|sam_storyteller (sam_storyteller) wrote,|
@ 2005-07-21 02:01 am UTC
|Entry tags:||merlin, r-rated|
Rating: R (Sexual content)
Warnings: Brief mention of character death (Uther, Gaius).
Summary: Arthur is king, and change is in the wind.
Betas: girlpearl and misswinterhill are to blame. This was a 2000 word vignette until they got hold of it.
Notes: Mild spoilers through 3.05.
Those were brilliant days, the autumn of that year; Merlin found to his surprise that most of the knights favoured a tournament open to the commoners as something of a novelty. With the most troublesome elder knights out of the way, the court was a little less hostile to his machinations. At night he and Arthur still sat and talked in the antechamber, while Merlin tidied and lit the fires and attended Arthur's boots, but when they'd finished talking there was Arthur's bed. The things Arthur had learned from soldiers would make a camp-follower blush. There was a strangeness to it, the desire of a man who'd spent his life in the company of men, but Merlin liked Arthur all the better for being a bit strange, and anyway he reaped the rewards.
A few weeks before the equinox, Merlin recruited the newly-knighted (and rather uneasy about it) Sir Gwaine as a bodyguard and began making plans. Arthur, sullen, hovered in the background while he packed his saddlebags.
"I'll be gone for two weeks at the outside," Merlin reminded him, as he stowed a few rolls of vellum and a pot of ink amongst his shirts.
"And what do I do if I need your advice?" Arthur demanded, crossing his arms.
"Oh, are you admitting you need my advice?" Merlin asked, grinning over his shoulder at him.
"Well, there's a first time for everything."
Merlin turned and tugged on Arthur's collar, pulling him in for a kiss. "You are the king. If you can't rule wisely for two weeks, you're not the king I thought you were."
"Maybe I don't want to rule wisely. Thinking is your job," Arthur replied.
"It'll be good for you. Character-building," Merlin reminded him. "Look, someone has to tell your devoted subjects about the tournament, or nobody will come. I need to get the lay of the land anyway, and I can bring back good information to help you rule. Gwaine will protect me."
"See that he doesn't protect his way right into your bedroll," Arthur scowled.
"Gwaine? Are you kidding me?" Merlin laughed. "He's not interested, trust me."
"He's a soldier."
"He's your knight. Even if he fancied men, he wouldn't presume on the body of the king's head servant."
"Eh..." Merlin waggled a hand, indicating the difference was negligible. "Stop fretting, Arthur. Be a good king. I'll be back soon."
"See that you are," Arthur said seriously, and Merlin -- who was a magnanimous man -- allowed himself to be distracted from packing for half an hour.
The next morning he and Gwaine rode out of the castle, down into the town where they already had news of the tournament, where children ran after Merlin's horse to see if they could touch the stirrups of Camelot's warlock and the bigger boys and girls eyed Gwaine's cloak and sword enviously. They stopped only to buy some provisions in the market, and by mid-day were on the high road through the plains, heading for the nearest villages as the court's messengers.
Outside of the castle and the town, Merlin didn't give his name, because he found people spoke more easily if they were speaking to someone they thought was a knight's servant, not the king's man. He could ask about raiding parties and farmholdings and the needs of the villages without any trouble. Gwaine drew attention as a knight, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing; often it meant word raced ahead of them and they would ride into a village to find the local chief or the tavern-owner waiting to offer them hospitality for the night. It was easy to draw a crowd for the announcement, and Gwaine could test what kind of soldiers or knights each village might provide.
Camelot was prosperous, and lovely even in the dying autumn. Merlin knew he would always think of himself as a boy from Ealdor, but he was also a man of Camelot and could take pride too in Camelot and its king. In some places, at the far reaches of the kingdom, the old ways had never really died out and that was good to see, too: the leaf-faces carved into trees, the men made of straw waiting to be burned at the harvest festival, the sheela-na-gig etched crudely into a boulder at the entryway to one of the border towns.
"What is that?" Gwaine asked, pointing at it.
"She's a ward against evil," Merlin said, stopping his horse so Gwaine could examine the boulder.
"Oh, is that what she is," Gwaine drawled.
"Sex is powerful," Merlin said with a shrug. "Especially out here."
"My kind of place," Gwaine said, and spurred his horse onwards. "Come on, Merlin, keep up or get left behind!"
That was one of their last villages before turning back to Camelot, a three-day ride along an uninhabited old road that left them sleeping on the ground at night and low on food by the time the castle was again in view. By mutual silent consent, once they could see it, they both spurred the horses into a flat-out gallop. They were already days past Merlin's two-week promise.
The sun was setting when they reached the edge of town; they slowed to a walk, to cool the horses, but it was very hard to plod slowly through the evening, up to the castle -- and of course they had to stop to greet people and to accept a certain amount of heroes' welcome home. By the time a stable-boy took their reins in the inner courtyard, Merlin was fighting the urge to run up the steps, through the corridors to the hall where Arthur would be waiting.
He was tired, he was sore from riding, he reeked of horse, and he hadn't bathed properly in nearly a week -- none of which mattered when he and Gwaine walked into the reception hall and he saw Arthur standing there before the throne. Merlin knew Camelot now, felt he knew every inch of it, the people and the fields and forests, and he knew Arthur. Somewhere in his mind the two blurred together, the way he'd always been told they should.
"Sir Gwaine, my lord Merlin," Arthur said, as was right and proper. Gwaine gave him a stiff half-bow. "Welcome home."
Then he came forward, down the steps from the throne and across the stones and he wrapped Merlin in a one-armed hug, following with the same for Gwaine, laughing and pounding them on the back.
"You both stink," he informed them, and gave Merlin an affectionate slap on the shoulder. "Gwaine, I see you brought him home safely."
"Hardly a trial, sire," Gwaine replied.
"I'm glad to hear it. We already have champions arriving for the tournament, so I suppose you both weren't entirely slack in your duties. Gwaine, off to the barracks with you, get some rest. Merlin, my chambers," he said, and Merlin felt a vague thrill run through him. "My boots are in a deplorable state."
"Well, we'll soon have that fixed," Merlin said cheerfully, and Arthur turned him by the shoulder and pushed him off towards his room -- their rooms -- hopefully towards a hot bath and a good meal.
Merlin was tired enough that when he saw Gwen standing outside Arthur's antechamber, he just blinked in confusion; she threw herself into his arms and hugged him tightly, whispering in his ear how much she'd missed him, how miserable and cranky Arthur had been, how glad she was that he was home safely. He let her pull him inside and oh -- an entire full bath of steaming water was set by the fire, and there was fruit and bread and meat on the table.
"You didn't have to do all this," Merlin said.
"I wanted to," she said, squeezing his hand, and Merlin felt like an ass. He hadn't been avoiding her, in the time since he and Arthur had begun sharing a bed, but he'd simply...not been around her as much. "Besides, once you've cleaned up and had some food, you and I need to have a talk about Arthur."
Merlin stiffened. "What about him?"
Gwen turned, saw his expression, and smiled.
"Good things only, I swear," she said, and rested a hand on his cheek. "You'll see. Only good things," and she kissed him. Not a friendly kiss on the forehead or a sisterly peck but a real proper kiss, a kiss with a sort of promise in it.
He watched her go, utterly bewildered but really too exhausted to care. He had done his duty, and young commoners were pouring into Camelot already to compete for the right to a knighthood in a few days' time. Arthur was happy to see him, and he would take Gwen at her word that good things were in the offing. He undressed with clumsy fingers, eased himself into the bath, and closed his eyes.
The tournament, it had to be said, did have a certain element of brawling to it. The common boys (and a few common girls) were not trained in swordcraft, or anyway not very much, and when swords were down they'd use their fists, which tended to throw the nobility off guard. Arthur thought it was funny; Gwen, sitting at his left hand, occasionally called for the sergeants-at-arms to separate two would-be knights long enough for them to recover their swords and fight the proper way. Merlin, who knew where the best seats for this kind of thing were, didn't bother with the tournament until it was in its last stages, when Arthur would be fighting, and then he watched from the edge of the stands, half-hidden, whenever he wasn't called by Arthur to help him with his armor.
Arthur's participation was partial and strategic, more of an exhibition than a competition since against these inexperienced fighters it was cruelty to put himself in the running for the championship. He just thinned the ranks a little, and then left the last four knights -- one noble, three commoners -- to fight amongst themselves. The winner was a young farm boy named Elred, but Merlin only heard this second-hand; he was busy preparing the following day's feast.
What happened next was an accident. It really was, no matter what Arthur might have to say on the matter. It was late, and Merlin was only looking for a quiet place to polish Arthur's dress armor.
As the king's servant he knew every inch of the castle and all its doings, but he'd forgotten about young Elred and the vigil he was supposed to sit in the castle chapel. Aside from Arthur, knights were more or less irrelevant to Merlin. He'd been told that Elred would be given a knighthood if he sat vigil until the following morning, but the information had mostly gone past him.
He was halfway to the altar steps, which were the perfect height for sitting and polishing on, when he noticed the young man kneeling in front of them. Merlin had long since grown out of his youthful rangy gawkishness, but the sight startled him and he dropped Arthur's breastplate with a clank.
"Oh! Sorry," he said, as Elred raised his head in alarm. "Didn't mean to intrude. Only..." he babbled, as he gathered up the armor, "I've just been looking for a place in the quiet to do a bit of work -- I mean it'll take me all night to get this polished up right, and people will interrupt me. You'd think Camelot didn't exist before I came along," he added, throwing himself down on the steps. Elred watched him warily. "You don't mind, do you? I could use a bit of company."
"No," Elred said slowly. "I don't mind."
"D'you want to help? I would love a second pair of hands," Merlin continued, offering him a rag and one of Arthur's greaves. "Come on up, you'll take a cramp if you're there all night and then where will you be in the morning?"
"I don't know if I ought to," Elred said. "I'm supposed to be sitting vigil."
"Well, I don't see why you can't do it comfortably. Come on," Merlin told him, patting the step. Reluctantly, Elred straightened, stretched, and lowered himself down next to Merlin. "Going to be a knight then? Who's your family?"
"Oh, nobody," Elred said, reddening.
"Yeah, mine's about the same. Still, you've done all right for yourself, eh? You'll get a coat of arms and all. Parents living?"
Merlin laughed. "Don't need to call me sir, I'm just a servant. Here you go," he added, offering the jar of polish. Elred scooped some out and began rubbing it into Arthur's greave. "That's the stuff. Bet your mum's dead proud, eh? She coming to the ceremony tomorrow?"
"She's fit to bursting," Elred confided. "Her son, a knight of Camelot! I mean, who'd reckon it. Not under old Uther -- bless him and may he rest in peace," he added hurriedly.
"Well, I'm sure Uther did the best he could," Merlin said, though he didn't bother to hide his scorn of Uther's best. "And he brought up a pretty good king."
"King Arthur's brilliant," Elred agreed. "Have you ever seen someone use a sword the way he does?"
"No," Merlin replied. He smiled. "What do you think of the rest of the court?"
"Well, I dunno, they seem alright. I haven't met many yet; I only got here just in time for the tournament, so I haven't seen much other than the armory and stands. I reckon I will tomorrow. Do you know this bloke, the king's advisor?" Elred asked. "Merlin? I was told he was important but he didn't come to the tourney."
Merlin made a quick decision as he bent to polish Arthur's breastplate. It was rare for him to feel anonymous in the castle anymore, and he ought to make the most of it, as he had when he and Gwaine had ridden the borders. "Busy helping dress the king and such, I expect. It's a big job, running things around here."
"Well, they say he's got the king's ear, and he's behind all this reform on magic. It's a bit strange, you know. What if he's listening in on us right now?"
"How would he do that?" Merlin asked, widening his eyes.
"With one of those crystal thingums. Or some kind of bubbling potion he looks into. You never know."
"Best watch what you say, then," Merlin advised, keeping his tone even as he dabbed more polish out of the jar.
"Oh, I'm not afraid of him," Elred announced.
"No?" Merlin asked, vastly amused, expecting a youthful boast of strength and fearlessness.
"I figure if Arthur listens to him he must be all right. I'd just like to see him, that's all," Elred said. Merlin looked at him, surprised, and then smiled.
"I'm sure you'll run into him sooner or later," Merlin said. "Now, mind your polishing there, don't want any stuck in the hinges. It's a bugger to get out, polish in the hinges."
"Right you are," Elred said, and bent studiously to his work.
The next morning, Elred stood proudly in the reception hall of Camelot, in front of his king and the assembled leaders of Arthur's court, including Arthur's betrothed. The Lady Guinevere had been very kind to him, when he'd come off the tourney field after winning.
"D'you know," King Arthur said, in that way he had that made him seem more like an engaging boy and less like the king, "I always thought the vigil was a bit pointless. I'm thinking of dropping it. All it does is make one tired and cramped. Did you find it useful, Elred?"
Elred considered this. "Yes, actually, I think I did, Sire," he said thoughtfully.
"In what way?"
"Well, Sire, I had a vision," Elred announced. A few people snickered, but Elred's mum was watching him like she'd never seen anything so wonderful in her life. She'd always had just a dab of the second sight, and that wasn't illegal anymore, so he pressed on. "Sire, while I was sitting vigil a man came in and spoke to me."
Arthur half-smiled. "Are you sure you didn't fall asleep, young Elred?"
"Quite sure, Sire; it was very real."
"Very well. Stranger things have happened," King Arthur said, sitting forward. "What did this man say to you?"
Elred shifted nervously. "He asked if I'd help polish some armor, Sire."
There was a long silence in the room.
"And did you?" King Arthur inquired.
"Well, it seemed a shame to just sit there while he did all the work," Elred reasoned.
"Very courteous of you," King Arthur said, sitting back. "So you helped him polish some armor?"
"Well, and then he told me to be a credit to my parents and my king and he went off again with the armor, Sire."
To his surprise, the king's laughter wasn't mocking or cruel; it was genuine, pleased, almost delighted. Elred risked a smile.
"Merlin, are you skulking?" King Arthur called. "Someone send for Merlin."
There was a rustle and a commotion in the back, and then a man emerged from a side hallway, hurrying up to the throne. Among the brocades and furs of the court he looked out of place, almost rustic in a pair of hardwearing brown trousers and a plain blue shirt.
"Look, I've a feast to oversee, so this had better be good," the man said, crossing his arms, and Elred started. It was the man from his vision -- short-cropped hair, fine features, and the same good-natured voice that had urged him to have a care with the hinges. Oh, bollocks, he'd sauced Merlin, the right hand of the king. "Haven't you finished yet?"
"Elred, is this the man you saw in your vision?" King Arthur asked, slinging a companionable arm around Merlin's shoulders and turning him. Elred saw Merlin swallow and cast a guilty look at the king.
"No, Sire," Elred said staunchly, because knight or not, one didn't rat on a mate. "Quite another man, Sire."
"That's odd. Isn't that odd, Merlin? Because I'm nearly positive I asked you to be sure my armor was polished," King Arthur said, patting Merlin on the chest. "And here's Elred claiming someone asked him to help polish some armor last night."
"Well, you know, if you're going to have a vision, a chapel at midnight's the place to have it," Merlin replied.
"Elred, come forward," King Arthur urged. Elred shuffled forward carefully. "Elred, this is Merlin. Merlin, Elred. Elred's going to be my new knight."
"Yes, I know that," Merlin answered with an eyeroll. Apparently the right hand of the king was allowed an enormous degree of insolence. "Otherwise the feast I should currently be supervising is rather a waste."
"Elred, Merlin's an absolutely indispensable part of my court. He knows everything, he sees everything, and when I ask him to see to my dress armor I generally intend that he should find some underservant and kick him or her into doing it, rather than do it himself, even with the help of my newest knight," King Arthur continued, gripping Merlin's neck rather tightly and giving him a gentle shake. "Because I don't want my closest advisor doing menial chores when he should be thinking deep and meaningful thoughts to guide me as king."
Elred realised this was a much bigger...something, this was simply much bigger than he was. He kept quiet.
"Pleased to meet you," Merlin told Elred.
"Likewise, m'lord," Elred replied.
"Now that we've made everything most clear, you, go keep the cooks from setting anything on fire," King Arthur told Merlin, and gave him an affectionate but very strong shove. Merlin stumbled away, rolled his eyes again, and vanished behind some drapery. "You, Elred, kneel."
Elred knelt and bowed his head.
His thoughts were in such a state over this problem of Merlin and the polished armor that he barely registered the knighting or his triumphant procession from the reception hall or introducing his mum and dad to the King; he barely remembered much of anything until he was seated with the other knights at the feast and Merlin appeared again, carrying a cup of wine.
"Compliments of His Majesty," he said, presenting it to Elred. "Though it's got a dye in it that'll turn your tongue black, fair warning. Arthur's a bit of a practical joker on the new boy. Try to act surprised, it's traditional."
"Thank you," Elred said, accepting the cup. "Listen, about last night, I didn't realise -- "
Merlin gave him a kind smile. "People usually don't, at first. For the record, I think you'll be a brilliant knight."
"Why?" Elred asked, confused. "You've not seen me fight."
"Because you love your king, and you don't fear me," Merlin told him. "Go on, drink up."
The king's wedding the following summer was a strange affair. Gwen was the first commoner in living memory to marry a king, without title or wealth, with barely anything to her name. She was called the queen of the lower towns -- derisively by some, but with deep love and pride by the townsfolk themselves.
The morning she and Arthur were to be married, Merlin hurried her out of the castle, onto a horse and down into the village. The people of the castle's lower town took her to the outskirts and dressed the horse in ribbons, dressing Gwen herself in May blossoms and the finest linen Camelot had been able to bargain for from across the sea. They threw grain under the feet of the mare as she carried her back up to the castle, Merlin leading her by the reins. Gwen laughed in bewildered pleasure at it all, as big sturdy farmers who had brought her father their horses to be shod bore torches ahead of her in the dawn.
When they reached the castle, just past sunrise, the men and women banged on the gates and shouted and catcalled until the enormous wooden doors swung open. On the other side, Arthur's honour guard -- the men who sat at the new, big round table in his ruling-hall -- were arranged before their king, and Arthur looked at once terrified and elated.
"Sire," Merlin said, grinning. "There's a lady here to see you."
"Well, you had better bring her inside, then," Arthur replied, and the knights moved aside as Merlin led her horse up to where Arthur stood. Gwen slid out of the saddle, her face lit up with joy. Merlin watched her go to Arthur, watched his arm slide around her waist to lead her up to the reception hall where that old bastard Geoffrey was waiting to handfast them. The knights about-faced sharply to follow, and behind them the people of the village surged through as well. Merlin merely swung up on the horse, clicked his tongue softly, and walked her quietly to the stable.
He worked carefully, feeding her handfuls of oats as he unbraided the ribbons from her mane and tail. He curried her, as he had Arthur's horse too many times to count, as he had his own horse if it came to that. He talked to her in the old language as he worked, telling her what a good job she had done, carrying the queen along and never once starting even when the children ran underfoot. He picked her hooves, poured out a bucket of water for her, and left her nodding over her oats in the stall.
Out beyond the stable, he could hear bells ringing. A nice short ceremony. All to the good.
The kitchens had been in an uproar for days -- none knew it better than Merlin -- but he was confident the wedding breakfast would be laid neatly without his help. He washed under a pump in the yard and then walked up to the banquet hall. They'd be there all day; there would be speeches and entertainment and endless toasts, and half a dozen kings from the lands surrounding Camelot had come to present themselves and their gifts to the young king and his new queen. Merlin had met most of them already and seen that they were comfortably housed; his network of spies amongst the servants assured him none of the visiting royalty harboured the slightest ill intentions towards the happy couple. Even if they did, Elred and Lancelot were on duty and would be certain no one harmed them.
Merlin leaned in the shadow of a doorway, watching the feast, damp hair dripping onto the collar of his new shirt. He wasn't much one for robes and things (they only got in the way) but he'd found a fine red tunic embroidered with the Pendragon arms in gold on his bed the night before. A gift from Arthur, perhaps, though more likely one of the household women had made it for him.
Arthur and Gwen seemed completely happy, and why shouldn't they be? They were so beautiful together that it often took his breath away. Gwen still had the May blossoms in her hair, crushed only slightly by the delicate red-gold crown that Arthur had given her as her wedding gift. Arthur, damn him, had not remembered to brush his hair like Merlin had made him promise he would do, and it wisped out under his crown a little. Still, he was a handsome king.
He meant to turn and go -- he wouldn't be required until well into the afternoon, and he had duties to attend to -- but as he pushed off from the wall Arthur saw him and shouted, "MERLIN!"
Merlin sighed, turned back to the feast, and ducked through the doorway with a ready smile on his face. "You called, sire?"
"Here, come here," Arthur commanded. Merlin rolled his eyes and crossed the banquet hall. Gwaine pelted him with a bit of bread as he passed, then gave him a solemn wink.
" -- do me all honour," Arthur was saying, as Merlin reached the high table. He was talking to a severe-looking man in grey robes, with a hideous medallion of office on his chest. "Ah, here he is. My Lord Cynan, this is my advisor, Merlin. Merlin, this is King -- "
"Cynan of the southeast, we met yesterday, sire," Merlin said, bowing. "How did you find your rooms?"
"Absolutely ideal," King Cynan replied. "I must say you know how to make one at home in Camelot."
"Well, we can't have the king's guests going wanting," Merlin replied.
"Nor the king's own people," Arthur interrupted, and held out his hand to Cynan, who drew a flat box from his voluminous robes and handed it to him. "When I sent our messengers to the southeast, I commissioned something from the metalworkers there, to be brought back as a gift. Gwen?" he added, offering her the box. She took it and flicked the latch, lifting out a heavy-looking crown -- no, a torc, the ends of the thick, twisted gold circlet open and capped with delicately-wrought dragon's heads.
"It's a very pretty decoration, for a very lovely queen," Merlin said loyally. Arthur gave him a look that told him he was inadvertently being dim.
"Bow your head, Merlin," Gwen said. Merlin stared at her. "Go on, it won't bite."
Merlin shuffled a little closer to her and bent at the waist, presenting the back of his neck across the table. The metal was cool against his skin; the two dragon's heads pressed tightly, sliding along until his skin was free again and the torc rested around his throat, dragons against his collarbones. Merlin inhaled sharply.
"We'll see you tonight," Gwen said in his ear.
He had known this would be hard, seeing the whole kingdom celebrate Arthur and Gwen's handfasting when no one would ever, could ever, celebrate Merlin's place with them. He loved them both dearly but he was not above jealousy, and he had hoped he could simply escape this day, once his duties were discharged, and wait for them in Arthur's chambers -- now Arthur and Gwen's chambers, he supposed. He knew it didn't matter to them, he knew it changed nothing between the three of them, but it mattered to him, that his king and queen couldn't be shown the full measure of his devotion.
And in one stupid sweeping gesture, Arthur had given him a crown and Gwen had put it around his throat and everyone in the kingdom would know, even if they wouldn't know.
He touched the open mouth of one of the dragons as he straightened. He wondered what it made him. A Prince Consort, perhaps, he thought with a smirk.
"Thank you, Arth -- thank you sire," Merlin said, one hand still touching the dragon's head. Arthur was looking at him hungrily, Gwen no less so. "My king, my lady. If you'll excuse me, I have duties to attend to -- "
"No rest for the wizard," Arthur said. Merlin groaned.
"Really? That one again?" he asked.
"Go on then," Arthur waved a hand dismissively. Merlin smiled, turned smartly on his heel, and walked out of the banquet hall, past the servants and revellers, past the whole court who had all seen Gwen put the torc around his throat.
After Lancelot and Gwaine, who were unorthodox but not precisely unknown, Elred was the first young commoner to join Arthur's elite knights. He was not by far the last. Merlin thought he'd turned out all right, but sometimes there was no telling the character of commoner or noble, and strength of arms was not enough for anyone joining the king's guard.
So at first he contrived to be there when they sat vigil, sweeping the chapel or passing through on the excuse that he'd heard a noise. After a while he didn't bother with excuses; he just came in and gave the young would-be knight whatever test he thought was appropriate. Sometimes he had them help him with some little chore he had to do, chatting companionably with them as they worked. Other times he just talked for a bit, and sometimes if he wasn't sure about them he'd sit and stare until they spoke first. It was a sort of rite, acknowledged among those who'd passed but never really talked about. They certainly didn't warn the new prospects that the vigil, an old and silly tradition, was now their final test. To be a knight, you had to stand out from the crowd and you had to fight Arthur (you didn't have to win; nobody ever did). And you had to get past Merlin.
Most of them gave him no trouble; they were earnest idealists, or they wouldn't have bothered to try for Arthur's court. Still, occasionally there were failures. One of them tried to throw him out of the chapel and gave him a black eye before Merlin cracked him on the head; the black eye cost the man his knighthood and Arthur was barely prevented from ejecting him from Camelot personally. A couple of them who were insolent to Merlin got stern warnings from their king about respect, before they were knighted. One had asked Merlin to bring him a meal -- well, ordered more than asked, with such high-handed bad manners that Merlin said yes, of course, and then vanished and didn't return. That one was told he could be a knight if he was a servant for half a year first, and he'd stormed out furiously.
There were triumphs too, however. One young valiant, the first woman to be accepted by trial of arms, asked him for a kiss. Merlin obliged, and liked her well enough that he later presented her with a very serviceable sword as a knighthood gift. An oxlike man solemnly confided in Merlin that he'd borrowed his brother's horse just to get to Camelot, and Arthur sent Merlin riding out a few days later with a new young stallion for his brother's stable. Merlin sat and talked politics with the sons of distant kings, and listened to the daughters of farmers explain to him how they'd grown up wielding scythes instead of swords, and how it really wasn't so different in the end. Some of the awkward young warriors made him laugh, remembering how awestruck and terrified he himself had been the first time he'd seen the castle's high spires.
Everyone knew about the test, once they'd passed it. Merlin would go and see what he thought of the new blood, and then when he was done he'd speak to the king. If you were quick, you might see him hurrying from the chapel up to the king's chambers to make his report.
"Good evening, Merlin," Gwen sang out from the bed, when the big inner chamber doors creaked and Merlin crept in, well past midnight. "You've been out late."
"Milady," Merlin answered, bending to give her a kiss while he pulled off his boots. He undressed hastily as he circled the bed, sliding under the covers next to Arthur.
"Your feet are freezing, you limpet," Arthur announced, but he didn't bother with more than a cursory attempt to fend off Merlin as he curled up around him for warmth. "I should have you fetch the bedwarmer."
"Why? Already got one," Merlin said, burrowing into the blankets and pressing his nose against Arthur's arm.
"Cold!" Arthur grunted.
"Don't listen to him," Gwen said, rolling over so that she and Merlin could have a conference across the king's chest. "So? How was our latest knight-to-be?"
"Oh, likely, very likely," Merlin told her, as Arthur blew out a breath of frustrated resignation and wrapped an arm around Gwen, tangling his other hand in Merlin's short hair.
"Do I get any say at all in affairs of state?" Arthur asked.
"Of course, my king," Merlin answered innocently, then turned back to Gwen. "He's a nice boy. Bit on the dim side but they can't all be geniuses. He's completely in awe of Arthur, but that'll pass."
"Excuse me," Arthur drawled.
"It usually does," Gwen said, grinning. "So you think he's all right."
"Oh, sure. He said he thinks you're a lovely queen, too."
"So I am," Gwen grinned and rubbed her cheek against Arthur's chest. "Settled then, he's in."
"Yes, certainly." Merlin glanced up at Arthur. "With my lord's approval, of course."
"Much as it pains me to say it," Arthur said, looking up at the hangings above the bed, "I could never deny you anything, Merlin."
"He's adorable," Gwen told Merlin, who nodded and kissed Arthur's chest before disposing himself to sleep. Gwen rearranged herself so that her head was on a pillow again, Arthur's arm still around her, and closed her eyes.
Merlin was almost unconscious, warm and comfortable, when he felt Arthur's hand move in his hair, Arthur's chest rise with an inhale to speak.
"My wisest one," Arthur said softly. Merlin carefully didn't move. Arthur, at any other time, was all acid tongue and short tolerance, though Merlin had grown to ignore that. It was only here -- and only once in a very long while, when he thought Merlin was asleep -- that Arthur would be softer. Less a king, less his father's son, more the smart, compassionate man he'd never admit to being. "My brilliant, strange Merlin. I could not be king without you."
Merlin carefully hid a smile, something he was very adept at around his king. He let himself drift off with his head still resting against Arthur's chest, over his heart.