Pacer watched them go, gnawing on his bit a little.
"Stop that," Swygr snapped. "You know it's bad for your teeth, and besides, the noise is annoying."
"Don't be such a mare," Pacer replied petulantly.
"I am a mare, clotpole." Swygr snorted loudly.
Gwyngalad, the new one, shifted his hooves, watching the three men vanish into the cave. Two red cloaks, one brown jacket. "Do they always just…walk off like that?"
"Who?" Pacer glanced over. "Oh, yes. We should probably find a sheltered spot and some grass until they get back."
"When…when do they get normally get back?" Gwyngalad inquired nervously.
"A day at best, maybe two." Pacer turned himself and headed down the slope, Swygr at his side and Gwyngalad trailing them, confused.
"What if we get captured by bandits?"
"Bahahahahaha," Pacer whinnied. "You're a warhorse, aren't you? Even Swygr here has hooves and teeth. We'll be fine."
"And if they don't come back?"
"Stop worrying your mane," Swygr said over her shoulder. "They always come back."
The three horses stopped in a little hollow, and Pacer rubbed his neck against a tree.
"But there's a sorcerer this time."
Pacer and Swygr sighed and looked at each other. "Something you should probably learn now," Swygr said. "There's always sorcerers. Arthur will always get knocked out. And Merlin will always sort it."
Gwyngalad looked disbelieving. "I'm surprised Merlin even stays on your back, Swygr. How is a servant supposed to manage a sorcerer?"
"I'll pardon your ignorance," Swygr said, tossing her luxurious mane. "Merlin is an excellent rider, I'll have you know - even if I have thrown him a couple times, to my shame - and he's a warlock, so I can't see why he should have any trouble with a sorcerer."
"Warlock?" squealed Gwyngalad. "Merlin is a warlock!?"
The other two horses stared bemused at their companion's flared nostrils and sweating sides.
"But then the prince is in grave danger! Merlin could kill him at any second!"
Swygr burst out laughing and ended up with her neck over Pacer's back, half held up by the other horse and she whinnied loudly with amusement. Pacer wasn't in much better condition.
"Merlin…kill…Arthur?" the prince's warhorse panted between laughs. "The stables would sooner clean themselves! Look," he finally said, gathering himself, "you stay around here long enough, you keep your eyes clear and your ears pricked, and you'll start noticing things. There's no one on God's good grassy earth who serves Arthur better than Merlin, and you can stake your oats on that."
It took the horses some time to explain the matter more thoroughly, and Gwyngalad was silent for a while after.
"Well, now I feel bad," Gwyngalad said at last.
Pacer pricked his ears, puzzled.
"You've seen Merlin cantering around all the time," the warhorse explained. "He looks awfully tired some days, now that I think about it. Do you think that someone cleans his stable and makes sure he has fresh hay and a hot mash after a hard day's gallop?"
"For one thing," Swygr said primly, "Merlin is a human, and he has a room, sleeps on a bed, and eats porridge."
"The point still stands," Gwyngalad argued. "You understand my meaning."
"He grouses around you more than me," Pacer deferred to Swygr.
The mare subsided a little, considering. "You know," she said quietly, "I'm not certain he has anyone tend to him."
"How did we not notice this?" Pacer said, obviously disgusted with himself. "He works hard in Camelot, cares for us and the humans when we trot out, and then has the threat of impending death hanging off his saddle." He stamped a hoof. "I'll nip Arthur's ears when he gets back!"
"He won't know what you're on about," Swygr replied sensibly.
"Merlin's as good as any warhorse in the stables," Pacer champed. "As far as humans go, at least. Somebody should give him credit."
"We give him credit," Swygr nickered.
Gwyngalad swished at a fly with his tail. "It's not as if he understands our talk."
This particular point could not be argued with. Pacer advocated stepping on Arthur's toes, Gwyngalad agreed (provided they didn't step too hard, break the prince's toes, and make more work for Merlin) and Swygr admonished them that toe-stomping wouldn't actually accomplish anything.
"He won't know why, and will end up annoyed, and he yells at Merlin when he's annoyed."
They clopped back to the place where they had been left, contemplating the problem.
In the end, they decided there was only one thing they could do - when Merlin performed magic, they would get in the way of anyone seeing him.
"How is that supposed to help?" Gwyngalad asked.
"If Uther finds out that Merlin is a sorcerer, he'll have him burned." All three horses shuddered. "We can't speak to Merlin, we can't improve his life-"
"I disagree," said Gwyngalad. "We can share our apples and sugar, and he can stay with us at night on long journeys, where he will be safe and warm."
"And we can bite anyone who bites him," Pacer put in, warming to the idea.
"Or hits him," Swygr said, nostrils flaring. "Some of the knights treat him worse than their dogs." She shook her mane down again. "Poor foal. I should have noticed he has no groom to tend him."
Merlin had never been so confused in all his life. From the time they'd returned from the cave - stupid wildereon, stupid gaia berries, stupid sorcerer with his stupid zappy stick that nearly brought the stupid cave ceiling down on all of them - the horses had acted strangely. Pacer rubbed his head against Merlin's chest, Swygr lipped his hair affectionately, and even Gwyngalad, Sir Jon's horse, whom Merlin didn't know, was gently nuzzling his arm. True, the horses sometimes gave him a gentle nudge when they had a hard to reach itch, or just wanted that nice spot behind their ears scratched, but in this case the warlock was pretty certain the horses were petting him.
Which made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
"Your manservant has a way with the horses," Sir Jon commented to the prince as Merlin checked the horse's bridles. The animals stood still, letting him handle their heads without complaint.
Arthur grinned cheekily at Merlin. "It's because I make him spend so much time in the stables."
"Perhaps you should come with me sometimes," Merlin smiled and stroked Swygr's neck as she leaned against him. "Bond with the horses yourself. It could prove valuable."
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur growled as he swung onto Pacer's back. "You're almost making sense, and you're not allowed to make sense on Thursdays. Ow!" He said the last as Pacer bumped Arthur's leg into a tree before gently nuzzling Merlin's face again.
Merlin petted the horse once, then pushed him away, stepping onto Swygr's back and settling himself.
"Let's go home."
Sir Jon nodded vigorously.
Swygr trotted proud and smooth at Pacer's flank, neck arched with the knowledge that she carried the great sorcerer Emrys upon her back. As they made camp, Merlin dismounted, and Arthur yelled at him to get firewood. Swygr snorted. Tonight, Prince Pratness would fetch his own fire. She seized Merlin's clothes with her teeth, dragged him back, dumped him on the ground, and gently laid on him.
"Swygr!" Merlin shoved at her side. "Get off! Arthur!"
Arthur tugged at her bridle, but before it started to hurt, Pacer shoved him back, stepping between them and whickering dangerously. Gwyngalad whinnied to her, and Swygr heaved up suddenly, Gwyngalad grabbing Merlin's collar before he could fully regain himself and dragging him kicking and screaming away from the other knights into the hollow of a tree where she could lay on him more comfortably.
Merlin did not take kindly to being laid on, whether or not it was for his own good, and even with Gwyngalad tenderly licking his hair to soothe his injured feelings.
"He's hungry," Swygr told the warhorse. "Find the food pack on my back and give it to him. And his blanket."
Gwyngalad smelled out the food and tugged it free, laying the pouch of bread, cheese, and dried meat on Merlin's chest with a soft whinny and another friendly lick to the head. Swygr shook herself and settled down comfortably, knowing the hollow would prevent her from crushing Merlin's legs while he was trapped. Beyond them, Arthur and Jon were fruitlessly trying to bypass Pacer, who held them at bay with all the quick footwork that came from being a proper royal mount.
They might want the food too, Swygr thought, and told Gwyngalad to take some to them. Merlin had his own dinner- and his blanket - by now, and Gwyngalad tossed the food bag to the two other men.
"My manservant has been kidnapped by horses," Arthur said disbelievingly. Pacer and Gwyngalad couldn't help giggling, and Swygr snorted at their foalishness.
Merlin slowly stopped fighting, and Arthur and Jon eventually resigned themselves to setting up their own camp. Pacer joined Gwyngalad licking at Merlin, and Swygr rumbled with contentment. From his surprised expression, it did not seem the warlock had been properly groomed in a long time, if ever. It was hardly fair that the prince's own servant was not as well tended to as his horses, but tonight, they would give him luxury treatment as one of their own.
Merlin crawled away the next morning, confused and reeking of horse. He'd passed a warm night underneath Swygr, Pacer and Gwyngalad standing over them, grooming Merlin's head and shoulders in a way that would have worked better if he had hair like they did. As it was, he hoped he never saw that much horse-slobber again.
Pacer took a gentle hold of his neckerchief, and Merlin stumbled as the horse led him over to a bewildered Arthur. When they were face to face, the horse nudged Merlin and butted Arthur, hard, rumbling low in his chest with an evil look. The horse stared at Arthur a moment longer, snorted, and gently licked the side of Merlin's head before snapping at the prince's hand.
Arthur reached out and slowly petted Merlin's head. Pacer blew, a contented noise, and bobbed his head before he turned away.
All three horses looked thoroughly pleased with themselves, and Pacer whickered proudly to his friends. They'd shown the prince how a good servant ought to be treated, and it seemed that he had learned.
"Perhaps we can move him into a stall in our stable," Gwyngalad commented. "At least during the winter. He'd be so much warmer."
Update: I had way too much fun writing this. Therefore...there may be a few more companions to this, but I can't guarantee when they'll show up, since I'm waiting for inspiration on this one. Thank you so much for the kind reviews; I'm glad I could offer ya'll some laughs.