Title: The Knights Have a Thousand Eyes
Summary: In which Arthur is teaching his knights and Merlin is about to get roped into a lesson
Spoilers: Slight ones for The Dragon's Call, The Gates of Avalon and Lancelot
Pairing: Eventually A/M
The Knights Have a Thousand Eyes
Arthur deliberately pressed forward, made the move that should trigger Bedevere's defence, and observed with critical eye as Bedevere fumbled the footwork. Again. How he even managed to see a dance through to the end without collapsing in a tangled heap of limbs was beyond Arthur.
He was about to inform Bedevere that he was the most graceless, uncoordinated person in Camelot. And then he remembered Merlin, and in all honesty couldn't bring himself to utter such a falsehood.
Well, to give the man some credit, he did try to compensate, twisting awkwardly in an attempt to protect his now exposed right. Totally unsuccessfully, of course.
Bedevere's move resulted in an off-balance teetering that had Arthur shaking his head in disbelief. He was entirely vulnerable to Arthur's attack.
Weakness exposed and unable to defend himself, he fell to the ground under the merciless onslaught of a flashing blade. Groaning in frustration, Bedevere flung his head back in surrender, baring his throat like a defeated animal, and froze to immobility when he felt the weight of the cool-blue evaluating eyes and chill pressure of a sword's tip resting against the pulse in his throat.
'Brilliant. Yet another dead knight.' Arthur said dryly.
Withdrawing the sword, Arthur gave the panting Bedevere a disdainful nudge with his boot and raised his eyes to survey the others, who were practising under the eagle-eye of Sir Romford and Sir Hector, two elder and very experienced knights who had been part of Uther's retinue for years.
It had been a gruelling morning and, to be honest, the younger knights weren't looking in much better shape than Bedevere. It was easier for the older ones, who were more fluid and efficient even when they got it wrong. The youngsters expended all their energy compensating for their lack of skill and efficiency with speed of movement and the strength of their blows. Sometimes it worked but they were winded and suffering for it now.
It was a fine balance between pushing them to ever better themselves and pushing them until they gave up and quit. Arthur caught Romford's eye and made a hand gesture. After a glancing assessment Romford nodded his agreement.
'Okay, you've got ten minutes, men, and then you're going to prove that you're not actually the worst bunch of knights to ever blight Camelot.'
There were some downcast eyes, shuffling of feet and a few pouts, but Arthur fully believed that nothing spurred a man on like a few insults.
'Honestly, a girl could beat you lot.' He thought about it for a second before adding with a calculating look, 'A stick wielding peasant could beat you.'
With a shake of his head that spoke volumes of his enormous disappointment, he removed his helmet and pushed damp hair away from his eyes. The knights followed his lead and gratefully took advantage of their precious ten minutes to stretch cramping arms, glug back water or collapse on to grass and catch their breath.
'Is it wise to taunt them like that?' Hector asked once he had Arthur alone.
'Do you think it wiser to teach them only how to fight? How to become killers, and then send them out in the world with no other lessons?'
'You goad them to teach them?' Hector was clearly confused.
Arthur didn't answer immediately.
'I don't understand,' Hector continued.
'No, I don't expect you do.
To be fair, Arthur hardly knew what he was doing himself. Morgana, Merlin and Ealdor had opened his eyes to a number of things that he was still thinking through.
But Hector felt only the sting of unjustified criticism in that offhand remark, and drew himself up proudly.
'I am your father's knight,' he replied chidingly.
A simple statement, but to Hector it spoke of crushing defeats and hard won triumphs. Lessons learnt. Lessons in devotion, courage and loyalty. What more would a king have his knights learn? What did this young whippersnapper think he could teach him? Not that he expected Arthur to get the nuances behind the words.
'My father speaks well of you, you know,' Arthur said.
Hector supposed he did know that Uther valued him, but he was touched that Arthur would mention it. Then wondered why the conversation had been turned in this direction.
'He used to tell me you were the epitome of what a knight should be. Steadfast and loyal. Fearless and brave. You know I've looked up to you since I was a boy?' Arthur smiled.
He remembered. Small Arthur used to trail after him, boy-sized sword too big in his child's hand, both an irritation and a delight in the way he demanded attention. Not unlike adult Arthur really, he thought with a small smile. Inexplicably, Hector could feel a small lump in his throat as Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. Whoever Arthur would become, he, Hector had a hand in it.
'You were good to a brat. I learnt a lot from you.'
'You were always eager for instruction. At least when it came to weaponry.' Hector hastily corrected himself.
'I was a noisy, demanding whelp, who irritated the life out of you and you know it!' Arthur laughed.
'No change there, then,' Hector replied with a wry look and chortled at Arthur's expression.
'Have you been spending time with my manservant,' Arthur asked his brow wrinkling in suspicion.
'Merlin?' Hector shook his head. 'The way that boy speaks to you. Your father would have his head off.'
'And maybe I will yet.'
Hector merely shrugged,
'No you won't, you are not you father.'
Arthur nodded as though that had been his point all along.
'Exactly,' he said. And wandered off towards a dark-haired figure watching from the sidelines, leaving Hector to review the conversation to try to discover what they had been talking about.
Meanwhile the other knights muttered quietly, as soon as the prince was safely out of earshot.
'A girl?' Bedevere protested.
'Don't complain to me.' Percival was still trying to catch his breath. 'Tell him,' he said with a nod towards their golden prince.
'By god, I will!' Bedevere declared. 'Upon my honour, damned girl, indeed!'
'Far be it from me to deter you from defending your slighted honour, Bedevere, but insisting that you can't be beaten by a girl could result in a fate worse than death….' Romford replied.
As a senior knight, Romford's role was to support Arthur in training the youngsters, and backup any decisions his prince made, however unconventional they might appear. He managed to contain an evil smile as he watched Bedevere think for a second until light dawned in his eyes.
'He'll bring out the Lady Morgana,' Bedevere said flatly.
'Dear lord, remember last time?' another groaned.
'What happened?' asked Kay, who had only recently arrived at court.
'Poor Hubert faced Morgana. He never did recover from the humiliation.'
'Or the injury.'
'Aye. He still can't sit without a cushion.'
'But… she's a girl!' Kay pointed out.
'You have a lot to learn, son. Don't be misled into thinking they're all sunlight and flowers without a thought in their heads beyond dresses and their embroidery hoop,' Romford replied.
'Girls can be scary,' Percival confirmed. 'My mother? Scariest woman you'll ever meet. Father swore she was always ten thoughts ahead of everyone else. Morgana reminds me of her. Of course, Mother couldn't wield a sword quite like Morgana. Poor Hubert.'
They contemplated Sir Hubert's miserable fate for a minute.
'No one doubts your bravery, Bedevere but the old adage 'the better part of valour is retreat'? In this case, not a complete load of bollocks,' Caradoc advised, and then winced at the phrasing, given Sir Hubert's fate.
'A man has his pride, though. Can't you have a word with him?' Bedevere asked with a look at Gawain. 'I mean, you're… close to him. Have his, uh,' he coughed discreetly, 'ear, as it were.'
Gawain shook his head regretfully.
'Sorry. Not anymore. Besides, what would I say? 'Please Arthur, stop reminding us that skinny little girls who weighs 80lbs when wet, are better than us'? He'd laugh in my face, and quite rightly. Anyway, as I said, his, uh, ear seems to be elsewhere at the moment.'
'Oh. Sorry. But if it's not you,' said Bedevere thoughtfully, 'who's got it then?'
He looked around at the others who shrugged or shook their head.
Except for Kay, who had no clue why they were discussing the prince's ear. He watched with curiosity as Arthur turned away from Hector, verifying for himself that, as he thought, both ears were still naturally placed either side of Arthur's head, and that the others were talking complete nonsense.
'To speak frankly, he turned me down the last couple of times. Maybe he's in love and caught a dose of monogamy,' Gawain shrugged and then frowned at the thought.
'Not really likely, is it?' Caradoc asked. 'I mean it isn't precisely that Arthur is promiscuous but….'
And they knew what he meant. Arthur couldn't afford to be promiscuous. He was in a difficult position when choosing bedmates. There were rumours of more than one mistake made when he was young that had earned strong words from Uther and had made Arthur wary and distrustful.
They took pride that within their circle he had some freedom to let down his guard a little and just relax. There was something about having a man's back in battle. The willingness to take a blade or blow, or to risk a life for a comrade, that engendered a closeness, a protectiveness, which the knights held and wielded like a shield around their prince and around each other.
Despite his faults, Arthur was adored by his knights.
The sweat of his brow, the blood on the earth and the scars on his skin spoke of Arthur's willingness to risk life and limb for them, and, from these painful and inauspicious roots, burgeoned tender shoots of loyalty, trust and affection, which eventually bloomed into an abiding love for their young prince.
It was difficult for men such as these to show or express the depth of their feeling, so physical need disguised worshipping touch, grunts of completion acted as whispers of devotion, and offering their life to his service might well be the truest proposal of love they would ever make.
Sometime during their sojourn at Camelot they transformed from boys fostered to a foreign court, into this, Arthur's knights. Unspoken and almost without conscious thought they gave him their respect and loyalty, offering him shelter and privacy from the prying, critical eyes of court. And if the Prince had fallen for either a lady or someone within their ranks then they would be the first to notice and to rally around, protecting the parties concerned.
'Well it's either monogamy with some person unknown, and really, how would we not know? Or he's been struck down by celibacy,' Percival pointed out
Glances strayed in Arthur's direction. He had his head tipped back and was gulping down water, stray beads trickling down his neck.
Montague found himself suddenly dry-mouthed and wishing he could walk over and suck up those enticing drops of moisture, letting his tongue follow the trail from his neck to his mouth. He sometimes suspected that his was a slightly different outlook to most of the others. For him it wasn't convenience or comradeship. His eye had always strayed towards men rather than girls.
'Huh. You call it celibacy. I call it a damn waste.'
'He shines like a god,' Willard said with a dreamy expression in his eyes.
Bedevere looked doubtful.
'Do gods shine?' he asked.
Willard pointedly ignored him.
'What features! What aspect! Those eyes. That noble nose,' he sighed. 'I shall write an ode to his nose.'
'You do that,' said Caradoc kindly.
'Could be good,' Percival grinned, 'but it could never match your Ode to Arthur's Sword.'
Pleasure lit up Willard's face.
'Why, thank you! That is my personal favourite, I have to say.'
'It was bloody hilarious! Damn me, but the look on Uther's face when you read that one aloud was priceless.'
Even Romford had to suppress a snigger at the memory.
'Yes, well, not everyone appreciates fine poetry,' Willard sniffed.
'Quite,' replied Caradoc soothingly and tactfully changed the subject back to Arthur's love life. Or lack of one.'
'It explains a lot, actually.'
'How do you mean?'
'The build up of excess of energy,' Caradoc explained, 'the bad humours that he takes out on us.'
'And not in a good way,' Gawain sighed, feeling decidedly battered as he touched a multicoloured bruise, where Arthur's gauntleted hand had caught his wrist and twisted his arm until Gawain had lost his grip and his sword had slipped from his grasp.
'So this celibacy disease… not really catching is it?' Kay asked with a frown, not wanting the bad humours that seemed to have afflicted Arthur.
'I don't think it should worry you just yet.' Bedevere said with a look at young Kay, who had only just begun to grow a few scraggly hairs on his chin.
'There may be other reasons for this abstention. I've heard rumours that Uther is preparing a marriage for him.'
'If that's the case, I pity the man. I always thought he and Morgana would make a match of it.'
'They'd be plotting to murder each other within a year, and personally, I wouldn't fancy Arthur's chances,' Farley said. He had been a close friend of Hubert's and the Lady was not wholly in his good graces. Although, to be fair, Hubert should never have challenged a lady, and he supposed there was some justice in the outcome.
But mention of Morgana served to remind Bedevere of his grievance.
'You know, I might possibly accept that she might be able to defeat one of us. Although, it has been a year since Hubert, and we've all trained like billy-ho since then. But a stick wielding peasant? Surely…?' Bedevere asked plaintively.
'That is a bit much,' Sir Caradoc agreed. 'I'm pretty sure we could beat a peasant holding a stick.'
'Lancelot was a peasant,' Romford pointed out gently.
Bedevere was momentarily floored before conceding, 'Yes, but he was the exception that proved the rule. A noble peasant.'
There was only muted agreement, not all of them had been brought up in such a rarefied atmosphere as Bedevere. Many of them had spent their formative years playing, tumbling and fighting with village children.
'It's not only knights who risk their life in battle,' Romford replied.
'I realise that. I've seen the other troops on the battlefield, running away at a drop of a hat.'
This was a sore point for Bedevere. He'd not been so much fostered to the court as offered as a hostage by his father after losing at battle to Uther. He'd arrived at the court terrified, expecting a hostile people with nothing but ill-feeling towards him. Instead he'd found a man striding towards him, greeting him with outstretched arms.
'Saw what happened on the battlefield. Bad luck. But it's always good to have someone new here. This lot were beginning to bore me any anyway.' The man laughed and tossed his head in the direction of a group of young men.
As he got closer, Bedevere realised that the approaching figure was probably only just out of boyhood and not much older than himself.
'I heard that, Arthur. And you can go toss yourself.' One of the men shouted across.
'Why should I when I've got you to do it for me?'
And right then, Bedevere realised that this was King Uther's son and maybe life wouldn't be completely horrible here.
He had gradually relaxed as his father's peace held, and even if it hadn't, Arthur had assured him that he would rather chop of his own right arm than see him executed. If it came to the worst, Arthur swore to get him out of Camelot. It was shortly after this that Bedevere dropped to one knee and swore fealty to Arthur.
Bedevere shook away the memory and got to his feet with a look of grim determination.
'Come on. Someone show me what I was doing wrong?' he begged plaintively.
This burst of energy had Percival raised a questioning eyebrow. He'd seen Gaius do it and had been impressed with the effect.
'What?' Bedevere replied to the eyebrowed query. 'I'm damned if I'm going to be beaten by Morgana or some cowardly hypothetical peasant. So let's get to it.'
The others began to get to their feet, rolling their shoulders and stretching out over-wound muscles.
'Right,' said Romford. 'This is what you should be doing. Come on, Gawain help me out. You attack me.'
They all began to practise. After all, no one wanted another Sir Hubert incident.
The prince approached Merlin with a frown.
'Don't you have duties to attend to? Honestly, if you think you have time to stand around and gawk then I'm clearly not keeping you busy enough.'
Merlin ignored the harassment and gave a smile.
'So it's not just me you talk to like that?'
Arthur turned to find Merlin looking at his exhausted, discontented knights with satisfaction.
'You called them the worst knights ever.'
'Yes, Merlin, it may make you happy to know that I appear to be surrounded by incompetents.'
'Oh, it does.' Merlin admitted, giving a wide, quirky grin. 'I mean, it puts things in perspective. Being incompetent is a step up from being a blight on Camelot, like those poor sods.'
'Fortunately, you serve me not Camelot, so your blight is only inflicted upon my royal person and not our worthy citizens.'
Something seemed to occur to Arthur and a slight smirk touched his lips. Merlin immediately found his own smile slipping away. He eyed Arthur with apprehension.
'What?' he asked.
Arthur laid a friendly arm across his shoulders.
'It occurs to me that I've been neglecting you recently. Very remiss of me. And since you're so interested in my knights….'
Merlin gave a sigh and wished he hadn't stopped to chat. That was his problem. Too friendly and sociable by half.
'You're going to make me put on a tin-pot helmet and bat me around the field with your sword again, aren't you?'
'It's called weapons training, Merlin. But yes, that's about the gist of it,' Arthur smiled pleasantly.
'Isn't there a rule about abuse of menservants?'
'Absolutely. And anyone caught doing it will be answerable for their actions. To me,' Arthur smirked.
'Great.' Merlin rolled his eyes. 'And you don't see the flaw with this? You know, in this particular situation?'
'No. It's a perfectly just and equitable system.' He removed his arm and gave him a friendly pat on the back. 'So meet me here in an hour. Don't forget your tin-pot helmet.'
'Don't you get bored with beating the crap out of everyone?' Merlin asked grumpily.
'Occasionally. But then we come through a fight and it's only by luck that Gawain has his fingers and Bedevere managed not to get his throat slit.
'So the next day I force them on to the training ground. They're tired and of course all they do is complain and whine, which definitely gets boring. But, because I'm a patient sort of a man, I persevere and work them until they can hardly stand, beat them into the ground until they react without thinking.
'The moves are repetitive and it's boring as all hell. Muscles ache from the same movement over and over again. And none of it matters.'
'Because you're a sadist and enjoy tormenting them.' Merlin said with a roll of his eyes.
There was distant look in Arthur's eyes and he appeared not to have heard the glib comment.
'Because it's not meant to be fun. And thanks to that one session, or that extra minute at the end when they just wanted to collapse but got up anyway, raised their swords again and still managed a perfect defence…. Thanks to that, they might just survive the next battle as well.'
'Oh,' Merlin said.
Sometimes Arthur could knock him speechless, humble him and leave him gaping like the idiot Arthur so frequently named him.
These moments just came out of the blue. Not Arthur trying to be noble or attempting to impress anyone. But a glimpse of the real depth and passion of his protectiveness, which eventually would spread like a wing and cover the whole of Albion.
These flashes of the future King still maturing within the Prince are what first ensnared Merlin and committed him to this destiny. In years to come the compassion and care he had for his people would gently conquer hearts and souls, and unite the kingdom.
Merlin could see it spread before him, the all too brief period of King Arthur's reign. Golden years when people would know peace and prosperity.
It caught his breath and he was entranced by the simplicity, the clarity, the beauty of it. As his breath expelled into mist, the glorious breadth and width of his vision wavered, became wisps in time, thinning and drifting from reach until all that was left was them, an inexperienced warlock, and a fledging Prince.
Still slightly awed, Merlin found himself knocking a good three points off the 'Arthur is a prat' scale, which he'd begun on the first day they had met. Originally it stood at 100. It was now at 87. He sometimes wondered if Arthur kept a similar 'Merlin is an idiot' score. He sometimes felt he deserved it.
'However, you I fight just for amusement.' Arthur's eyes were mischievous and alight with mirth.
Immediately, Merlin added two points on to the prat score, but then recognised that this was Arthur's way of lightening the atmosphere, so reduced it by one, before responding in kind.
'Oh right. So you're not training me to make sure that I survive the battlefield?'
Arthur began to laugh incredulously.
'The way you fight? Really Merlin, there's no way I'm letting you within five miles of a battlefield! You'd devastate it with your sheer ineptitude.'
And wasn't that just like Arthur, protective and insulting all in the same breath. And once again, Arthur was stealing Merlin's breath away with his wide smile and laughing eyes.
He didn't know what was wrong with him, had to shake his head and turn away, because sunlight was shimmering through Arthur's hair, weaving a golden halo around it and settling on his head like a crown. If Merlin had stared much longer he'd have dropped to his knees or something just as idiotic. So he turned away and walked off, pretending an annoyance he didn't feel.
'Oh come on. Don't be like that,' Arthur teased. 'If it's any consolation, men find it very difficult to beat you. It seems your special kind of clumsiness is contagious.'
'Oh ha-ha. Very funny. Prat,' Merlin muttered crossly.
Arthur called after him, 'I heard that. Insulting me when you're going to be facing me on the practice field shortly? Not the brightest of moves. I hold grudges, Merlin.'
There was no reply, and Arthur felt rather smug that he'd actually managed to get the last word. Something of a rarity with Merlin.
He turned his attention back to his knights, pleased to find that they had regained their strength and were vigorously practising their lunges and dancing footwork. Amazing what a few insults could do. Although really, they should know by now that he would never subject them to the horror that befell Sir Hubert. Not unless they really did deserve it. He hadn't realised how aggressively committed Morgana could be in defending the honour of her sex.
The knights were relieved to see Arthur returning in considerably better humour than when he left. And when Bedevere finally succeeded in getting the footwork right, the prince actually paid him a compliment, admitting that maybe Bedevere wasn't the absolute worst knight he'd ever seen. Bedevere grinned ridiculously at the warmth of the praise.
By the end, Arthur was smiling at them, clapping young Kay on the shoulders and telling him he was 'pretty nimble, for a clod-hopping oaf'. Kay, realising that was high praise indeed, turned pink and stuttered some bashful words of thanks. And despite the hard workout and the ache in their bones, his knights were standing straight and proud, good-naturedly grinning and teasing each.
Because of the Prince's remarkably good humour Bedevere risked voicing his complaint.
'So I take it we've earned your approval, your highness, and you withdraw your comment?'
The other knights stilled and collectively held their breath. The chirping of a sparrow seemed loud and raucous, hanging intrusively in the air.
'Which one, exactly?' Arthur asked pleasantly.
They'd been friends long enough that Bedevere was no longer fooled by 'pleasant'. He cleared his throat nervously.
'Uh, that a stick wielding peasant could beat us?'
'Well, given a bit more practice I suppose you might stand half a chance against a peasant….'
'Half a chance…?' Despite his misgivings, inbred pride over-ruled native caution. 'Then I trust that you will give me the chance to defend the honour of myself and my fellow knights by allowing me to challenge this so-called peasant?'
'Do you feel your honour has been impugned?' he asked good-naturedly of the other men.
'I'm certain there are some most excellent stick wielding peasants out there,' Caradoc said cheerfully.
Arthur nodded his agreement. He had been at Ealdor after all.
'You don't really want to do this, do you?' Arthur asked. Surely they'd learnt their lesson after the Morgana fiasco?
Considering for a second, Bedevere wondered if he did. But all he knew of those not of noble birth was the way they abandoned their lord, ran like fearful rabbits without thought of loyalty or courage. To be compared to them was an insult he wouldn't bear.
'I believe I do,' he confirmed.
Arthur's look was considering.
'If you are certain then, of course, it would be churlish of me to deny one of my knights his right to fight a poorly armed peasant.'
'Oh that was a low blow.' Caradoc said softly.
'Shows the whole challenge in a distinctly unflattering light, doesn't it?' Gawain agreed.
Quietly minding his own business, a tall lanky figure was puttering around with a training sword awaiting his turn at the hands of the prince.
'Merlin!' Arthur called. 'I need you.'
The figure responded with an oblivious wave of greeting, and Arthur straightened his shoulders and strode towards him.
The knights exchanged questioning looks.
'Merlin?' Bedevere asked. 'I'm going to fight Merlin?'
'Of course, Merlin, I should have thought of him,' Romford said.