“It’s been awhile,” Merlin said to Lancelot once Arthur was distracted by another knight.
“It has,” Lancelot agreed, tilting his chin down. “Fifteen years, I believe. You’ve grown well, Merlin.”
Merlin laughed in relief. “I could say the same about you. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
“And you wouldn’t have, if you hadn’t spared my life.”
“Please, don’t.” Merlin looked away as his fingers tugged on his sleeves. The last thing he wanted to remember was the day Camelot burned.
“It was a painful day for everyone involved.” Lancelot watched Arthur, watched how the knights naturally flocked to him as he talked about weaponry. “But I have to ask, what are you plans regarding Arthur?” Lancelot focused on Merlin then, eyes firm in their conviction to protect a man who didn’t even know he was in danger.
And Merlin found he couldn’t lie.
“Gwen. What are you doing here?”
Merlin rushed over and took her basket from her. Gwen looked visibly distressed with red-rimmed eyes and a worried frown. “It’s about Morgana. You asked me to tell you when she had a dream again.”
“Did she? Have a dream last night?”
“It was horrible! She screamed and cried, something about a dragon eating a poisonous snake and I could barely calm her down. She’s in her chambers now. I don’t think she’ll be leaving them today. I just wish I could do more for her.”
“It’s okay, Gwen,” Merlin reassured, leading her towards Gaius’ lab, remembering Lancelot was there. “Let’s find her a calming drought and you can tell me about her dream. Then I’ll talk to Gaius. I promise. We’ll help her.”
The kitchen was bustling with activity, the only place in the castle that was active this early in the morning. The smell of freshly baked bread was heavy in the air and Merlin savoured it as he ate his breakfast. When the Matron of the kitchen, a slim, silver-haired woman with kind eyes passed by, Merlin broke his silence. If he was right, this was the woman who claimed to know Arthur’s mother as well as she knew Arthur. More importantly, Arthur seemed to trust her.
“Can I ask you a favour?” Merlin requested as he caught her sleeve. He gave her questioning look a harmless grin for good measure. “It’s for Arthur.”
Escaping the hustle of the kitchen with some cheese, a water skin, and a shiny apple well acquainted with Merlin’s shirt, he trudged over to where Arthur was demonstrating a disarming technique, something the knights knew was a cover for Arthur to test their skills.
He ran over the conversation he'd had with Lancelot again, the reasons he gave the man for serving Arthur, saving Arthur’s life, and for ultimately betraying him. He remembered standing there, facing down Lancelot’s bewildered look as he tried to explain the logistics of preventing a war.
Thankfully, Lancelot had been convinced in the end, promising to help Merlin as long as Arthur met no harm.
That only left Merlin with a very disturbing question: Why had he saved Arthur?
A sun reflection caught Merlin’s eye, alerting him that he’d reached the field where Arthur trained. Leaning against the horse rack, Merlin waited until there was a lull in the session before waving an apple-filled hand at Arthur. The prince nodded, exchanged a few more words with Sir Beldevere before swaggering over at a leisurely pace. The smile on his face grew as he came closer to Merlin.
Merlin grinned right back.
By proxy of being Gaius’ assistant, Merlin was one of the first to know when Henry, one of the stable boys, fell deathly ill. Gaius and Merlin were summoned from their beds just as the sun rose, Merlin fully waking when it was explained how the stable boy contracted his illness.
Merlin reined in the urge to race to Arthur’s rooms and check on the prince himself. The only thought stopping him was if Arthur was truly hurt, he doubted the castle would have remained this calm.
“He’s been poisoned. I’m certain of it,” Gaius declared, straightening from where he was bent over, sniffing at the corner of the boy’s mouth. Merlin applied a cold compress to the boy’s head and silently willed his apologies.
“Is it curable? Do you have a potion to neutralise it, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” Gaius allowed, nodding towards the doorway to signal that they would discuss it later. “My boy,” he addressed the other stable boy present, “make sure he rests, and give him plenty of fluids. And two drops of this.” Gaius placed a small, round bottle into his hands, half full with some viscous, amber liquid. “No more than two drops every hour, understand! Any more than that may just kill him. Come, Merlin. We have much work to do.”
“Do you think you can cure it?” Merlin tried again once the door closed behind them and they’d moved further down the hall.
“Unfortunately, Merlin, no,” Gaius stated with regret. “It appears to be a very fast acting poison, and whoever planted that knew it. By the time an antidote is found, the boy will be dead.”
Merlin ducked his head.
“I can only be thankful that Henry felt the need to sample from Prince Arthur’s plate. Otherwise, we may be short one prince in a matter of hours if he didn’t. But it is a harsh punishment for one so young.”
Merlin’s steps slowed, fists clenched even as he nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry…for Henry. I think that this time, it’s definitely my fault.”
The physician turned, arched eyebrow raised as he took in Merlin’s dejected demeanour. “Merlin?”
“Sorry, Gaius. It’s nothing. Let’s work on an antidote, in case they decide to use it again.”
News about the Prince’s poisoned meal spread fast and wide through the servants, then the knights, and then the courtiers. Gaius tried many combinations of tinctures and potions, but in the end, didn’t find anything in time to save Henry.
Henry was sweating on the cot, moaning softly in obvious discomfort.
“I have some medicine for him, from Gaius.” Merlin held out the bottle.
“Oh, good,” the boy sitting next to the bed said. “He really needs it, he’s been like this for awhile and…it doesn’t look good.”
Merlin nodded, coming closer to the bed. The sheets were already soaked through, and from what Merlin could see of Henry’s face, it was flushed a blotchy red, dark bruises already showing on his face. Gaius had described these as acute contusions, a visible manifestation of Henry’s blood vessels rupturing as the poison raced through his body. His organs would fail, one by one, painfully bursting until Henry’s body couldn’t stand any more and succumb. Merlin couldn’t even imagine the pain he was in.
More importantly, Merlin couldn’t even imagine what he would do if it was Arthur instead lying there, slowly and painfully dying. He couldn’t help the relief that it wasn’t Arthur. “Could you fetch some water?” he asked the boy in the chair. “He’ll need it for the medicine.”
Once the boy left, Merlin shifted in place, but when Henry let out a soft whimper, he sat down in the vacated chair.
“I’m sorry.” It wasn’t exactly what he’d intended to say, but it came out unbidden.
“It…” Henry swallowed, then tried again. “It’s not your fault. We knew this could happen.”
Henry was only seventeen, a few years younger than Arthur. His life hadn’t truly started yet, and already Merlin was stealing his chance.
“I’ve always wanted to be a knight, you know,” Henry interrupted Merlin’s thoughts. “But I’m not of noble birth. This was another way for me to do what I’ve always wanted. Protect Prince Arthur. Protect Camelot. Just as his knights do. This way,” Henry breathlessly got out, “at least I was able to protect him.” Tears escaped from his eyes and rolled down the side of his face, and Merlin could see the fear he felt even in the face of that declaration.
“…Yeah.” Merlin’s fingers curled over his coat sleeve, holding it in place as he dabbed clumsily at the wetness on Henry’s face. His eyes heated too, though he didn’t know why. “I know.”
“What you asked us to do. Merlin, don’t blame yourself for this.”
Merlin’s face crumpled, sorrow flooding his chest but he didn’t cry. He nodded tightly, his hand gripping tightly onto Henry’s shoulder. “Just get better, all right?” he managed to say around the tightness in his throat. “That’s what Arthur would want.”
Henry released a shallow laugh, dark and stilted. “The only thing is, you’ve got to tell my mother, Merlin. It’s okay if everyone thought I was just filching from the prince’s plate. But I couldn’t bear it if my mother thought that. Please. Tell her the truth.”
“I will.” Merlin felt his throat constrict even further, the heat surging up his chest. “I promise, I will.”
Merlin shut the door behind him, leaned against it and took a shuddering breath. He recognized the signs that Gaius had pointed out and knew for certain now that Henry would not last the night.
Merlin went about his chores the next morning much the same as he’d done for the past few months since he’d been employed into the Pendragon household. Gossip was running rampant throughout the courts, more so in the servant’s quarters. It was true that with Uther’s sudden ascension onto the throne and his highhanded manner in handling his enemies and potential foes, the Pendragon family naturally amassed a good number of enemies and the accompanying threats. None, however, had come so close as to nearly cut down one of their own. This seemed to frighten and fascinate the people more than anything.
Though, if the populace really knew just how often Arthur’s life came close to ending, they would probably have all died of an apoplectic fit by now.
Merlin kept to himself for most of the day, weak smile fleeting and head down even when he ventured into the kitchens to fetch Arthur’s relatively late lunch. It didn’t make him feel any better when Matron stopped him from leaving, and told him that Henry had volunteered for the task Merlin originally asked of her, that they’d all willingly volunteered to ensure that the prince remained safe while eating their prepared food. The defiant nod from a maid-in-training no older than Henry had been made it even worse.
He escaped with Arthur’s lunch as quickly as he could.
The excuse for the extra training had been an acquaintance of regulations and fighting styles for the newly inducted knights, but Merlin knew better. Uther’s request had nothing to do with the welcome of the new knights and everything to do with surrounding Arthur with the highest concentration of loyal fighters for as long as possible. Merlin, and Uther apparently, knew very well that every single one of those men toiling on that practice yard would rather die before letting another assassin through to their prince.
“You didn’t manage to kill him, Will,” Merlin accused, darkly, without leaving a doubt as to how he felt about that cowardly act.
Will pursed his thin lips. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Merlin.”
Merlin felt the anger rise hot and swift inside him, at Will, using him to fulfill his own need for revenge. They were supposed to be in this together, work together. If he couldn’t trust Will to tell him his plans, how could he trust Will at all?
“Don’t lie to me! You tried to poison him! Why? Why would you do something like that?” Merlin yelled, knowing that in Will’s eyes, he was overreacting by a mile. But he couldn’t contain his rage, couldn’t even picture the chaos that would descend if Will’s plan had succeeded in killing Arthur off. Will’s men had access to the kitchens, now that they were infiltrating Uther’s army. It wouldn’t have been difficult for one of them to slip into the kitchens under the guise of filching food and tip the poison vial unnoticed over Arthur’s plate.
The thought alone made the hair on the back of Merlin’s neck stand.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Will insisted again, pushing at Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin made a sound of frustration, slamming Will into the wall with his arms and unrelenting magic. Will gasped.
“I swear, Merlin, it wasn’t me! I swear to you, it wasn’t!” Will bared his teeth. “And why do you care? It’s not like he’s family!”
Merlin faltered, both magic and arms dropping Will from his perch on the wall. Why did he care? He was playing with lives here, ringing each group around in circles with his information and hoping they never met. He couldn’t keep this up for much longer, not if Arthur was willing to send knights straight to Ealdor and Will was resorting to underhanded tactics.
He would break if Arthur or Balinor were murdered, but it seemed they were determined to do just that to each other.
“I don’t care if you were a part of it, Will. Just stay away from Arthur. Until I talk to father, stay away from him.”
“What is wrong with you? How can you protect the enemy? His father killed your people, or have you forgotten?”
“That’s right, Will. His father did. Arthur is not his father.”
“Father’s furious,” Arthur told Merlin that night, both of them on their backs, laying head to stomach on the plush rug in front of the fireplace. Merlin passed Arthur another roasted date as he spoke, tossing a handful of raw ones into the saucer hanging over the fire. “The knights still haven’t discovered who poisoned the food, and now father’s having every morsel taste tested before it even reaches me.”
“Hm. Sounds like a problem.”
“You’ve no idea. I refuse to have someone die like that for me, Merlin. And now he’s starting to worry about the line of succession. He’s never pressured me about it before but I suppose it does make some sense. If I were to be killed, there would be no heir.”
They didn’t mention that there was Valiant, that in all likelihood, Uther would turn to the knight as heir apparent.
“Is he going to marry you off then?” Merlin kept his voice level but the idea of Arthur being married to some princess made his stomach feel funny. Would the future queen allow Merlin to keep Arthur’s time and attention, allow them the moments Merlin had grown attached to?
“Not right away, no. There’ll be delegations, audiences granted for any ambassadors presenting an eligible bride. This is a negotiation, Merlin, not a fair. My marriage will affect the state of Camelot. I’m not just a prize to be won, you know.”
Merlin lifted his head, his closed-mouth grin taunting Arthur. Taking that shot would have been too easy.
“Will you at least get to pick?” Merlin asked, dropping his head back down when Arthur flicked a date off of his forehead.
“Maybe. I don’t know. Would you like to pick for me, Merlin?”
“Why not. Let’s see. I’d pick someone strong and opinionated. Someone who’d yell at you and make you laugh, who wouldn’t let you bully them around, much. And they’d be plain looking, too. Your ego’s certainly big enough without feeding beautiful children to it.”
“So basically, you’d be picking someone like yourself. Brilliant. I’m sure we’ll live happily ever after with our nine ugly children. You’ll be a nanny to them all, Merlin. Just so you know.”
Merlin laughed. “You’d have to find me first.”
“I knew you were useless,” Arthur said fondly.
Will was sitting on his bed, waiting for him when he returned from helping Arthur with his bath. He paused in the doorway, still angry at Will’s deception and more than ready to throw him out.
Will beat him to it. “Look, I know what you’re thinking. But Merlin, I would never betray you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I would never break our friendship. I swear to you on my father’s grave, it wasn’t me. I didn’t poison the prat prince.”
And just like that, Merlin believed him. “Oh, Will.”
“It’s always your kind that gives me trouble. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Will scooted up the bed, patting the mattress in front of him. “Get over here. Maybe together, we could figure out who did it .”
Only five hours in and Arthur was ready to abdicate his position as heir to the throne. That was, if such drastic measures would get him out of this farce of a marriage dance. Uther insisted on Arthur’s presence, wanting his opinion on each possible future queen. At the very least, disowned princes were not required to sit through hours of endless lists, citing each eligible lady’s virtues. He half expected the representative from Xanang to claim that their princess could thread needles with her toes, so outrageous some of the claimed talents were.
What use did he have for a wife who could recite five thousand pieces of poetry?
Now if she could train his dogs to be better hunters, he might reconsider.
Sitting upright (or as upright as a prince was expected to sit once they were nearing their sixth hour of delegation) allowed Arthur to catch a glimpse of Merlin the moment he entered the King’s Hall. If the red neckerchief and hair that looked as if Merlin had been crunched, spit, and then regurgitated by the flour grinder wasn’t enough of an attention grabber, then the manner in which Merlin was flailing would have been.
In all honesty, Arthur wasn’t quite sure that Merlin wasn’t suffering from death throes. He watched him to determine that no, Merlin was certainly not dying and yes, he was insistently trying to get a message across to Arthur. His elbows bent, one arm swung wildly over Merlin’s head, ruffling his hair on each pass. A few wrist flops and one two-fingered tap to his throat later and Arthur was still confused. What on Earth was his servant trying to say?
Arthur threw a few inconspicuous hand signals back: Wait. Retreat. Go back to base. All he received in return were blank looks and an even wilder flail of Merlin’s skinny arms.
Apparently, Merlin was an idiot who lacked the basic comprehension for hand signals.
“If you will excuse me, Father.”
It was definitely beyond boring as his Father barely gave him an amused glance before dismissing him. The representative from Xanang, an utterly forgettable man of medium height and dark features, stopped in his praise of their princess and bowed low as Arthur strode past.
Merlin intercepted him in the courtyard, latching onto his arm and dragging him along. Arthur gave up on regaining his arm when the first two tugs failed at dislodging Merlin’s grip. Merlin, in an attempt to get Arthur there faster, turned around and with hands placed on the small of his back, proceeded to push.
“For God’s sakes, Merlin! I’m not a donkey!”
“Well, then, don’t act like one!” Merlin had the audacity to yell back, pushing harder at Arthur’s back.
Arthur gave up on getting an answer out of his servant and just followed.
Where they ended up wasn’t where he expected at all.
“Merlin,” Arthur began dangerously, deciding that two days in the stocks was really too generous for his servant. Clearly, he needed to be a weekly attraction for life. “This had better not be what I think it is.”
“Oh, it’s exactly what you think it is, Arthur.” Merlin supplied shamelessly, even going as far as pointing at the informally clad woman below.
“The Lady Viviane, the only daughter of King Olaf,” Merlin solemnly announced, pointing at a blonde woman with curls, clad only in a white dress. Arthur refused to look. “She’s like a female version of you.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“You should meet her. I think you’d get along. Two seconds after meeting Gwen, she grievously insulted her.”
“She insulted Guinevere?”
“Yeah. I know, right? Gwen’s the last person you’d think anyone would want to offend. And then she said I had ginormous ears. Which isn’t a word, by the way. So,” Merlin pursed his lips. “I decided to lecture her on the virtues of kindness and tact.”
Arthur covered his face, fingers digging into his temple where a relentless rhythm was already starting. “Let me get this straight. You lectured a future queen--”
“Possible future queen.”
“—on the virtues of kindness and tact, qualities no nobleman is required to have, due to some insults she levelled against some servants.”
“Oi! We’re not just some servants. We’re royal servants!”
“How are you still alive?”
“I’m just going to pretend you never asked that. Point is, she’s kind of angry.”
“So she’s going to ask you to sack me. Or that’s what she was screeching anyway when she ran out the door. Then again, she could have been asking me to clack her, too, but I highly doubt that.”
“Again, how are you alive?”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“No, Merlin, I’m not going to help you out. Are you insane? She’s Olaf’s daughter.”
“Wait, you’re really going to sack me?” Merlin affected a wounded look.
“You’ve brought this on yourself. No, I’m not going to sack you, training another manservant to adopt your level of insolence would be difficult enough. I’ll be lending you to her for the week.”
“What? Arthur, no!”
“I don’t want to hear any arguments from you! This’ll teach you to be careful who you offend. And Merlin.” His pointed a finger between Merlin’s eyebrows, making Merlin go cross-eyed. “If I see or hear about you spying on the Lady’s Gardens again, I’ll string you up myself. Understood?”
“Right. I’m going to go now. I’m pretty sure you have better things to do so I’ll just.” Merlin scratched the side of his face, retreating backwards towards the door. Viviane, however, had other ideas.
“Stop right there! Is this any way to treat a guest of Camelot? When I told Prince Arthur that I feared for Camelot, I had no idea that it was actually a gross understatement.”
“Yeah, well. I fear for Camelot, too, if Arthur picks you. Oops.” Merlin covered his mouth, then spread his hands in a placating manner at Viviane. “I’m sorry. Really, I’m sorry. Don’t tell Arthur that.”
“Arthur? Hah! Wait until my father hears about that.”
“Do you always threaten people with your father?”
Viviane looked baffled, as if no one had asked her that before. “When they deserve it,” she nodded, “yes.”
“Right. I should go.”
“Halt right there. Arthur said you were to wait on me. So wait. Or I’ll tell my father.”
Merlin sighed, as he began to realise how long this week was going be. “Look. Have you ever tried to stand on your own? To not use your father as a crutch? Gwen and Morgana do it just fine. You should give it a try. I think you’ll be happier.”
“I’m perfectly happy now.”
“If you say so.” Merlin quickly ducked out the door.
It continued on like that, Viviane berating Merlin for his uselessness, nothing different from his usual service with Arthur, and Merlin continued to slip and be insolent against the Lady Viviane.
Gwen grew more amused by the day as she watched them bicker. Morgana only patted him on his shoulder and commended him on his handling of two royal prats.
He constantly told Viviane that she could be better than this, that she could be a person everyone liked and not merely tolerated. And he rarely allowed an insult on Gwen to pass by without remark.
He didn’t even notice the way Viviane was looking at him- from fury to curiosity, and then something else- was slowly changing until it was too late.
“I like you,” Viviane declared.
“All right. I’m not sure I like you the same but I can work on it.”
“No, Merlin. I like you,” Viviane said with meaning, bobbing her head at Merlin in an attempt to make him understand. “I’m going to tell father that I’m withdrawing my marriage offer to Arthur. I’m offering it to you.”
“No, you can’t!” Merlin protested.
“And why not?! You’re my type, I’m your type--”
“I don’t even have a type!” Merlin interrupted. “I don’t even want a type! I’m just a servant! Why can’t you just, I don’t know, pick someone else? I’m sure there are plenty of men who would be absolutely honoured to marry you. Officially. Without any offence to your father.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Viviane refuted. “We’re perfect for each other, you’ll see.”
“I’d rather not, really.”
“Well, it’s rather too late,” Viviane informed him, advancing at an alarming pace. “I’m already in love with you. So go on.”
“Go on?” Merlin asked, confused at Viviane’s expectant expression.
“Yes, go on and kiss me.” Either she was frighteningly adept at ignoring Merlin’s expressions of horror, or she mistook it for some anomaly of passion.
“No! I don’t want to kiss you! I don’t want to kiss anybody!”
“If you don’t come into this bed with me and kiss me, I will, I will…” Viviane trailed off for a moment, clearly searching for the most feared consequence she could. Merlin backed away towards the door, only freezing when Viviane raised her chin in stubbornness and pointed a perfectly maintained nail in his direction. “I will tell my father.”
“Tell your father?” Merlin repeated in horrified disbelief. “But I don’t want to go to bed with you. And it doesn’t matter what you tell your father, he’ll still kill me!”
“Argh, this is…this is just…”
“Destiny?” Viviane provided, prompting Merlin to flee from the room with fear.
And straight into Arthur.
“Oomph!” Merlin said.
Arthur, the gods take him, didn’t even grunt at the impact, electing instead to latch onto Merlin’s arms and holding him away from Arthur’s chest. He looked surprised to see him at first, then exasperated.
“What on Earth? Merlin. What did we say about running in the halls?”
“That it should only be done when fetching your heating bricks to make sure your toes don’t fall off from frostbite and otherwise, I should just…not?”
“That’s right. And what were you doing?”
“Rudely leaving my presence without permission!” Viviane finally caught up to Merlin, pausing at the doorway to take in the compromising position Arthur and Merlin were in. With a look of indignation, Viviane stomped over and actually ducked under Arthur’s arm to insert herself between Arthur and his manservant.
It apparently yielded the effect Viviane was going for, since Arthur immediately sprang away from them both. Merlin didn’t blame him. King Olaf was a bit trigger happy when it came to declaring supreme warfare for his daughter.
“Lady Viviane!” Arthur eyed the possessive way Viviane placed a hand on Merlin, saw the way Merlin’s eyes pleaded with him and decided enough was enough. “Lady Viviane, I’m aware that your need of Merlin as a manservant is great. However, I must ask for him back. He has duties he’s been neglecting that can no longer be postponed.”
“That’s absurd! You said you’d spare him for a week. It’s only been four days.”
“Be that as it may,” Arthur nodded, hand gesturing towards Viviane, “it’s still inappropriate for a male servant to be tending you. Guinevere is one of our finest, and I assure you, she will fulfil your every requirement. Now if you’ll excuse me. Merlin? Come.”
For once, Merlin didn’t mind being summoned like a dog. He escaped Viviane’s clutches, bowed, and raced after Arthur.
It wasn’t Merlin’s intention to spy on the Lady’s Gardens again, a place dedicated solely for the women of Uther’s court, but Gaius had specifically asked him to bring some draught to the Lady Viviane, and Gwen had informed him that she’d been sequestered here for the past two days. He entered from the side gate, spotting Viviane sitting on a stone bench against the wall.
She was slumped over, hand covering her chin and Merlin felt his heart sink. He had no idea what to do with a crying person.
She straightened as he neared and Merlin was intensely relieved to see that she wasn’t crying at all, merely thinking. He sat next to her.
“I thought you were avoiding me?”
Merlin handed her the draught and then rubbed his hands on top of his thighs. “I’m not so much avoiding you as avoiding death by your father.”
Viviane chuckled at that, twirling the bottle between her hands. “He can be a mite overprotective.”
“All right, a lot,” Viviane admitted with a laugh, her head tilting as she spoke. “I’m all he has left, you know. From the memories of my mother. I’m sure Arthur’s inflicted with the same.”
“Yeah, parents are funny like that.” Except in Uther’s case, overprotective barely skimmed the issue. If mass genocide was the answer to a spouse’s passing, Merlin could only be glad that both his parents were alive. He didn’t want to imagine what his life would be like if Balinor or Hunith had died.
Merlin leaned against the wall and looked at Viviane. “You’re not in love with me, you know. You can’t be. You barely know me.”
“I know you enough,” Viviane insisted.
“I’m a servant. And you’re royalty. Your father would never approve. We have nothing in common and more importantly, I’m already in love with someone else. I’m sorry,” Merlin said, not unkindly.
Viviane remained quiet after that declaration, eyes watching a bird flitting about the garden. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone before. I’ve never had someone look at me and decide that I can be a better person. The expectation of it, it does odd things to me.”
“It’s called friendship.”
“Hm. Something else I’ve never had.”
“Well! No better time to start than the present, I suppose.” He offered his hand. “Hi, I’m Merlin, friend and manservant.”
Viviane giggled softly, shaking his hand in return. “Viviane. Future queen. And friend.”
They were having banquets almost every other night, honouring the various potential marriage candidates Arthur had to meet. Merlin wouldn’t mind it so much if he wasn’t required to constantly clean Arthur’s favourite coats. Honestly, the man was a prince. He had to have more than a handful of coats on hand.
Arthur’s goblet was full and he’d barely touched his meal, busy talking with the lord seated to his right. Merlin edged towards the back where he was less likely to be noticed and popped the cherry tomato he’d filched from Arthur’s plate into his mouth.
“Are you stealing food from your betters, manservant?”
Merlin jumped, glancing guiltily at his vine of cherry tomatoes before fixing eyes on Knight Valiant.
“These? Er. Arthur gave them to me. You could ask him.” Merlin pointed to where Arthur was sitting at the table. Arthur hadn’t technically given them to him but if pressed, Merlin knew Arthur would claim he did.
He might punish Merlin with the stocks later but he wasn’t too worried about it. Fresh tomatoes were hard to come by during this season.
Valiant gazed at Arthur, settling into a more comfortable position next to Merlin. Merlin glanced at the crossed arm, shrugged, and went back to popping tomatoes into his mouth.
“Has our prince decided on a bride yet?”
He shook his head, twisting one of the stems off the vine. “Not that he’s told me. It’s sort of a big affair, so I guess they’re taking their time.” Merlin side glanced at Valiant. “Why are you asking me? Shouldn’t you be asking Arthur instead?”
“You’re free. And I’m bored. Has Arthur received any special gifts?”
“Special how?” Merlin asked, perplexed.
“Something valuable and rare perhaps. Crystals. Jewellery.”
Merlin didn’t like the look Valiant was aiming at him, a hungry gleam that he didn’t trust.
“Sorry, I have to go. Duty calls and all.” Snatching a wine pitcher off of the servant’s table, Merlin made his way over to Arthur. Hand braced on the back of Arthur’s chair, Merlin refilled his goblet, watching Valiant leave the hall out of the corner of his eyes.
It was supposed to be a simple survey expedition, just Arthur and a few knights inspecting the crops, taking no more than a few hours at most before Arthur returned to Camelot. Merlin grew anxious when Arthur didn’t return after morning practice, then extremely worried when afternoon turned into evening. By the time dinner was over, Uther launched three dozen knights to track down their missing prince.
The first person Merlin searched for was Will, vividly remembering their conversation about stealing princes. Will denied any involvement in Arthur’s disappearance, promising to look into it if Merlin would just sit down before his heart gave out on him.
Morgana hadn’t seen Arthur either. It was the first time Merlin had ever looked at Morgana with suspicion, not endeared by her unconcerned state over Arthur’s disappearance.
He finally tracked down Lancelot at the blacksmith where he was visiting Gwen. They immediately left, Merlin hopeful that Lancelot would be able to pick up Arthur’s trail.
“Whoever took Arthur knew what they were doing,” Lancelot announced, taking careful steps around the grassy area. He was trying to read the tracks to determine which way they’d taken Arthur.
They’d stumbled on the area first, Merlin riding back to inform Uther’s knights of the remaining bodies while Lancelot continued on, trying to find clues of Arthur’s location. They met back in the clearing, Lancelot having lost their trail.
“Can you tell how many men there were?” Merlin couldn’t see anything but grass and twigs. He was thankful that Lancelot at least, seemed to possess some of Arthur’s tracking skills.
“Too many. Although, it doesn’t look like Arthur put up much of a fight.”
Curious. “Do you think it was someone he knows?”
Lancelot stood up, brushing his hands off. “That, or he was drugged.”
Not good. Definitely not good. “All right. Um. You might not want to be here for this.”
Lancelot balked, not willing to let Merlin risk his safety alone. “I can offer you my sword. Two men are better than one.”
“I can take care of myself, remember? Besides, if you’re ever questioned by Arthur, I don’t want you to lie to him.”
“I’d rather lie to him than not have him alive at all.”
“I know, Lancelot. I feel the same way. But this spell, I really don’t think you should be here.” He tried to give Lancelot a reassuring smile. “I promise, I’ll bring him back.”
With reluctance, Lancelot nodded and left, leaving his sword with Merlin.
Alone in the clearing, Merlin inhaled deeply, eyes drawn to one of the spots of blood. He drew the necklace he had given to Ygraine from his pocket, holding it cupped in his hand and letting the leather thong trail over his fingers.
“Arthur. Hold on. I’m coming,” Merlin whispered, eyes closing as they flashed gold.
“Arásae mid min miclan mihte þín suna to helpe. Hider eft funde on þisse ne middangeard þín suna wæs!”2
His head spun, making him nauseous and dizzy. He had no idea where he was or how he’d got there. The bed he was laying on was adequate, the room non-descript. They could be in any inn or farmhouse from here to Mercia’s castle.
The silent boy staying in the room with him was less than forthcoming, spending most of his time staring disconcertingly at Arthur. He couldn’t have been more than ten, with dark hair and penetrating eyes. They were so intense, in fact, that Arthur sometimes wondered if the boy could read his thoughts.
He was about to ask the boy about his status when the door opened.
“Ah, you’re awake.” A fair man entered the room, bringing with him a goblet of water and some food, making Arthur’s parched throat twinge in response to the promise of a drink. The man handed Arthur the goblet and when Arthur hesitated to drink it, laughed. “It’s not poisoned, I promise you. I would not kill someone I just saved.”
“You saved me?” Arthur couldn’t remember. He recalled gathering his knights and riding through some wheat fields. Everything after that was a complete blank.
“Of course. You are the prince of Camelot?”
Arthur didn’t deny or confirm, unsure whether this man was an enemy.
“What’s your name?”
“I am Alvarr. This is Mordred. And we saved you from the Dragonlords.”
“Dragonlords? They’ve always steered clear of Camelot.”
Alvarr sat on the edge of Arthur’s bed, concern on his face. “You do not know? Six months ago, the son of Balinor came to Camelot. Some say he’s infiltrated the castle, biding his time until he could kidnap the prince. I’ve never liked such underhanded tactics.”
Arthur looked sceptical. “And where did you hear this?”
“It is a rumour, though one I’m inclined to believe. There is a crystal in Camelot, containing an immense power. I believe it is this crystal that Myrrdin seeks.” Alvarr sat back and waited for Arthur’s response.
Arthur declined from commenting on the crystal, not dizzy enough at this point to blurt out treasury secrets to a mere stranger. “Where are we?”
He could see he disappointed Alvarr with his answer but the man was quick to hide it. “Two miles west of Fallen’s Valley.”
“That far?” The castle must be in an uproar by now. If he was that far away from home, not factoring in the time he’d been unconscious, then he’d been gone for—
“Two days! I need to go home.” He tried to get out of bed, another dizzy spell hitting him right before Alvarr pushed him back down.
“You’re still injured. You need to rest. We can send a messenger to your people and once you are well, you can leave for home. Until then, take it easy.” Alvarr passed a plate of food to Mordred, who’d been silent the entire time.
“Mordred here will help you. I will visit you again this evening, hm?” Alvarr smiled at him.
Once Alvarr left, Mordred came closer, holding out the plate so that Arthur could pick a morsel to eat. “He’s telling the truth.”
Arthur blinked, letting out a relieved smile as he picked a piece of cheese. “So you do talk. I was beginning to wonder.”
“There’s no point in talking if you have nothing to say.”
“True. Something my manservant could learn about.”
“No. Merlin. Although, I thought Alvarr said Balinor’s son was Myrrdin?”
“He is both.”
Arthur made a non-committal sound, making a mental note to check all the servants when he returned. If there really was a Dragonlord in Camelot, he would flush them out.
“What are you doing here? You don’t look like you’re his son.”
Arthur tore off a piece of bread, offering the other half to Mordred. The boy dragged over a chair and sat down, setting the plate on the sheets. He took the bread with a smile, the first child-like look he’d worn since Arthur first woke.
“Alvarr promised me he would find the crystal.” And just like that, their easy atmosphere was gone. The bread tasted like sand in his mouth and Arthur felt regret at having to see this child as an enemy. Mordred glanced back the way Alvarr left and sighed. “He won’t be able to get it. Not now that Emrys is there.”
Arthur placed the uneaten bread down on the plate. “Alvarr speaks as if this Myrrdin is a threat to the crystal. You don’t. Why?”
Mordred just smiled at him, this one a far cry from the innocent smile he’d given before.
The stone seared his hand, heat clinging to the necklace long after the spell had completed. He could still feel the presence lingering, gentle and soft, and Merlin knew right then that he needed to give the necklace back. He held onto it as he got his bearings, looking up the hill at the abandoned house sitting on top. It was run-down but obviously occupied, and Merlin’s gut told him that Arthur was there.
Merlin didn’t bother with subtlety, blasting the door off its hinges as he entered the house. Alvarr’s presence only confirmed that this was a trap. Arthur hadn’t been held here for long but any time spent with a man that wild and dangerous was bad enough.
He refused to tell Alvarr where Uther kept the Crystal of Neatid. It was during the resultant conversation that Merlin discovered Valiant’s role in Arthur’s capture. He had a pretty good idea now of who might have tried to poison Arthur.
Alvarr continued to taunt him, asking whether he was spying for the Dragonlords, or had betrayed the Dragonlords to join Arthur.
“Do you want me to destroy the crystal?” Merlin had asked then, ready to tear him apart if it would get him to Arthur. Alvarr made himself scarce after that.
Merlin was incredibly relieved to find Arthur unharmed. He still had some drugs lingering in his system, but nothing that Gaius couldn’t flush out.
Mordred, however, was a complete surprise.
He was the missing Druid, Merlin was sure of it. Talking with Mordred was about as cryptic as talking with the dragon but Merlin finally discovered the reason for his presence. He informed Mordred then that though he believed otherwise, he did not have the power to control such an artefact.
Mordred wasn’t impressed.
The question now remained how Merlin was going to get Mordred home with Arthur by his side.
He left the both of them at the edge of the forest, racing through the gates to find Will. His friend had grumbled at visiting a Druid camp but in the end, agreed that it would be better for Will to take Mordred back.
With Arthur’s arm thrown over his shoulders, Merlin smiled at Mordred, Arthur quiet as they watched him go. Mordred turned before disappearing into the trees.
“Thank you, Arthur. Thank you. Emrys.” Mordred smirked, eyes flickering to Arthur as he turned and left.
“Strange child,” Merlin muttered, missing Arthur’s look of disbelief.
2. Arásae mid min miclan mihte þín suna to helpe. Hider eft funde on þisse ne middangeard þín suna wæs.
Search out, to become great with my powers to help your son. Again, set out for here (for) your son, (you) were not-on-this-earth.