Merlin approached the prince’s quarters the next morning with some trepidation. He had never returned to complete his evening chores, assuming that the king and prince would want some privacy. And he had been half-right; Arthur hadn’t sent a servant after him, but coming upon Uther prowling around in Gaius’ chambers and the resulting awkward conversation/threat had left the young warlock sufficiently spooked with a bad taste in his mouth.
Taking a deep breath, he knocked once and stepped warily into the room. “Good morning, sire,” he said in an approximation of his normal cheerful tone. Setting the breakfast tray down, he turned…and stopped. “You’re dressed.”
“I was getting dressed by myself before you came, Merlin, and shall continue to do so by myself many times in the future.” Arthur said dryly from his spot at the window. “Especially since my erstwhile manservant is always late and I do not particularly wish to attend a council meeting in my nightclothes, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Merlin muttered not so quietly, frowning as he noticed the extra, slightly smaller pile of armor next to Arthur’s own. “What’s all this?”
Arthur turned from the window and smiled wolfishly. Merlin paled. “I was thinking-”
“-that although you are incredibly incompetent, I’m obviously not getting rid of you—by my choice or yours—so you need to have at least some weapons skills beaten into you. I have no idea how you’ve managed to survive this long.”
Actually, he knew perfectly well exactly how Merlin had managed to come out unscratched after a fight, but he pushed that away. Magic or not, midnight talks with dragons or not, Merlin was his servant, not Uther’s, and therefore under Arthur’s protection and personal responsibility. Until something happened to force his hand one way or the other, that was how things were going to stay.
Arthur didn’t think he could bear the weight of riding back to Eauldor to inform Hunith that her son had succumbed to the flames of Uther’s hatred. Of course, he had to actually leave Camelot first, which he wasn’t sure he would be able to do after Morgana and Gwen were finished with him.
“Just lucky, I guess.” Merlin replied, managing a wobbly smile. “Oh, and once upon a time I wasn’t chasing after a royal prat of a prince. Apparently a lot of people want to kill you.”
“Don’t know why; everyone loves me.” Arthur shrugged, but his mood darkened a bit. Most of his enemies were actually Uther’s, forged in the heat of hate and grief and revenge for their loved ones having fallen to the king’s law.
“Okay!” Merlin said brightly, edging toward the door. “I guess I’ll go get started on the laundry then—“
“We have laundresses to do that, Merlin.” Arthur rolled his eyes at the obvious ploy. “You’re not getting out of this.”
“You need to learn to defend yourself. There’s not always going to be a convenient branch to drop on someone’s head.” He watched the other man pale slightly and waited. Merlin said nothing. “Come on.” Arthur sighed. “We’ll start easy.”
“Your definition of ‘easy’ and my definition are not even in the same realm of experience.” Merlin groaned, collapsing in Arthur’s chair later that afternoon.
Arthur laughed, pulling his hapless friend out of the chair and steadying him when he nearly fell over. “It really does get easier—with practice. Lots and lots of practice,” he added with a smirk as he finished with Merlin’s armor and easily slung off his own.
Merlin fell back into the other chair with a thump as Arthur claimed his own and regarded him curiously. “I know you aren’t out of shape—you run around this castle like a rabbit, and you eat like a horse, despite appearances.”
Merlin opened his mouth to retort, but Arthur wasn’t finished. “And you can be quiet when you want; I don’t sleep that heavily, yet there have been plenty of times where you have managed to come in and get the fire going, and my clothes laid out, and breakfast on the table before I wake up.” He fixed the younger man with a look. “So what’s with the clumsy act, and what other abilities have you been hiding from me?”
He knows it is fruitless, knows the answer he is seeking won’t breach the air between them, but some inner impulse spurs him on anyway.
Merlin has no clue of his inner turmoil, taking the question at face value, and for once, considering it seriously. “I guess I’m fine on my own, but swords and other things make me nervous.” He finally answered. “You know, being noblemen’s weapons and all. I’m a peasant—hunting rabbits is one thing, but deer? In the royal forest? Not a chance. In Camelot or in Cendrid’s kingdom,” he added bitterly.
Arthur nodded slowly. It wasn’t the answer he wanted, but he was still pleased by the honesty. He wanted to ask why Merlin hadn’t said anything over the past months he had been there, but knew the answer. He assumed the castle chatelaine would show Merlin how to do his duties, had assumed that he would automatically know because it never occurred to the prince to think otherwise.
“Well, we’ll do some training every day,” he said out loud. “Being my servant elevates your status and it also raises other people’s expectations and assumptions of your skills. Those who have seen you in action know better, of course.”
“We all must maintain certain illusions of rank.” Merlin retorted cheerfully. “I’m certain there are many among the court and town who would be severely disappointed to learn that you really are a royal prat. Oh wait.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Merlin.”
Even Merlin knew to back down upon hearing that tone.
He was nearly at the door when Arthur spoke again. “Merlin. I ordered you to get out. Not your armor. Leave it right there. You’ll need it for tomorrow.”
He watched as Merlin reluctantly relinquished the armor back to the table, and slunk away. Only when the door was safely closed behind him did Arthur groan loudly, running his hands through his hair in frustration. He had returned to his bed after his conversation with the dragon—Kilgarrah—expecting to toss and turn the remainder of the night away. Instead, he had slept deeply and woken filled with new resolve.
While he was still coming to terms with the revelations and repercussions of the past few days, one thing had remained quite clear: Merlin was still Merlin. Prophecies and predictions and magic could not change the fact that his bumbling, good-natured, sarcastic, stubbornly loyal to a fault servant and friend was still just that. Arthur had felt the strength of Merlin’s faith and loyalty in him, solid down to the core. Not even the news that his bumbling, good-natured, sarcastic, stubbornly loyal to a fault servant and friend was actually a powerful warlock could change that.
Of course, that also didn’t change the fact that Arthur had every intention of dragging Merlin on a hunting trip very soon (the next day)and getting him to reveal the truth to him. No more secrets.
In the meantime, since he had resolved things towards his manservant in his own head and heart, he could now face the other problem that plagued him: Morgana.
He had always had an interesting relationship with his—Arthur stifled a shudder—half-sister. It was hard to even think, much less put into words out loud. In the time that they had known each other, they had travelled the spectrum of outright hatred to light flirting before finally landing on sibling like bickering and rivalry—and loyalty. He paused at that thought, before nodding slowly. While Morgana was usually the first to point out his shortcomings, she was also the first to stand beside him when he needed her.
Of course, it was probably more to goad him on when he felt the need to stand up to Uther in some way, but then Morgana had always been more passionate—and compassionate—than Arthur was.
Being Uther’s ward was a sore point with her; she was treated like a princess, kept in her tower like a precious jewel, but she had no real power or authority. Her marriage would be an arranged one, likely with some high ranking lord or petty prince that Uther wanted to bring under the Pendragon banner, and even then, she would never have true power or control over her life or lands. They would be in her husband’s name, and would fall back to Camelot in the event of his death.
However, if she were princess of Camelot in truth…Arthur’s eyes narrowed. Grabbing a scrap of parchment, he began sketching out his plan, coming up with all possibly scenarios and objections that he could think of and ways to counter them. Hours later, he sat back with a satisfied sigh, regarding his handiwork. Now all he had to do was convince his father…