DISCLAIMER: The characters in Merlin (BBC) belong to Shine Television and the BBC, etc., i.e., not me.
I'm just borrowing them for a while to spin a tale
Arthur had feared the worst when he found himself sitting beside his father in the audience chambers and stiffly awaiting the return of his manservant and the Court Physician. Arthur hadn't the faintest idea what was going through his father's mind, but the man had reached to grip his hand and hold it ever since they sat down and refused to release it while they waited.
He cursed himself again for drawing attention to Merlin and Gaius' absence when he tried to ride out earlier that morning. But he couldn't have helped himself. Not when he finally realised the true meaning of Merlin's words to him the previous night. Even so, it had been a foolish decision for him to try and leave the castle when he was still weakened from his brush with death. It had been fortunate that Sir Caradoc had noticed his liege attempt to mount his horse and was near enough to catch him when he toppled from his restless charger.
His father had been furious with him. However, Arthur couldn't begin to describe the King's reaction when he stormed into Gaius' quarters to find the Physician also absent and Merlin's mother, Hunith gravely ill and almost delirious with worry about her son. Linking this with Arthur's own miraculous recovery the day before, it was easy enough then for them to put two and two together and realise that Merlin, possibly with Gaius' collaboration, had made a pact with a sorcerer or possibly sorceress for Arthur's life.
By mid morning, they had received word that Hunith was recovering. At early afternoon, a cry came from the gates of the physician's return. Arthur could feel great distress begin to fill his heart to hear that his manservant was not with him. At this news, Uther gave his son an unreadable look before he commanded word to be sent for Gaius to attend to them immediately upon arrival.
"Arthur…" Uther spoke softly as soon as they were alone again. "I—am not ungrateful. With this, your manservant has shown love and loyalty for you that can seldom be equalled—"
"He is not dead," Arthur gritted, his eyes feeling uncomfortably hot. "I will not believe—"
"Morgana's maid has reported that the boy's mother has miraculously recovered, Arthur. And—Gaius has returned alone." Uther's hand tightened over Arthur's. "I know you are uncommonly fond of the boy, but I have had experience with the cruelty of magic, my son. That is why I hate it and disapprove of its use."
"I disapprove," Uther looked his son in the eye fiercely, though his voice gentled with his next words. "But I am not ungrateful for your manservant's sacrifice, Arthur."
"He can't be dead…" Arthur told him numbly. "He's—he's just a—a servant…"
Uther didn't challenge Arthur on his words though he didn't believe the boy to be 'just a servant' as his son tried to claim. As infrequently as he saw Arthur's interactions with his manservant, and as inappropriate as the King felt the relationship, even Uther could see that Merlin was more a true friend to his son than a mere manservant. However, further thoughts on this matter had to be postponed with the arrival of the Court Physician.
Uther could not help himself from sitting forward in alarm and worry for the state of his old friend. Gaius looked truly bedraggled and haggard in his rain soaked cloak and robes as he hugged a small pack against his chest. The man was practically trailing a puddle after him.
"Good Lord! Gaius! While I asked for your immediate attendance, I am not so unreasonable as to not allow you to change into dry clothes."
"Wha—" The man's heavy heart and complete misery could not be more clearly illustrated than with his soft word of confusion.
"Gaius! About—Merlin?" Arthur couldn't help but ask. "Was he to follow after you?"
Uther laid a hand on Arthur's arm. "Arthur…" He didn't want his son to keep up his false hope.
"Gaius. We are not blind." Uther told the trembling man firmly. "I can guess that—young Merlin made a bargain with a sorcerer for Arthur's life. And that he has paid a price…"
Gaius' shoulders seemed to shake as he laughed softly to himself. "A price? Yes, he did…"
"While I know my own laws on the use of magic… Gaius, we are not ungrateful," Uther told him gently. "I will see that this mother, Hunith, is richly compensated."
"She is dead, you know?"
"Hunith?" Uther looked at him in surprise. "No? I was given to understand by Morgana's maid that—"
"No. Not Merlin's mother. Nimueh." Gaius looked up at them with a wry smile. "Merlin—She wouldn't accept his life in exchange. She was determined to take mine. And he objected, of course.
"She—she blasted him. She must have thought she killed him. But Merlin—he had a sword with him; a sword of iron."
Uther was shocked. "He ran her through?!"
"I suppose he did. And that was apparently accepted as the life traded for Arthur's since I'm here telling you this, Sire."
Arthur stared at him in shock and hope. "But—But if Merlin's okay then why didn't he return with you?"
At this question, Gaius deflated. "He did not escape this unscathed," the physician told them sadly.
"Gaius?" Uther huffed at the old man. "I won't punish the boy for his foolishness in seeking out—Nimueh of all people to trade with for my son's life. How ever he managed it, my son is alive and recovering and an old enemy is dead. I would go so far as to hold a feast in his honour for his bravery and loyalty.
"If Merlin was hurt, all the more he should return so we may have him treated and—"
Gaius looked up at them with faint relief at last to be given assurance of the King's still favourable notice in spite of the involvement of magic, but his expression was still sad. "He—Merlin was changed, Sire. Nimueh was apparently the high priestess of the Old Religion. The—the gods did not take kindly to her death and—bound the boy to the isle in her place."
"He's trapped?!" Arthur looked appalled.
"They tried to force Nimueh's magic upon him—but he refused it, Sire."
Uther could feel his heart pounding to hear Gaius' words, though he calmed on realising how the man had ended his statement. How ever much he would accept the boy for his bravery and loyalty, Uther knew he couldn't have tolerated it if the boy returned with magic. However, thinking of Gaius' words again… "What happened to the boy then?"
Gaius looked down at the bundle he was hugging to his chest. It was only then that the two men realised it wasn't a bag of belongings, and that the rags appeared to look like one of Merlin's jackets. The physician carefully unfolded the cloth he was holding to reveal an equally bedraggled bird wrapped within the nest of clothes; a young falcon.
Arthur surged forward, unable to stop himself. "Merlin?!"
The bird looked up to blink at his prince blurrily before letting out a soft cry which sounded to them like assent. Gaius sighed as he looked from the stunned Prince to his equally stunned Lord. "In name, so is he in form now. Merlin has been cursed to never be able to walk as a man away from the isle that is the centre of power for the Old Religion.
"And I don't know if it's possible to ever restore him."
Of all things to happen within his court, Uther never imagined anything like what was done to Arthur's manservant. He thought the Gods of the Old Religion must have had a particular humour to make the boy an actual Merlin. Why couldn't they just deal punishments out in the ordinary mundane fashion? They had already nearly killed the poor boy with his transformation.
The weeks that followed Gaius' return were fraught with worry since the tiny bird had taken ill with a cold after their drenching in the rain. And the Physician had been in a right state trying to nurse the poor bird back to health when he was only familiar with human anatomy. Gaius couldn't exactly feed the Merlin any of his usual foul but effective concoctions.
And Arthur…? Uther didn't have the heart to force his son to give up on his transformed manservant. And Morgana's maid had in fact been given a promotion of sorts to attended to both the Prince and her lady with a small contingent of lower servants in attendance to her orders. As inappropriate as he thought it was for his son and ward to pay so much special attention to the transformed manservant, Uther couldn't feel in him the urgency to call them in front of him and order them to leave the bird—boy alone. And—Uther also supposed he really did feel concern for the awkward youth too; though he'd never admit to such an appalling claim.
Eventually though, the little Merlin did recover from its illness. And even Hunith was comfortable enough to be persuaded to return home and leave her son in Gaius' and Arthur's care; which led one morning, to a curious noise being heard outside Uther's window. It drew his attention away from his boring paperwork so the King was, to be honest, quite glad for a little distraction.
Contrary to the usual bark of orders from his son drilling their knights, or the sounds of clashing steel; this clanging sounded more like—running. Looking outside, Uther was treated to the unusual sight of several of Arthur's knights running around the practice yard while they tossed a flapping bird from hand to hand.
"Merlin! Come on! Flap harder! You're a falcon! You'll need to learn how to fly at sometime!" Arthur called from the sidelines where he sat still nursing his arm in a sling.
The clearly irritated cry from the frustrated bird pierced the air as the knights, in full clanging armour, continued to run in circles while taking turns to toss the bird in the air as it flapped its wings furiously, then letting another man catch it to begin the sequence once again. Uther didn't know whether to be completely mortified or laugh at the hilarious scene they presented.
Still, the tossing about was seeming to work as the falcon slowly appeared to be getting a hang of staying in the air for a longer and longer period until it launched itself straight up and into the sky with a triumphant screech that had the whole practice yard cheering and clapping. The Merlin soared majestically around the castle and the practice yard for several minutes making Uther smile at its seeming unbridled joy of being airborne, until he began to notice some rather distressed cries coming from the bird.
Having realized this too, Arthur was calling out to the falcon as it circled overhead. "Merlin? Merlin? What's wrong? Come down and we'll fix it if you're still not well."
The falcon cried out to them again. A slow understanding of the problem came to Uther at the same moment as one of the other knights in the field. The man trotted over to his prince to whisper in Arthur's ear. Even from the window, Uther could see the light of comprehension dawn upon his son's face.
"Merlin!?" Arthur's exasperated yell resounded in the practice yard. "I know you were the most incompetent manservant I've ever known, but how could you be the most incompetent bird alive too?! Shouldn't landing be as instinctive as flying?!"
The Merlin 's screech of reply was distinctly affronted as it circled the heads of the knights. Uther could predict that this wasn't going to end well. On the ground, the knights looked frantically around them until they spied the practice dummy and quickly wheeled it into the centre of the yard.
"Good show!" Arthur praised his knights before directing his next words to the sky. "Merlin! Try landing on that!"
The whole practice yard seemingly held its breath as the little falcon circled a last time, then swooped down with claws reaching out to catch the shoulder of the dummy. Unfortunately, since Merlin was honestly still very new at this, he missed his mark and his claws sank into the head of the dummy instead and got caught in the fabric. On top of that, he hadn't apparently slowed his speed of approach enough, and for such a tiny falcon, Merlin still managed to hit the dummy with enough force that he toppled the whole thing; making it fly off the ground in a near perfect summersault that ended with the hapless falcon on the bottom.
"Merlin!!" The whole yard practically roared as the knights rushed over to the wood and straw dummy to right it in a hurry. Uther could feel his heart in his mouth as well to wonder if the bird hadn't just crushed itself to death.
The Merlin let out a piteous cry, bringing a breath of relief to everyone who could hear that it was still alive. One of the knights gently disentangled its claws from the shredded head of the dummy in time to hand the stunned falcon to his approaching prince.
Uther found himself considering the situation quite thoughtfully as he watched the knights milling around behind Arthur while he rested the tiny falcon within his sling and gently checked it with his other hand. A few were examining the practice dummy and looking quite pale as they stared from the completely mauled head of the dummy to the bird their prince was fussing over.
Noticing their divided attention, Arthur had looked up at the ruined state of the dummy and blanched as well before turning to the falcon in his sling. Uther couldn't hear his son's words, but from the gestures and the responding muted whistle of agreement, he could guess that Arthur must have suggested they work on Merlin's landings before they had him flying around again.
Giving his knights a nod and a few last instructions, Arthur departed in the direction of the Court Physician's quarters. Uther supposed it was to have Merlin checked out for any lasting injury after that spectacular tumble.
Uther chose then to leave his window and return to his paperwork. However, he couldn't immediately turn his concentration to the harvest reports. Instead, the King rather quickly found himself with his face buried in one arm while his other hand pounded on the table as he laughed uproariously. Truly, the King was rather glad Arthur's manservant was all right and back in court again. Life certainly was a whole lot more entertaining with the bird—boy around.
Uther had to admit to himself though that he was in two minds whether he hoped Gaius would eventually manage to find a way to restore the boy to his natural form or leave him as the tiny raptor. From the state of the practice dummy—Uther knew that Merlin was actually showing unnatural strength for being such a tiny bird. If Arthur trained him well, Uther could see Merlin being a very useful asset to the knights.
Thanks for reading.