sat with their shoulders pressed together, legs drawn up to keep their feet out of the rain that continued to pour down around them.
Now that they were no longer on the move every ache and pain became more acute. Arthur's head throbbed, his legs ached mercilessly and his soaked clothes began to weigh him down, uncomfortably clammy against his skin. Merlin was breathing oddly beside him – little raspy breaths that he'd suck in, hold for a few moments and then let out in a huff.
“You alright?” Arthur asked abruptly.
Merlin gave him a funny look. “Fine,” he replied, a bit coldly, and Arthur frowned. Oh, marvellous, he's going to hold a grudge against me now of all times? Mature, Merlin, mature. He vaguely registered that he was being rather unfair, but was too exhausted and put out to care that much.
“Right. Well then, we'll stay here for the night and push on in the morning.” He shifted, as there seemed to be a tree root digging right into his backside. “I'd kill for a fire... but as if there's any dry wood out there.”
“Yeah,” Merlin replied, and promptly turned his head away. Arthur glared at the side of his face for a few minutes before letting out an 'okay fine be that way' sort of sigh and focusing on feeling sorry for himself.
Merlin's sour mood from earlier had only become more sour until every tiny incident was blown irrationally out of proportion. The lack of fire, for instance – oh, they would have a fire, they would have a blazing fire by now, if, y'know, magic wasn't banned.
He knew, deep down, that it was unfair to blame Arthur for the fact that they were cold and wet right now. After all, he had proven to be far more just and rational when it came to magic than his father had been.
But right now he couldn't care less about that. He was still irritated about Arthur dragging them off on this mad quest – much as he wanted to rescue Elyan, it wasn't exactly a foolproof plan they had here. So he glared at Arthur, and Arthur glared back, and a tense silence settled over the little hollow where they sat until finally Merlin turned away.
Eventually they must have both dropped off to sleep, because the next thing Merlin knew he was jerking awake as pain flared through his ribs. He dimly registered that the rain had stopped, and it was now so dark that he couldn't see a thing in front of him, but mostly he was focused on the fact that he couldn't draw a full breath without feeling as though his lower chest was on fire and he was being stabbed repeatedly in the lung with a blunt dinner knife.
Trying and failing not to panic, he sucked in a series of short wheezes. Somehow, breathing out hurt even more than breathing in, and he found himself spluttering and coughing. The vague idea popped into his head that bending over might make it easier, but he regretted this a moment later because that only seemed to make it worse.
“Merlin?” came Arthur's panicked voice from the darkness.
There was a rustle of fabric as Arthur shifted next to him, and moments later Merlin felt a hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
“What's wrong?” Arthur asked, his usually controlled tone wavering the tiniest bit. Merlin would have been touched if he wasn't so busy trying not to keel over and die in the mud.
“Can't breathe,” he attempted to say, but it just came out as a rather strangled croak.
Arthur seemed to understand, however, and after a brief pause Merlin felt strong arms pulling him back and onto his side. He ended up sprawled rather awkwardly over Arthur's lap, but the position eased the pressure on his ribs and it wasn't long before he was gulping in full breaths gratefully.
“Thanks,” he uttered after a few moments. He tried to sit up but Arthur kept a firm grip on him.
“Lie still for a minute, would you?” the king asked, sounding oddly strained.
Puzzled, Merlin obeyed. “Is something wrong?” he questioned.
“Wrong? Apart from the fact that you nearly just had a fit and died on me? You really are an utter turnip-head, Merlin,” Arthur chided, though there was no malice in his tone, just a hint of worry that under any other circumstances Merlin would have teased him for.
Merlin resisted the urge to say something about people continuously stealing his insults.
“Sorry?” was all he came out with.
“You should be sorry,” Arthur replied in a rather fail attempt at teasing that just ended up sounding awkward. After a strained pause, he continued, “If only we had some bloody light in here. I can't even see my hand in front of my face. How badly are you injured?”
“I'm not injured,” Merlin protested, then amended, “Well, perhaps a little.”
“Define a little.”
“I just got knocked about a bit when the not-bandits attacked,” he explained. The downplaying of injuries was something that came alarmingly naturally to everyone within their friendship group – springing from an odd mixture of manly stoicness and emotional constipation when it came to receiving sympathy and concern from others.
“Define a bit.”
“My ribs maybe kind of hurt.”
“Damn it, Merlin, will you ever just tell me when you're injured?” Arthur's grip tightened on his arm a bit and Merlin couldn't repress a wince. Arthur let go immediately.
“Sorry,” he said stiffly, and Merlin rolled his eyes before realising that Arthur couldn't see him in the darkness.
“Can I get up now?” he asked. In lieu of replying, Arthur helped lever him into a sitting position, before repositioning them so that they were sitting back to back, both a way of sharing heat in the chilly night and allowing Merlin to lean back against Arthur and ease the pressure on his chest.
“I'd say there's three hours or so 'till dawn,” Arthur speculated. “Although it may just be all the clouds blocking the moonlight that's making it so dark.”
At the mention of dawn all of Merlin's earlier annoyances sprang back into place. He glared into the darkness, and the mixture of pain, exhaustion and irritation inside him conglomerated into one big block of angst sitting square in the middle of his chest.
“We're still going forward with this then, are we?” he asked, and when Arthur didn't respond immediately, he barrelled on.
“You know what, I'm done. I'm done with all this! You ask me for my opinion, you go on about how I'm the only one you can trust and then as soon as I tell you I don't like something you take that as an invitation to go ahead and do it anyway! Well guess what, Arthur, this plan of yours is absolute rubbish. I get it, you want Elyan back. I want him back too! But this isn't the way to go about it. This is you throwing a ruddy tantrum because you're annoyed about Canaad's soldiers attacking us.”
“Your brain must be an absolute turd if you seriously think we can rescue Elyan in this state,” Merlin snapped. “Because trust me, if we-”
“Shut up!” Arthur interrupted, sounding angry now. “Just shut up, will you? I'm hardly forcing you into this, am I? I told you you could go back if you wanted!”
“You know I won't leave you to go alone, you clotpole,” Merlin spat, and somehow it felt exhilarating to shout at Arthur. To let out the pent up anger that he had been building up for weeks – the frustration, the inane, miserly desire to lash out in revenge for all the pain he'd been put through under the enchantment. “You know I won't, so yes, you are forcing me into this, and I don't like it. I don't like it, Arthur! Sometimes I think you haven't changed one bit; you're still a stubborn pig-headed bully!”
Arthur was silent for a long moment, and Merlin felt a brief, piercing satisfaction at having hurt him. But just as quickly, it faded away to be replaced with a throbbing sense of shame. At his heart, Merlin was nice – too nice for his own good, in fact. He felt the instant urge to apologise but wasn't quite sure how to go about it.
“I feel I must offer you an apology,” Arthur said finally, coldly, his voice flat and expressionless. “It seems, despite my efforts, I have unwittingly caused you harm.”
“Arthur,” Merlin began, but was ignored.
“I didn't think I was forcing you into this,” Arthur continued, and there was an undertone of sadness to his words that only sent Merlin spiralling further into a sea of guilt. “I thought since you've been angry with me for days now that you'd leave if you didn't want to come along. And I can't apologise enough for what I did to you under the enchantment. I've tried... I don't want you to feel obligated to stay with me. The last thing I want is for you to-” and here he broke off, voice cracking in a rather undignified fashion.
Merlin's mouth opened and shut a few times. Finally he cleared his throat. His voice was rougher than he'd like as he responded, rather dumbly, with “been angry with you for days?”
“Well, yes,” Arthur said, sounding somewhat more composed and rather more embarrassed now. He shifted to face Merlin, despite the fact that they could both see absolutely nothing in the darkness.
“I wasn't... you prat, I thought you were angry with me,” Merlin said, with an almost hysterical laugh.
Arthur grunted in surprise. “You really are an idiot, Merlin. What reason could I possibly have for being angry with you?”
“Just... the enchantment, and how I couldn't get over it...” Merlin trailed off, feeling embarrassed now as well, and for a moment they both sat and wallowed in embarrassment together.
“Well then,” Arthur said finally. “It seems there has been a rather.... grandiose misunderstanding.”
“I'll say,” Merlin replied, and there was another long silence. He felt relieved, confused, and a bit out of place. This whole situation was rather surreal.
Arthur cleared his throat again. “For what it's worth,” he said, “I am sorry.” And it wasn't said in anger, or shame, or out of duty – it was a natural, sincere apology, and Merlin suddenly felt as though some hollow inside of himself had been filled.
“I'm sorry too,” he said, then added, half-joking, “will I finally get a proper hug now?”
Arthur gave a scoff of rather emotional laughter that Merlin wisely didn't rib him about, and moments later Merlin felt an arm around his back and he was tugged forward. As hugs went, it wasn't the best or the most comfortable, and one a scale of one to Gwaine it was probably about a Gaius-point-five. They were still both shivering and a bit damp and his ribs hurt when Arthur squeezed a little bit too hard, and his nose against Arthur's neck was probably uncomfortably cold.
But right now he felt so blissfully happy that he could do nothing but grin like a loon. The hug went on a little bit longer than was strictly manly, until Arthur pulled back a little and asked, with all the uncertainty that came with being Uther Pendragon's son, “So... friends again?”
Merlin sniffed a bit and chuckled and whacked him on the arm. “Idiot, we never weren't friends.”
Morgana was starting to get cabin fever. She had expected Arthur and his men to have arrived by now, but she supposed the violent rain and storms around the area had slowed him down. There wasn't much to do in Helios' fortress – the warlord himself was always busy either planning which village in his region to invade next or engaged in activities unmentionable. Elyan was absolutely no fun to taunt, not being in possession of a very refined sense of wit.
"Maybe he didn't get your ransom message,” Helios suggested over dinner one night. “We could send another urging him to move faster if he wishes us to keep our end of the bargain.”
“No... if he has left already it would be redundant,” Morgana pointed out. “I'll ride out tomorrow if the rain's stopped and see if they're on their way.”
Sure enough, the rain stopped, and she headed out into the forest. It was all rather depressing and muddy, the trees oversaturated and unhealthy from too much water, the sky gloomy and overcast. There was only one main trail that led from Camelot to the fortress, and she rode alongside this, her frown growing deeper as she saw no sign of the party from Camelot that should have been well on its way by now.
A crashing about in the undergrowth had her pausing and turning to conceal herself behind a conveniently large tree. Moments later Percival emerged from a patch of woodland nearby. He looked rather dishevelled, his cloak tattered and smeared with mud, his bare arms scratched from the gorse bushes that populated the area.
What's he doing out here alone? Morgana wondered, more confused than ever.
As she watched, Percival began to peer about the place as though searching for something. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, “Arthur! Merlin!”
It promptly dawned on Morgana that what should have been a simple trip through the forest had somehow ended up with the group being split up all over the place and the king and his servant lost. She wasn't sure whether to laugh, facepalm or feel irritated by the incompetence of these people.
She had hoped to lure Arthur into a trap. But this turn of events, it would seem, worked in her favour – Arthur was alone now, without his knights or men for protection (Merlin didn't count seeing as he was about as useful in a fight as a newborn kitten). It shouldn't take long to find him, and then they could kill him quickly without the fuss and bother of pretending to negotiate before bringing out Morgana as a trump card.
With a smile she turned and galloped back towards the fortress. It wouldn't be long now before Arthur was dead and the crown of Camelot was hers.
“I know you don't like leaving him behind,” Merlin said quietly, “But trust me – it's better to come back with a proper group of soldiers then wander in their unprepared. We're no help to Elyan in this state anyway.”
“I know, Merlin. I've already told you you're right – I won't say it again,” Arthur informed him as he clambered over a fallen tree. His servant seemed overly worried that Arthur's silent mood was the result of irritation at having to go back to Camelot. It wasn't. Arthur had no desire to continue on to Helios' fortress – not with Merlin injured and himself barely armed. He could see now that he'd acted without thinking, out of anger.
What he was stressing over was the fact that he had absolutely no idea where they were. The storm had ravaged the forest until most of the trails were unrecognisable. He was heading in what he hoped was the right direction but for all he knew, they were walking away from Camelot. Merlin himself didn't seem to have noticed, following Arthur with such oblivious trust that the king was starting to get quite nervous.
A sound in the undergrowth had them both freezing, Arthur raising his hand automatically as he usually would with a large party, indicating for them all to stop and be silent. Merlin edged slightly closer to him, one hand wrapped protectively around his ribcage, and Arthur readied his sword, inwardly cursing. If anything attacked them now they were just about done for.
There was a flash of movement in the bushes and someone crashed out towards them. Arthur swung his sword at them but the stranger parried the blow. As Arthur drew back he paused, mid-swing, as he recognised-
The large knight lowered his sword, a wide grin spreading over his face. “My lord!” he greeted. “Merlin.”
“You nearly gave us a heart attack,” Arthur said, though his mouth was stubbornly refusing to stop smiling. “What are you doing here? I thought for sure you'd have gone back to Camelot to fetch some of the other knights.”
“The others have gone back,” Percival explained. “General Crawley is going to send out rescue parties. But I was hardly going to leave you two wandering about alone in here – Gwaine would have killed me, for one.”
Merlin laughed, then coughed, and Percival eyed him with concern.
“Are you two alright?” he asked finally, eyes running over them in search of any life-threatening injuries.
Arthur nodded. “This idiot's gone and gotten himself cracked about a bit, but we'll be fine if we can get back to Camelot.”
Percival looked a bit confused. “Why were you walking East? Camelot's West.”
Acutely aware of Merlin staring at him in amusement, Arthur flushed. “We were heading in an arc,” he said stiffly, “To avoid any more men that might be lurking about.”
“I see,” Percival said, sounding far too much like he was humouring the king. “Well, let's get on then – we've lost the horses but at a brisk walk we can catch up with the others and be back by tomorrow night.”
They had barely moved three paces before the woods around them filled with the sound of galloping hoofbeats. Turning around they were just in time to see a large, dark-skinned warrior charging towards them on a horse. As they watched, the horse slipped on the wet ground and went skidding sideways, the man flying off. He managed to do a neat forward roll as he hit the ground and ended up in a crouch, weapons drawn, his startled expression rearranging itself into a cruel sneer.
Arthur wasn't quite sure what to think, but as he looked around, more horses and footsoldiers were emerging from the trees around them. They wore no uniform, but were armed as soldiers would be – mercenaries, he realised, and turned back to the dark man, who had gotten to his feet by now. Is this Helios?
He backed up against Percival and Merlin, sword at the ready as they glanced around, looking for any means of escape.
“Arthur Pendragon,” Helios drawled. “What a pleasure to meet you at last.”
“I take it you are Helios,” Arthur replied stiffly. “As you can see, our attempt to meet you did not quite go as planned.”
Helios guffawed, apparently taking their failed trip as an excuse to cover up his own rather embarrassing entrance. Bloody rain, it seemed, was everyone's mutual sentiment.
“No matter,” the warlord said, flapping a hand. “You've probably figured out that it was all a trap anyway.”
“What fight could you possibly have with me?” Arthur asked him, brows furrowed. “I've never met you before.”
“Oh, the fight's not with him,” a new, eerily familiar voice rang out, and Arthur stiffened, his blood running cold.
“It's with me,” the newcomer continued as she stepped out from the ranks of men who had lined up behind Helios.
Arthur swallowed, his gaze hardening.
Several things happened at once.
Morgana, for one, had learned from experience that it was best not to hang around gloating or revealing your entire plan to your prisoners before killing them. No, things went much more efficiently – and more successfully – if you executed your enemies immediately and without hesitation.
Which was why, seconds after her name had left Arthur's lips, she sent a large fireball flying towards him.
The thing about magic, Merlin had found over the years, was that it was a lot like chess. You had to be several steps ahead of your enemy at all times, planning out your own movements in advance while able to adjust them to deal with any unexpected surprise.
Merlin was not a stupid man.
But neither was he a particularly quick thinker, which was why when he saw the flames roaring towards them, he couldn't quite summon the words to dispel the fire, or perhaps create a large wall of ice to put it out. No, in this time of crisis, he reverted back to basics.
And rugby-tackled Arthur to the ground.
Perhaps the most important factor in this whole scenario was said ground. As Helios had learned the hard way, it was slippery. To be slippery enough to cause a horse to skid sideways, there had to be rather a lot of very watery mud. It was this mud that may well be owed a thank-you for saving the King of Camelot's life, because a) it gave Merlin's rugby tackle unexpected speed and force that allowed them to get out of the way in time, and b) the mud that coated the two fallen men provided some protection from the fireball as it roared overhead, singing them only slightly before it crashed into the foliage at the far side of the clearing and set the forest on fire.
“Attack!” roared Helios, with more glee than was strictly necessary. He drew his sword and charged. His men let out battle-cries and followed suit.
The first sword that swung towards Arthur and Merlin, still on the ground, was parried by Percival, who had recovered from the initial shock of Morgana's attack and was now left to valiantly fend off an army of two dozen men.
“Get up!” Merlin hissed, grabbing Arthur's arm and attempting to haul him to his feet, but failing when his feet slipped out from under him and he fell over again.
Arthur, it seemed, had inconveniently hit his head on a rock as they fell and seemed rather dazed.
Snatching up his fallen sword, Merlin swung it up in time to block another blow. With a flash of his eyes his attacker's weapon flew out of his hands and he was sent sprawling backwards.
“Get Arthur out of here!” Percival hollered as he pushed in front of the two.
Scrambling up again, Merlin found himself once again dragging Arthur away from the scene of the battle. Twice in as many days! This was really getting quite ridiculous.
With Arthur's arm slung over his shoulder, staggering under his weight, Merlin avoided the burning part of the forest and headed for the edge of the clearing, when Morgana and Helios stepped in front of him.
“Not so fast, Merlin,” she drawled.
Merlin slowly lowered Arthur to the ground behind him, hefting the sword in his hands, his heart pounding. There was no way he could fight them off without magic. His secret, it seemed, was about to be let loose – not quite how he'd imagined it happening.
“Back away, Morgana,” he said, aiming for threatening but not quite hitting his target. “I won't let you hurt him.”
She laughed at him then, cruelly. “Really, Merlin, you're even more pathetic than I thought. Even after everything he did to you, you're still so dependent on him.”
“I don't blame Arthur for any of that. I know it was your spell,” he snapped.
“My spell released urges he'd been burying for years. Gave him the freedom to say what he really thought about you, to do things only his conscience and the code of chivalry prevented him from doing.” She smiled wickedly. “Do you really think you're worth something to him? It's the other way around – you're nothing without him. If you think you've been helping him for all these years, you're woefully mistaken – he's been indulging you, Merlin, because he knows that without him your life has no purpose. None at all. Why else would he keep you around?”
Because we're friends, Merlin thought, gritting his teeth, though her words hurt. Morgana always seemed to know exactly what to say to wound him to the core, and this was no exception. You're lying, like always, you're lying.
“I said back away,” he repeated.
“Just kill him, he's nothing,” Helios grunted, stepping forward, but Morgana stopped him with a raised hand. And this, Merlin realised, was her weakness – she wouldn't hesitate to kill Arthur because, despite what she might say, she bore no grudge against him. She must know, deep down, that he had never wanted to hurt her. His only flaw was that he stood between her and the throne of Camelot.
Merlin, on the other hand, had betrayed her, like Uther. And just as with Uther, betrayal left a desire for revenge.
“Keep telling yourself that, Merlin,” she sneered. “Just remember that there was nothing in my spell to compel him to lie.”
She raised a hand, slowly, and Merlin braced himself, gathering his magic up to catch her by surprise-
With a loud roar, horses and red capes flooded the clearing. Merlin saw Morgana jump visibly, whirling around to see what the disturbance was, and he took the opportunity to lash out with his magic, hitting her with so much force that she was flung right out of his sight.
He caught sight of Leon's hair whipping back and forth as he rode about, slashing at Helios' men from horseback, accompanied by Agravaine and a troop of foot soldiers. Merlin had never been so glad to see Camelot red before.
His moment of relief was short lived as, with a holler of anger, Helios charged him, knocking him to the ground with a yelp of surprise and knocking the breath out of him. The large man's fist struck him in the ribs, causing him to see stars as for a moment he couldn't breathe, pain overtaking him as the already damaged bones screamed in agony.
Then Helios was raising his sword, and Merlin squeezed his eyes shut, trying to collect himself enough to use magic, when there was a yell of rage and Helios twisted above Merlin, raising his sword to block a blow.
Merlin's rescuer was nothing but a flurry of limbs and flashing blade as he forced Helios away from them until finally the warlord was pressed into retreat, gathering what remained of his men with a loud whistle before vanishing into the trees.
Gasping, it took Merlin a few moments to get his breath back and wait for the pain to subside before sitting up.
“Merlin!” the man who'd saved him rushed to his side, supporting him.
“Thank you... Gwaine?” Merlin almost couldn't believe his eyes. He wondered if he'd struck his head and was hallucinating.
“The one and only. You alright?” the knight seemed to have noticed his discomfort and kept one arm around his back, holding him up to keep him from putting pressure on his ribs. “You're not bleeding anywhere, are you? Can't really tell under all the mud.”
“I'm fine,” Merlin croaked, “What are you doing here? You could barely walk last time I saw you.”
“I might possibly still be barely able to walk, so let's just sit here for a minute, hey?” Gwaine chuckled, looking around and catching sight of Arthur sprawled in the mud. “Fat lot of good he's being.”
“He hit his head.” Suddenly alarmed by how motionless the king was, Merlin tried to scramble over to him, but Gwaine held him down.
“He'll be fine, Leon'll be here in a minute.”
“You didn't tell me what you were doing here,” Merlin repeated, but Gwaine had no chance to explain as Leon and Agravaine strode over, the rest of the soldiers panning out about the clearing to put out the fire and search for any stragglers from Helios' troops.
“Arthur!” Agravaine crouched next to him and lifted him up. “He's bleeding.”
Leon quickly checked him over. “He's alive, but we should get him back to Gaius quickly.”
“So many knocks to the head can't have been good for him,” Merlin said, and Leon turned to him as though noticing him for the first time.
“There you are, Merlin. We're heading back to Camelot.” He reached out and grasped Merlin's arm, pulling him to his feet. Merlin winced and hunched over a bit. If those ribs weren't broken before, they definitely were now.
“Remind me next time that 'I'm fine' is apparently Merlin language for 'actually-knocked-half-to-pieces',” Gwaine grunted as he clambered to his own feet and started swaying all over the place until Percival came up and steadied him.
“You should know that by now,” Merlin laughed weakly, trying not to glance over at Arthur too much as more soldiers came and hauled him onto a makeshift stretcher. “Besides, you look pretty knocked-half-to-pieces yourself.”
“He refused to stay behind,” Leon said with a long-suffering eye roll at the heavens.
“The key is to not stop moving once you've started,” Gwaine grunted as Percival pulled him towards a horse. “It's all in the momentum.”
Arthur was starting to get sick of waking up with no idea where he was or what had happened. His head hurt – again – and it took him a few moments to realise that he was actually in his own bed, which was rather odd considering his last memory was of standing in the forest with Morgana.
In his efforts to sit up quickly the room started to spin alarmingly and he swallowed as he felt nausea rising in his stomach.
“Arthur,” Gaius reassuring voice cut through the haze. “Lay back down.”
“What's happening?” Arthur demanded as he complied. He flicked his eyes about the room, trying to recollect how they had gotten from the forest to Camelot. “Where's Merlin?”
“Merlin's fine, he's down in his room resting.” Gaius waved his fingers in front of Arthur's eyes a few times, checking for any damage caused by his head injury, and the king irritably followed the movement.
“Care to explain what's been going on?” he asked when the physician finally stepped back.
Before Gaius could say anything, the door opened and Leon, Percival and Gwaine entered.
“I think I'll take my leave and let them explain,” Gaius decided, raising his eyebrow, and Arthur gave a dismissive nod, turning towards his knights as Gaius exited the room.
“My lord! It's good to see you conscious,” Leon said, coming up by his bedside.
“It's good to be conscious; now could someone tell me how we got here?” Sometimes Arthur felt like half of his life was spent asking others to explain things to him that he didn't remember. It was rather tiring.
“The rescue parties were quicker than we expected,” Percival began. “As soon as we were attacked by the bandits the runners headed back to Camelot for help, and when my men returned and said we'd been separated they left immediately.”
“Can't go one day without getting yourself in trouble, can you,” Gwaine tutted, and Arthur resisted the urge to pull a face at him.
“It seems Helios was in league with Morgana,” he said, and Leon nodded.
“Indeed. Our men stormed the clearing when they attacked you and they fled.”
“And Elyan?” Arthur asked, as the whole point of the mission came back to him.
Leon smiled. “Good news on that front! As well as heading back to fetch help from Camelot, our scouts went on to alert Lot of both the bandit threat and Morgana's presence in the forest. In our absence he stormed Helios' fortress, captured a good amount of his men and rescued Elyan.”
“So Elyan's in Essetir?” Arthur asked, reeling from all these new developments.
Leon nodded. “Yes. He's unharmed and intends to spend some time in Ealdor before returning here.”
“And what of Morgana and the warlord?”
Leon's smile dropped off his face. “No sign of them,” he said darkly. “We've sent patrols through the forest to ensure they've left Camelot.”
Arthur gave a tired nod. “Right. Thank you, Leon. And you, Percival – if you hadn't been there to hold of Helios' men, Merlin and I would be dead.”
“We'll leave you to rest,” Leon advised, and trooped out with Percival. Gwaine made to follow them, but Arthur stopped him with a raised hand.
“Everything alright?” Gwaine asked, eyebrows raised.
Arthur nodded. “Fine. I see you took part in the rescue effort.” He ran his eyes over the knight, taking note of the doublet he wore, indicating he'd been in armour recently.
Gwaine shrugged. “I felt up to it.” He grinned a bit. “I thought I told you to keep an eye on Merlin.”
“I did,” Arthur replied stiffly, feeling a pang of guilt.
“Really? Looked the other way around to me,” Gwaine chuckled. “Oh, don't give me that face. As long as you two have made up, I'm happy.”
“We're fine now,” Arthur informed him, glad that he could say it with truth.
“Righto. He was sleeping when I last saw him; you should go sit with him,” Gwaine suggested, in the tone of voice that suggested he would be very disappointed if Arthur didn't.
Arthur nodded and they shared an awkward grin before Gwaine left the room. The king sat in silence for a few moments, fidgeting with his bandaged head. He was glad to see Gwaine up on his feet again – the more the physical injuries incurred while he was enchanted healed, the closer they came to putting all of this behind them.
Something was still nagging at him though, and he racked his brains to try and figure out what it was as he made his way down to Gaius' chambers. The physician was out on his rounds, and he spent a few moments knocking before realising that no one was at home and letting himself in.
He felt almost like an intruder as he picked his way across the cluttered space to the door leading to Merlin's room, entering as quietly as possible before sitting in the chair by the bed. As Gwaine had mentioned, Merlin was asleep, carefully lying on his side in a position that wouldn't put strain on his ribs. He was breathing much more easily than he had in the forest, and Arthur felt a weight lift from his shoulders that he hadn't realised was there.
I've missed him, he realised, as he looked around the untidy room that just reeked of Merlin, from the piles of books borrowed and never returned from Geoffrey's library to the unwashed neck scarfs tossed in the corner. It's been weeks now since we were fine around each other... I've missed him.
And then it came back to him, the thing he'd been trying to place – he had been dazed, but not unconscious during the fight against Morgana in the forest. He remembered vague flashes – mud and fire and Morgana's voice, laughing, mocking: “Why else would he keep you around? ...there was nothing in my spell to compel him to lie.”
Arthur caught his breath. Suddenly it seemed important – urgent, even – that Merlin know the untruth of Morgana's words, or the fragile restructuring of their friendship they'd built that night in the forest would fall apart.
Reaching out, he shook Merlin's shoulder, reigning in his desperation and trying as hard as he could to be gentle.
“Merlin! Wake up!”
“Wh- Arthur?” Merlin shot awake with a yelp, flailing wildly, and Arthur caught his hands to hold him still.
“Careful, you're injured,” he warned, eyes flickering to the bandages wound tightly around Merlin's chest.
Merlin blinked a few times, trying to orient himself, before tugging his hands from Arthur's grasp and squinting at him.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked, dumbly.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Checking on you, idiot.”
“How's your head?” Merlin asked, reaching up to prod at the bandage. Arthur winced and flinched away.
“It was fine before you poked it,” he grumbled, and Merlin gave a tired laugh, flopping back against the bed frame and hissing as he banged his head on the wall accidentally.
“Are you a walking injury magnet?” Arthur asked incredulously as Merlin pouted and rubbed the back of his head. “Honestly, you must be the only person who could accidentally give themselves a concussion while sitting in bed.”
“It's not my fault, it's this darn bed frame. Last time Gwaine slept in here he cracked his head off the wall as well.”
“I don't need to know about the things Gwaine has done in your bed, thanks,” Arthur teased, and Merlin swatted at him.
“Shut up. Why'd you wake me? Don't tell me – the stables need cleaning, your chamber pot needs emptying...”
Arthur's smile faltered and Merlin, noticing, stopped joking, his expression switching to serious as well.
“Arthur? What is it?”
The king sighed, rubbing a hand over his face and wondering why it always had to be so hard to start talking about these things.
“I just... you have to know... what Morgana told you in the forest,” he began, and Merlin's face tightened. Alarmed, Arthur barrelled on. “It wasn't true. None of it was true. I've never thought those things... she was lying to you-”
“Arthur,” Merlin cut in softly, and the king fell silent.
There was a tense pause before Merlin gave a quiet laugh, and Arthur looked up, startled.
“What could you possibly find funny about this?” he asked, and Merlin grinned at him – one of his wide, purely happy grins that always made the sides of Arthur's mouth twitch up in return.
“Arthur, we've been over this. Remember our little heart-to-heart under the rain?” he chuckled. “I know she was lying. You don't need to keep apologising to me. Look, if I've managed to get over this, you can too. I think the only person left who needs to forgive you is yourself.”
After a few moments Arthur gave a weak smile, and Merlin reached out to pat him on the shoulder. Arthur didn't pull away.
“There is one thing I want to tell you though,” Merlin said, becoming grave again, and Arthur frowned at him.
“What?” he asked tensely, ready for some new and horrible secret to be revealed.
Merlin looked away, picking at the edge of his blanket. “It's a bit off topic... well sort of, I mean, you've made it abundantly clear that you don't like it when we talk about Gwen or... Lancelot...”
Arthur stiffened at the mention of those two names. While the betrayal was still painful in his memory, it hurt equally as much to recall all the times he'd threatened Merlin with banishment – or, under Morgana's enchantment, struck him – for bringing up the issue. Still, after all that had happened, he owed it to his servant to at least let him speak his mind on it, so he gave a curt nod.
“Whatever you want to tell me, Merlin, just tell me.”
Merlin nodded. “Lancelot wasn't himself that day. That is, it wasn't actually Lancelot. He was nothing but a shade, controlled by Morgana.”
The information didn't come as as much of a surprise as it probably should have, Arthur realised, leaning back in the chair as he took this in. He could see, objectively, that while Lancelot had certainly harboured feelings for Gwen, he was much too controlled, too chivalrous, to ever act on them. Resentment had clouded his judgement at the time.
“That doesn't change what Guinevere did,” he said finally, and Merlin nodded.
“I know. But I thought you should know. Lance was a good man... a good friend, and I don't like you thinking that he betrayed you like that.”
“That serious expression doesn't suit you, Merlin,” Arthur replied, falling back on teasing for lack of knowing what else to do. When Merlin continued to stare at him, he offered him a smile.
“I know,” he assured him. “And I'm glad you told me.”
“Well then,” Merlin said, and sat back in bed. “Think you could let me get some sleep now?”
Arthur laughed and for a few moments made a mockery of tucking him in while Merlin beat at him with his pillow.
When he shut the door of Gaius' chambers behind him, a smile on his face, he felt happier than he had in a long time.
The exasperated shout echoed through the forest, the hoofbeats of a fleeing deer slowly fading away. Crouching behind a wall of shrubbery, a sheepish Merlin grinned and shifted his feet as he ducked to avoid a swat from Arthur.
“Sorry,” he said, not sounding it in the slightest. “It was an accident.”
“Honestly, Merlin, you somehow manage to accidentally find the driest pile of sticks in the whole forest and accidentally step on them hard enough to accidentally make a noise loud enough to scare away all the prey in this area!” Though Arthur's brows were furrowed angrily, there was a playful lilt to his voice. “I think you do it deliberately.”
Merlin spluttered a few times as he hefted a crossbow onto his back and straightened up. “Why would I do something like that?”
“Because you're a complete ninny, that's why.” Arthur swatted at him again. When the slap landed on Merlin's shoulder – drawing an indignant “Ow!” – he didn't move his hand away, instead clasping the servant's arm and pulling him back towards the trail leading to Camelot.
“I'm not a ninny!”
“Yes you are! Arthur, don't kill the nice rabbit! What if it has a family? Arthur, what did that deer ever do to you?”He mimicked in a high-pitched mockery of Merlin's voice.
Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Arthur, don't kill the unicorn, it's bad luck,” he said pointedly, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
“There was an unspoken agreement not to talk about the unicorn,” he pointed out gruffly, and Merlin let out a huff of laughter before they returned to walking in silence. But the unicorn was stuck in his mind, now – the memory of how Arthur had been willing to drink poison for him, to die for him, even though at that early point in their relationship they were nowhere near as close as they were now.
The thought warmed his heart, and he found himself glancing at his friend with undisguised affection.
“Stop making the sappy eyes,” Arthur ordered from up ahead, without turning around.
Merlin laughed again and skipped to catch up with him. One day, he'd be honest with Arthur. Tell him everything and be confident that it wouldn't ruin their whole relationship.
- fin -