After the embarrassing— 'incident' in the courtyard, which landed a quarter of Camelot's fighting force in the infirmary, Merlin's flying lessons resumed. Arthur decided it prudent that he concentrated on intensively training Merlin's fear of heights out of him before more repeats of 'catastrophic events of mass injury' occurred. While they were at it, Arthur also thought to teach Merlin how to hunt.
The ladies and knights were certainly enthusiastic about helping out after the almost three weeks break from Merlin-assisted-flirting. The ladies were kind enough to watch over Merlin on the various window sills and give him encouragement, while the knights threw objects in the air at various speeds for Merlin to catch in midflight and return to the window sill of the lady or maid calling to him. Occasionally, a lady might throw an object too and Merlin would catch it and fly down towards a knight to deliver it. And Merlin did eventually stop knocking the knights off their feet during this delivery.
Unsurprisingly, it was Lancelot who worked out that they just needed to raise a gauntleted hand over their head to give Merlin a small and high perch he could focus on to land rather than bring his attention to the ground rushing up at him. The brilliant smile the commoner knight bestowed up to Gwen, who was the one who threw the token on that first success, did much to alleviate the twist in Arthur's gut. It also helped that after delivering the token Merlin had launched himself off Lancelot's hand to land on Arthur's immediately offered arm to chirrup and chatter at him excitedly with this triumph.
Behind them, the knights and guards breathed a sigh of relief for finally discovering a solution to Merlin's landing problems which was going to hopefully save them all from further bruises. (Even if the ladies were always suitably impressed with their gallantly received injuries, it was a bit too painful to make the whole endeavour a regular staple of their duties. Also, this incident let the knights chalk up five more points on their tally board on the oblivious 'couple'.
1) Confirmation that their prince was jealous of Merlin's interaction with Gwen;
2) Confirmation that their prince was also jealous of Merlin's interaction with Lancelot;
3) That their Prince was displaying relief to finally realise Gwen and Lancelot were a courting couple and had no interest in Merlin except as a friend;
4) That Merlin would go straight to Arthur to share his happy triumph; and
5) That Arthur looked especially pleased when Merlin immediately went to him to boast of his success.)
However, Uther rather quietly and guiltily mourned Merlin's success. And this was most assuredly because it effectively ended the almost twice weekly (and very humorous) shouting and mass collisions in the courtyard. Now the men knew to stand like a field of saluting soldiers with a gauntleted fist raised, giving the falling bird a host of perches to choose from.
In spite of successfully mastering this lesson, not wanting to test providence Merlin still tried as much as possible to avoid flying when he was outside the walls of the castle. Instead, he'd take the internal route and the stairs when on his courier duties for Gaius or the Prince. Merlin was usually careful and as such a tiny bird he really was quite nimble along the sometimes very narrow corridors. However, Gaius, and Arthur were leery that he'd be able to avoid all collisions forever within the confines of the castle. And unfortunately, that spectacular collision in a corridor which they were all expecting was to eventually occur. Also most alarmingly for all concerned, the King was to regret wistfully missing having bird and man collisions occurring around his Court.
Uther groaned as he eased out of the comfortable darkness surrounding him to find himself in his bed and Gaius hovering. He blinked at the concerned look his old friend was giving him as he tried to remember what had happened earlier to have landed him back in his Royal suites.
"Was I thrown from my horse?" He asked warily as he allowed Gaius to help him sit up so that he could take a sip of water. His whole body felt like he'd landed with a hard impact upon his back.
"You— really— don't remember?"
Uther frowned as he tried to piece together what he last remembered while he absently rubbed a bruised spot in the centre of his chest. Uther recalled rounding the corner of a passage while talking to Geoffrey and— he had heard Leon's shout of "Watch out for the— " mingled with a terrified screech just as a small but very solid force hit him in the chest, knocked him off his feet and smashed him back against a wall. Leon's rather defeated voice saying the word "King" lingered in his mind before he blacked out.
"Merlin collided with me in the corridor?"
"Err— " Gaius's expression was so filled with chagrin and worry, Uther couldn't help himself; he grabbed a pillow and started laughing into its soft surface.
"Are you all right, Sire?"
Uther had tears of laughter in his eyes as he gazed up at his old friend. "Oh God! The poor bird must have been terrified!"
Gaius let a wry grin twitch on his lips. "Well, he was wailing quite loudly on Arthur's arm when I arrive at the corridor."
"Oh, so Arthur saw it all, did he?" Uther raised an eyebrow at Gaius before sweeping his eyes around the empty room.
"He was first on the scene, Sire."
"But he let Leon tend to me."
"Er— Sire?" Gaius gave him a guarded look.
"Come off it, old man. You're not going to convince me that my son checked on me first before his Merlin."
"Well, I heard that he did— hesitate?"
"Yes, then he picked up his bir— manservant off my chest and looked him over first while leaving my first knight to tend to me." Uther shook his head with a genuine smile still on his face. "Oh— fair is fair all around, Gaius. I had this coming after what I caused when I unnerved the poor bird— boy a couple of weeks back."
"Sire, I hardly think Merlin wou— "
"What? Oh, no, no. I'd never believe the boy has a single malicious bone in his body. I meant this accident was fate's way of punishing me for— 'helping' Merlin to land a quarter of my fighting force in the infirmary."
"And was that worth it?" Gaius gave him a disapproving lifted eyebrow.
"Oh, indubitably, old man, indubitably!" Uther laughed again as he clapped his hands together as if pantomiming guards and knights colliding. "I've always seen the aftermath. This was the first time I witnessed it as a live 'performance'."
"You— really aren't upset about your son and Merlin?"
Uther gave Gaius a wistful look. "I would be a hypocrite if I did.
"Gaius— I would have acknowledged you if you had let me."
"And I loved Ygraine too much to embarrass her before the Court when all thought you had eyes only for your fiancé." Gaius lifted his chin firmly.
"Would it have been so terrible if it had been us three?"
"It was a different age, Sire." Gaius petted his shoulder kindly. "Your knights were not as open minded and accepting as Arthur's. And—
"Arthur's situation is not the same. He has yet to express any interest in a lady, to date."
"Yes— with his manservant, however...
"Tell me, Gaius. Were we ever that stubborn or oblivious when we were their age?"
Gaius let out a bark of laughter. "The way Ygraine described it the afternoon she spent profusely apologising to me after you proposed, we drove her and Nimueh up the wall with frustration.
"In any case, Arthur still has the species problem so they still have the luxury of time to figure out what they mean to each other."
"How goes that search? It's been almost half a year since the transformation. It will be winter soon." Uther asked curiously as he lay back on his comfortable pillows. He knew better than to get up while Gaius was in the room with him. Since he blacked out, the King knew it was unlikely for the Physician to let him out of bed till the next day.
Gaius shook his head as he turned away to the table where he laid out his herbs to stir together a concoction for his king. "All paths we've researched lead back to the source of the curse. And neither Arthur nor Merlin wants to consider trusting or petitioning the Gods of the Old Religion to release him from the curse."
"But— Merlin could be a man again if he returned to the Isle of the Blessed, wasn't that what you said?"
"Merlin would prefer to be a bird by your son's side— than a man alone."
Uther eyed his old friend at these words. "Yes— I believe that. Arthur— is lucky to have such uncommon loyalty...
"Speaking of my son— where is he?"
"I believe he's run off with Merlin and some knights to do some hunting."
"Yes. From what I could gather in the general chaos surrounding this— incident, Merlin has the idea you'd want to send him to the kitchen." Uther stared at him in incomprehension for a moment before he 'got it'.
"Eat Merlin?!" Uther gave Gaius a completely horrified look. "Not only would it be unconscionable, the very idea I'd eat one of my subjects is *revolting*.
"Besides, he's so small and scrawny I'd probably choke on his bones if he was served as a meal."
"A mind filled with fear can be quite irrational." Gaius gave him a wry smile in agreement. "In any case, I understand that as a precaution Arthur and his knights mean to provide you with—alternate meal options."
"Gaius— I'm not an ogre." The King gave him an affronted look.
"Well— they are quite fond of Merlin..." Gaius shrugged. "Though with the way Merlin was wailing when they took off, I'm wondering if they'll manage to catch anything."
Contrary to Gaius's description of him, Merlin hadn't continued wailing in his terrified misery as Arthur carried him post haste away from Camelot. (They were ostensibly on a hunting trip, but Arthur was more in the mind to just let Merlin be scarce for a while around Camelot and not that he believed his father would eat him.) No, the poor bird was being very quiet and considerate to Arthur and his knights in stifling the sounds of his distress so as not to scare the game away. And it had been a very fruitful excursion so far since they'd picked up a good sized buck and several quail and rabbits. Still, Merlin was a picture of abject misery where he sat on the saddle between Arthur's thighs, with his wings covering his head as he cried softly.
Around them, Arthur's knights valiantly tried to control their smiles and laughter, because— no one seriously believed their King would eat one of his subjects— no, really— they believed it— for the most part... Well— maybe catching a few more quail or rabbits wasn't too bad an idea too. A small group broke off to disappear into the forest from time to time and return with more game tied to their saddles.
Arthur sighed again as he absently scratched Merlin's head comfortingly. "Merlin, really—it isn't that bad. It was an accident. Father, wouldn't hold it against you. Truly." The Merlin drew a wing back to make a gesture of an eviscerating cut across its body.
"You're too melodramatic. I'm telling you, my father's *not* going to hand you over to the kitchens to be carved up for his dinner. Head cook Mary would never do that to you. Besides, you're so small and scrawny you'd hardly make a mouthful, much less a meal."
Merlin raised his head to look back at Arthur and stuck out a tongue at him before hiding his head under his wings again. Arthur didn't take offence but resumed petting Merlin comfortingly while he continued to shiver and shake as if he was 'howling' 'louder' in distress.
"Look, Merlin, we've caught more than enough good plump game which would make better meals than you. If— if you're so afraid of being eaten why don't you contribute to the haul too? Why—I bet father would accept your apology if you personally hunted and caught a couple of— of rabbits for him."
For the first time since they set out, Merlin lifted his head and folded his wings behind his back again. Arthur seized on the thought to continue. "Father's really quite fond of rabbit. So if you present Mary your catch and she cooks up his favourite dish, he'll be sure to forgive you." Merlin gave him a soft and thoughtful chirp.
To one side, however, Gawain blinked as he looked from Merlin to the brace of rabbits he had hanging on his saddle; rabbits which were much larger than the scrawny adolescent bird. He wasn't the only knight to make this observation.
"Er, Merlin? You could have a couple of my rabbits." Leon quickly spurred his horse alongside to offer the dead rabbits. "Really, it's no trouble."
Merlin whistled happily and inclined a head at him. But Arthur wouldn't have it. "Oh, come on, Leon. We can be honest here."
Merlin looked back at Arthur attentively. "Merlin is fully capable of hunting his own rabbits."
"Er— Sire." Lancelot rode up on his other side and held up one of his rabbits. "Merlin isn't exactly larger than a rabbit himself. We've all more than enough to share with him."
There were murmurs of assent around them, but Arthur wouldn't be put off. "Tsk, are you all trying to encourage him to be dishonest?" He frowned at his knights in disappointment. "Come on, Merlin may be smaller than a rabbit, but he's also stronger than his namesake.
"You can't have forgotten that he's capable of knocking a full grown man off his feet. So of course he's strong enough to take on a rabbit." At this statement, several knights unconsciously fingered their breast bones as if reliving the memory of being thumped in the chest by the tiny bird.
With the confidence Arthur was expressing in him, Merlin was also standing a bit straighter on the saddle. A fact Arthur was very pleased about. "That's a good lad. So come on, let's find you some rabbits to hunt."
"Enter." Uther called out to the knock on his door while he sat at his table to watch and wait for Gaius to prepare and hand him another of his obnoxious concoctions to encourage his bruised body to heal faster. The king looked up with interest to see Sir Leon come into his chambers.
"Excuse me, sire. I was just looking for Gaius."
Uther started to stand in alarm. "Leon, you were on a hunt with my son, weren't you? Was someone injured?"
Leon coughed into his glove. "Erm—there was an injury, m'Lord. And—really it's nothing to laugh at, but we thought it prudent to ask the Physician to check—to check on Merlin."
Uther arched an eyebrow at his knight who looked like he was valiantly trying to keep a straight face. "Might I ask how Arthur's Merlin was injured?"
Leon coughed again. "Er—sire… Prince Arthur—"
"Swore you to silence?" Uther leaned on his table to eye his knight. "But wouldn't your King outrank your Prince?"
Leon sucked in a deep breath. "Erm—Right. Well—Merlin tried his hand at hunting rabbits. And—he didn't— manage to kill it at the first pounce."
Uther stared at him for a while before his face started to contort in a grimace. Leon nodded perfunctorily at his King. "Yes, m'Lord, I believe you are imagining the very thing.
"The rabbit took off with Merlin clinging to its back like he was riding a horse, and—it also tried to cram itself unsuccessfully into a hole."
Uther sat down hard clutching his ribs. "And yes," Leon went on, "seeing how it couldn't escape into its burrow with Merlin still attached to its back, the rabbit turned on him." Leon sniggered behind his glove while his King's face turned quite purple. "And—I—er—think I better give you some privacy, Sire."
The knight bowed before swiftly leaving the King's chambers while Gaius followed to lock the door after him. When Gaius returned, he solemnly handed his struggling King a pillow while raising an eyebrow with his next statement. "Yes, it sounds like poor Merlin was just beaten up by a rabbit."
Uther snatched the pillow and bellowed his laughter into it, while Gaius shook his head with a smile and laughed behind a raised hand. Truly, he couldn't remember seeing Uther laugh this much in decades.
"Oh, Gaius." Uther wheezed as he came up for air after a good ferocious laugh. "Am I a wicked man for hoping that your apprentice is never restored?"
Gaius frowned at him mock-frostily, "why, Sire, you shock me with your wickedness. You'd leave your son to pine after an unattainable love?"
"At the rate they were going before Merlin was transformed, that bet among the knights was never going to be won anyway." Uther looked at him appealingly.
"And yet we've both put more money into the pot too, *after* Merlin's transformation." Gaius scoffed at his oldest friend. "I still have faith in your son and Merlin, Sire. Somehow—someday—Arthur will find a way to turn Merlin back."
"Yes, I suppose so." Uther dropped the pillow on the table with a sigh. "Until then I'll just maintain this wicked wish that my son doesn't discover how to too soon."
Gaius smiled wryly at his King as he handed him the foul smelling mug. "Well, here it is. And if that is all, Sire, I believe I had better return to my quarters to take care of my newest patient."
"Do give my regards, Gaius. And—say 'thank you' to Merlin for me, would you?" Uther sniggered behind a fist. "I am guessing he was trying to catch me a rabbit at Arthur's instigation to make up for this morning's collision. Not that you need say anymore, but—the laugh was worth it."
"Of course, Sire."
With Gaius's departure, Uther sucked in a deep breath and leaned back in his seat to stare at the ceiling. He had to reflect on these several months since Arthur's manservant became his Merlin. It was just uncanny to Uther how much he actually liked the hapless falcon when he had always been annoyed and impatient with the manservant.
It hadn't mattered to Uther that the little raptor was not acting naturally at all and was a perfect example of the misery magic could cause to a life. But he accepted Merlin despite the stink of magic about him. It made him think about his steadfast stance against magic. Surely something which brought such comedy and humour to life around his Court couldn't be all bad and malicious.
Uther knew he was going to miss the comedy and humour when Arthur finally restored his Merlin. And he didn't doubt his son's determination and ability either. When his son finally realised what he really felt for his manservant, Uther was sure that would be when Arthur would find a way to break the curse.