Author: Stakeaclaim

Title: The Knights Have a Thousand Eyes

Summary: Arthur is teaching some lessons and Merlin's not impressed at being used as his stick

Spoilers: Slight ones for The Dragon's Call, The Gates of Avalon and Lancelot

Pairing: A/M

Disclaimer: The OCs are mine but, sadly, nothing else belongs to me

The Knights Have a Thousand Eyes

Part 10

'It was Merlin.'

The words plinked into the room like stones into a pool, ripples passing through every knight present. Although not a shadow of it showed on their stoically blank faces.

'Was it?' asked the King, raising his eyebrows, deliberately not looking at Arthur, instead locking his gaze on to the boy.

'Yes…,' Geraint, unable to tear his eyes away and feeling remarkably like a rabbit hypnotised by the hawk-like glare.

'He sort of pushed Arthur to one side,' he said slowly.

'Really? And you didn't notice your servant pushing you around?' Uther asked, finally unlatching his eyes from Geraint and turning to Arthur.

'Well… I thought I felt someone push me, but I didn't see him, and assumed I'd stumbled,' Arthur said carefully.

'Yes, quite. Because you're always that clumsy.' Raised eyebrows punctuated his mockery.

'Not as a rule….'

'It wasn't his fault that he didn't see Merlin,' Geraint said, leaping eagerly to Arthur's defence.

Arthur nearly covered his face in frustration and wanted to shout at the boy to stop helping.

'And why's that? What is he? Invisible?' Uther asked, smiling at his own jest.

'We were all concentrating on the sorcerer, and Merlin was exceedingly quick and stealthy,' Kay quickly said before Geraint could open his mouth.

Geraint looked at Kay and blinked in astonishment, and then looked around at the others waiting for one of them to jump in and point out the lie. To tell the King that Merlin hadn't moved from his horse. They all held their peace.

'So Merlin stealthily crept over and knocked Arthur to the ground and then…?' Uther looked around the group suspiciously, until his eyes finally settled on Percival who had been silent thus far, and was in the middle of knocking back a cup of wine.

Kay nudged him and indicated Uther with a small nod when Percival raised his eyebrows in silent query. Uther made an impatient gesture, signifying that indeed, Percival was to be the chosen spokesperson.

'Well.' Percival gave a cough. 'I'm probably not the best person to tell it. One of the bandits was holding me at knifepoint, you see …,' he replied cautiously.

Features tightened as Uther's patience thinned, hawk-eyes holding Percival pierced and pinned and squirming uncomfortably.

Percival was reluctant to explain how his fear had made him almost insensible to the action around him. But Uther's temper was rising rapidly and he had to say something before it exploded. He licked his lips nervously and tried to gather his thoughts. Maybe he could piece together the bits he had heard from the other knights to produce a semi-coherent account. But if he could no longer claim knightly virtues of courage and valour, he still held tight to his honesty.

'I must admit that I saw nothing but the knife,' Percival said, hanging his head in utter shame.

Uther wasn't happy but he was a soldier, and this was something he could understand, had seen it happen to even seasoned warriors. He accepted the explanation without word and relaxed slightly.

'Romford. Report please.'

Arthur breathed again. If there was one person he could rely upon to smooth over this mess it was Romford.

Romford took a long swig of wine. It tasted strangely harsh and made his eyes water and his throat tickle. He blinked away tears and quickly took another gulp to soothe his throat.

'Sire,' he began crisply. 'As has already been told, the sorcerer fired a bolt of magic at Arthur. It sizzled as it flew towards him and we could all feel the power of it scorching the air around us. It seemed all was lost. But then, in the nick of time, Merlin managed to save Arthur.' Romford frowned and tried to keep track of what he was saying. This was the important bit and he needed to get it right. He took another sip of his wine as Uther hung on his every word.

'Then, after the sorcerer….' He paused again and small creases appeared between his brows.

'After that…?' Uther prompted.

'Yes. After that the sorcerer….. There was a sorcerer, wasn't there?' he asked, suddenly feeling confused.

'There was,' Arthur replied with a look of a concern and a quick glance at his father's increasingly annoyed features.

'Good god, man. What's the matter with you all? I just want to know what happened, is this really so difficult? Are you all ensorcelled? If you stall again then I must assume that you all have something to hide,' he declared ominously, eyeing them each in turn before settling on Romford once more.

'Right…. So…,' Romford said. He sounded nervous.

Romford was stoic. Reliable. Romford was never nervous.

It was at that point Arthur realised what was happening. The potion, so carefully put out of Geraint's reach, had been put within Romford's arm span. Arthur guessed what was going to come next and struggled to stop a groan rumbling from his throat. If he didn't do something then his father's suspicions were going to change to full blown paranoia in approximately five seconds.

'You know. I can't actually remember. What were we discussing again?' Romford asked, his whole face creasing in bewilderment.

The King's eyes were widening in disbelief and his eyebrows were rapidly rising towards his hairline.

Arthur cleared his throat, snapping the tension in the room.

'My apologies, Father. Poor Romford took something of a knock to the head when he tumbled down the cliff. It seems he is more affected than we thought,' Arthur lied smoothly. 'But if you'll allow me to continue his report?'

'I wish someone would,' Uther complained irritably.

'As Romford said, the sorcerer's bolt missed and struck next to me. Instead of dissipating it bounced against the ground and the full force of the magic rebounded, hitting the spellcaster with the blast instead.'

The hall was still and quiet as they awaited Uther's reaction to this explanation.

'It all sounds exceedingly odd. Is this how it happened?' Uther demanded.

There were some supporting nods and mutters of 'yes, indeed'. Hector was about to throw his full weight behind this version, which in essence was true. Instead the King turned once again to Geraint. Who had listened to the account with wide-eyed astonishment.

Geraint swallowed. He knows that he'd seen Merlin raise his hand and protect Arthur with sorcery. The blast didn't miss, and it was Merlin's shield that had forced the blast back at the magician. Surely Merlin should receive credit for his part? So why all the falsehoods, and from the Prince no less?

'Merlin….'

The silence was almost eerie, as though the whole world was suspended and breathless, awaiting his next words.

'Merlin?' Uther prompted, leaning forward attentively.

Geraint glanced around. Everyone was avoiding his gaze. He could feel perspiration beading on his brow.

'Don't tell me you took a blow to the head as well! Or are you just an imbecile?'

And the swift blast of anger was just the fuel that Geraint's brain required. Resenting the implication that he was anything less than brilliant, he looked Uther in the eye as he considered why the room was so tense. And realised it was fear. Fear of what he might tell the King.

All he wanted to do was tell the truth. How would that affect anyone? Well, Merlin, of course…. And Arthur's servant would receive a fair trial in accordance with the laws of the land. Of course, he had heard rumours of Uther's judgement of sorcerers, but surely this was different? Merlin was obviously on their side and seemed to be a good man…..

And it was at this point Geraint realised he was being naive. It was obvious from the reaction of Merlin's friends that loyalty or intentions would carry no weight whatsoever. Suddenly everything became crystal clear. If he told the truth Merlin would die.

But lying was wrong. Lying was cowardly….. Why should he perjure himself for a servant?

Yet Arthur had, and so had Sir Kay. And every man present was protecting Merlin from the King's wrath. Was it some sort of knightly code that he would be expected to follow? Geraint desperately wanted to be part of this elite group. He was a fighter. He belonged here, if only he could just fit in. He didn't want to betray these people.

It took only a second for all these thoughts to play through his head. And in that second of frantic debate he reached a conclusion.

Merlin was a sorcerer, and the law was the law. Geraint knew his duty. In all conscience, he could not lie to the King.

'Merlin saved Arthur's life. The bolt of magic did not hit Arthur, instead it bounced back at the sorcerer. When it hit him, the sorcerer let out a terrible scream and dropped to the ground.'

Looking the King straight in the eyes, with no lie uttered, his conscience was sufficiently appeased. Geraint noted with relief that stinginess with the truth appeared to be acceptable, and was grateful to discover that he didn't have one of those exacting, aggravating consciences that demanded full disclosure.

'Was he dead?' Uther asked.

'The sorcerer was completely destroyed,' Geraint confirmed sticking carefully to the literal truth. Indeed, there had been no sorcery left in the boy, Merlin had seen to that.

There was no audible exhalation, everyone was too guarded for that, but Geraint sensed the change. He glanced at the Prince and it seemed that his eyes were warmer.

If the Prince displayed this sort of loyalty to a mere manservant it bode well for his knights. Suddenly, Geraint was feeling much more confident about his future.

He helped himself to food as the story continued around him. The knife to Arthur's throat. Kay displayed his bandaged hands and the King thanked him for aiding Arthur. No one mentioned that Kay had been invisible at the time. It made Geraint feel like he was part the inner circle as they all stepped carefully around the King, protecting Arthur and his servant. The others passed him meat and wine, and made jokes he didn't understand but laughed along with anyway. It felt suspiciously like comradeship. Possibly even friendship.

Uther was apparently satisfied and toasted the death of another sorcerer. It seemed a little extreme to Geraint, there was something a little rabid in the King's hatred of sorcery. But nonetheless, he raised his cup, as did the others.

Percival looked up to find Arthur at his side.

'I hear you're leaving us,' Arthur said.

'Yes.'

'Why?'

Percival gave a disbelieving huff.

'How can you even ask? You heard what happened!'

'Then it was a flaw in my training, not in you. We'll work on it.'

'I am a coward.'

'Really? You could have lied just now, made up some story to satisfy my father. It would have been the easy way. Instead you confessed your mistake to everyone present. That was real courage. There is no reason to go. No one thinks less of you.'

'But I think less of myself. I can't stay here. Not with the memories of how poor a knight I proved myself to be.'

Arthur realised there was nothing he could say that would change Percival's mind. But maybe there was something he could do….

'Memories?' Arthur asked keeping his tone laconic. He reached for what was left of the wine that had so affected Romford.

'Have a drink,' he said, pushing the cup into Percival's hand.

'Quaffing wine solves nothing,' Percival warned him.

Arthur watched with satisfaction as, despite his words, Percival drank it down.

'Some people use it to forget,' he pointed out.

'Then they are fools to rely on such a temporary remedy,' Percival said bitterly, wiping ruby drops from his lips.

'Maybe so,' Arthur agreed. 'But whatever works, in my opinion.'

There was a moment's silence. Percival's features smoothed as distress dissolved from his face.

'What were we talking about again?' he asked.

Arthur smiled widely, feeling exceptionally pleased with how the evening was going.

'I was just saying not to drink too much. I've cancelled training for tomorrow but that's no reason to overindulge.'

'When have I ever been worse for drink? Uh…. I haven't, right?'

'No. You're right, of course. Have a good night,' Arthur replied, uncharacteristic kindness warming his voice.

And then he took his leave, pleading tiredness with an explanatory hand wave to the bandage at his throat.

Despite genuine tiredness, there was a bounce to Arthur's step as he strode towards his room. He could hardly believe they had emerged unscathed. He sprang up to his chambers, looking forward to seeing Merlin safely ensconced.

Instead there was a piece of folded parchment with his name scrawled across the front. He picked it up and flicked it open with an impatient shake of his hand. A quick perusal told him more than he cared to know. The years folded back to another night and a similar note. But this time there was no rival, just Merlin, noble, idiotic Merlin trying to make sure no one was forced to risk their life for him.

He ran at full pelt to Gaius, leaping the steps two or three at a time. To find the old man sitting on his cot, clutching a letter of his own. Stirred from his lethargy by the swirling draught of Arthur's entrance, he raised sorrowful eyes to the Prince.

'He's gone.'

But Arthur was in no mood for either sorrow or weary acceptance.

'I realise that,' he replied snappishly. 'But where?'

The tone seemed to fire Gaius up.

'Why would you want to know? To bring him back for trial?'

'Don't be ridiculous.'

It was unlike Arthur to give the old physician anything but his full respect, but then he had never seen Gaius so… petulant. Still, he immediately felt sorry for his abrupt words, recognising that Gaius's attitude was born of despair.

He gentled his voice and said, 'There will be no trial. Every single man stood loyal to him tonight. With my knights rallied around him he's safer here than anywhere else in the kingdom.'

'What about Geraint?' Gaius asked doubtfully.

'Geraint too protected him.' Arthur said with some satisfaction.

'But… why?'

Gaius had seen too many people sent to their deaths with no one offering a single protest, No one standing in their defence. He found it difficult to comprehend how Merlin could escape their fate.

'They each had their reason but in the end does it matter? His place is here, and now I'm going to bring him back,' Arthur declared firmly.

But Gaius's ability to trust kings and princes had long been spent. He wouldn't risk Merlin's life simply on a word. He needed more. He needed proof.

He began muttering under his breath and when he was ready he looked up at Arthur with eyes that were suddenly piercing and bright. Bringing to bear all the remnants of skill and power he ever possessed, he dissected Arthur. His gaze penetrating and sharp. It cut through armour and mail and all manmade artifice. It sliced through skin and bone and all natural defences. And with every protection cast aside, the heart of the Prince was laid bare.

Cocking his head, Gaius heard its pulse and listened to a beat that was true and steady. He nodded approvingly.

Gimlet eyes then searched the chambers of that heart and discovered all the precious things Arthur hid away inside. And one of the most protected, most precious was a young man with laughing eyes, dark hair curling against a graceful neck, wide mouth quirked in an ever ready grin, but with any hint of the ordinary shattered by the power that cloaked the figure, shimmering mystery and glinting gold as though imprisoned sunlight was escaping from his eyes.

This was how Arthur saw Merlin?

Hiding a smile, Gaius carefully retreated, allowing the layers to fall back into place and fold protectively around the things that the Prince held dear.

'In that case…,' Gaius picked up his own scribbled note, and pointed out a sentence, 'you might be relieved to hear that he's not going far tonight.'

...

Merlin made it to the cave.

Thankfully it was dry and still bear-free. Summer was ending and the bears were still roaming the forest instead of holing up tight for the winter.

Building a small fire outside the entrance and pulling out some of his food, he considered where to go next as he chewed thoughtfully through a strip of meat. Returning to Ealdor was out of the question. If they had a mind to find him that would be the first place they would search.

Maybe this would be his life now, an itinerant vagabond, vying with bears for the luxury of a a dry cave, travelling the world until Arthur called him home again.

Home. The word was a bell and resonated inside him.

After only a year, somehow this is what Camelot had become to him. He was bound to it. Camelot ('Arthur', a traitorous thought supplied) was in his blood, the pulse in his veins. He had to trust the dragon was right. His destiny was bound to Arthur's and one day he would return to his side. That was the one bright hope, soothing the throbbing black and blue bruises of his thoughts.

More sticks were fed into the fire, enough to keep it smouldering through the night. He was tired but didn't expect to sleep when his mind was churning wearily through the day and every other thought was of Arthur.

A noise made him cock his head to listen. But it was only the crack and pop of green wood.

So he nearly leapt out of his skin when he raised his eyes and noticed through the haze of smoke a silhouetted figure standing just outside the circle of firelight. With the thought of bandits still fresh in his mind, Merlin sprang to his feet.

'Who is it?' he asked out anxiously. 'Declare yourself!'

The figure strode forward.

'Really, Merlin. You call that a fire?'

He'd recognise that sardonic tone anywhere.

'Arthur?' Merlin asked, not quite believing his eyes.

The fire popped again and Merlin quickly brushed a smouldering spark from his sleeve.

'See?' Arthur said smugly. 'That's what happens when you use green wood. You set yourself alight. Clearly, you shouldn't be let out by yourself.'

'It was dark when I was gathering wood,' Merlin said defensively, and then realised that the sneaky sod had successfully diverted him.

'Why are you here?' he demanded.

'To bring you back home.'

Merlin studied him, trying to make out his expression in the flickering firelight.

'Did the King send you? Am I to be put on trial?'

Arthur collapsed on to the ground; the fire etched his image in shades of yellow and gold.

'Is that what you think?'

And when Merlin really looked at his earnest face and the heat of the flames that danced in his eyes he found he could hardly think at all. It took all his effort just to keep breathing.

'That I'd drag you back for execution?' Arthur asked.

Merlin finally shook his head.

'I thought you'd just let me go,' he said softly.

Arthur brought his knees up and rested his chin on his knees, watching Merlin intently.

'What made you think that? Am I so fickle?'

Merlin sat on the other side of the fire and gave a noncommittal shrug.

So Arthur continued.

'You may find it difficult to believe but I have my faults.' He waited a second. 'No matter how loudly you protest, it's true.'

Merlin lifted his eyebrows.

'I wouldn't dream of contradicting my Prince.'

Arthur pouted. And a small smile tilted Merlin's lips because the expression was so familiar.

'So you were saying, you have your faults,' he prompted.

'Yes, quite. You may have noticed I'm occasionally self-centred. Sometimes you might even say that I'm selfish. You see, I don't easily let go of the things I lo… care for. I don't give them up for execution and I don't let them leave without a fight. It's a personality flaw.'

And despite the casualness of his words, his eyes were glued to Merlin, cataloguing his every reaction. There wasn't much to read because Merlin was statue-still. His stillness belied the crazy beating of his heart.

But Merlin couldn't let himself believe what Arthur appeared to be implying. Besides….

'The girl you loved. You let her go. You let them insult her. You let her run,' Merlin said quietly.

The flames crackled and snapped in the silence.

'Have you ever heard of a knight called Hubert?' Arthur asked.

Merlin shook his head.

'Hubert offered grave insult to the lady. I never forgot and never forgave. Morgana also hated Hubert with a vengeance, so we trained together, Morgana and I, until she was good enough to take him. A few years ago I let her loose on him. And she was merciless. That's why you don't hear talk of him, except in hushed tones.

'I know I should have done more at the time when Bernadette was here, shielded her and protected her better, but I was young and had no authority or influence over the knights.'

Lost in memories, Arthur let loose a long sigh.

'No matter what they say, I didn't abandon her,' he said earnestness shining bright in his eyes. 'I chased after her as soon I received the message that she'd fled with her child.'

'But Morgana said….'

'Did she? Huh, I always thought Gwen would have told her.'

'Gwen?' Merlin asked in confusion.

'Things were… unpleasant here and Gwen was her best friend. So we arranged for her to stay with Gwen's relations until her fiancé sailed back. As far as I know they're happily married, prosperous and surrounded by numerous offspring.'

'Oh…. I'm sorry, Arthur. Gwen.did speak kindly of you. I should never have doubted….'

'How could you not?' Arthur replied, staring into the flames. 'I'm well aware of what people say about me, and you didn't know the man I was five years ago.'

'No. But I know the man you are now,' Merlin replied guiltily.

Of course Arthur would do the right thing. However big a prat he sometimes was, however careless and thoughtless he could be, he would still never abandon the woman and her innocent child so heartlessly.

'Why did you let them spread lies about you?'

'It's difficult to refute when nothing is said to your face. Anyway, the whole situation was my fault.'

It was such an Arthur thing to do, taking all the responsibility to himself and shouldering the weight on his own.

'Besides, anything I said would have merely thrown more fuel to the flames. Best to let it die down.' he finished with a shrug.

Merlin considered how much he lived in the public eye. It left Arthur with little privacy, his very action and decision became part of the public forum, to be discussed, analysed and judged. Perhaps keeping his distance and ignoring everything that was said was the only way to remain sane.

'I expect you're right,' Merlin replied.

'I think there's something wrong with my hearing.' Arthur knocked an ear with the base of his palm, as though attempting to dislodge wax. 'Did you actually admit I was right about something?'

'Don't get too big-headed. By the law of averages it was bound to happen sooner or later,' Merlin told him, an impish look glinting in his eyes.

Arthur gave a low chuckle and Merlin smiled back.

'So are you coming back or what?' Arthur asked.

'But… I'm a sorcerer,' Merlin pointed out reluctantly. It needed to be said. To be discussed. Held up to the light and examined.

'Really? I hadn't noticed.'

Typical of Arthur to be so flippant about something so important. Merlin refused to let it go. He needed to know how this was going to work – a magician at King Uther's court.

'Arthur….'

His voice was so plaintive that Arthur would have teased him if it wasn't for the anxiety written large on his face.

'I'm not a complete idiot, you know. I suspected something the first time we fought and that hanging scythe leapt forward and wrapped itself around the chain of my mace. Or maybe it was the way inanimate objects suddenly appeared under my feet…. I mean, have you even heard of the word subtle?'

Merlin was dumbstruck.

'No. No way could you have known all this time…. Could you?'

Arthur raised his eyebrows.

'But all the times….'

'Exactly. All the times. How could I not notice?'

'Really? And you're alright with it?' Merlin asked, almost shyly peeking up through long lashes.

'No I'm not alright with it,' Arthur replied.

Merlin's face fell.

'Oh.'

'God, Merlin, you're so careless. How many times have you nearly been discovered?'

'Oh,' Merlin said again. 'But other than that, you're alright?'

'Do I have a choice?'

'Yeah, you kind of do….'

'No, I don't. I understand. The magic, it's part of you. Maybe you missed the bit earlier where I mentioned I cared for you? I did slip it in quite subtly, I thought. And you're not exactly at your brightest when you're tired….'

Merlin deliberately ignored the part that was making him quiver like a teenage girl. He couldn't just believe in Arthur's miraculous acceptance of all that he was. Not without argument or explanation.

'We need to talk about it, Arthur. You must have some questions about me. About this…?' He waved a hand and a stream of sparks followed the movement, flared bright and died.

Arthur considered him with a thoughtful look on his face.

'You're right. I do have questions. So… your magic. Are you going to use it to betray Camelot?'

Merlin's eyes widened in shock.

'Of course not!' he denied vehemently.

'Good. Are you going to use magic to betray me or my men?'

'No!'

'There we go, we've talked. Now come home.'

'But….'

'No. What more do I need to know?'

'But the knights, they know, Arthur.'

'You're right again…. Unbelievable, twice in a day.'

'Arthur….'

'Yes, they do know. And without me even asking they protected you to a man. If you return, you will have a circle of people who you can trust with your life. Where else could you go and have that sort of assurance? There's probably nowhere safer in the whole country.'

Arthur's voice was soft and persuasive.

Merlin found himself blinking watery eyes. It was too overwhelming after all the emotions of the day, the fear and anxiety, the helplessness and blank despair.

The knights, those ridiculous men with their overpowering ebullience, their sense of entitlement, their mixture or arrogance and bullying strength. Those men he had nothing in common with, except the love of Arthur. Those men who were tentatively reaching towards higher ideals and principles, growing towards them like flowers turning their faces to the light. Those men had accepted him. Him. A servant, a sorcerer, a nobody. Accepted him and everything he was in a way his village never would have.

'I think I love your knights.' Merlin said, his face slowly creasing in a smile.

'Just my knights, hmm? Not their bold, fearless leader?'

'Their prattish, egotistical leader,' Merlin corrected.

'Their glorious, remarkably handsome captain.'

'You mean that conceited, vainglorious…..'

'If you wish,' Arthur interrupted and fiddled with the edge f his cloak. 'But your answer?'

He was looking intently at Merlin, unusual vulnerability in his eyes. Young and uncertain and laid bare. And as the silence lengthened so his gaze finally left Merlin's. Cast down, flickering uncertainly to the forest floor.

'No,' Merlin replied.

'No?' Arthur asked and his heart plummeted.

'No. It's not just your knights I love,' Merlin clarified softly.

Arthur raised his head and tried to prevent his lips from twitching into an idiot's smile. Tried not to let it spread over his face or let happiness blaze through him and light up the forest with joy. But Merlin was looking back at him with an answering besotted smile and all Arthur's attempts at containing what he felt were failing miserably.

Despite the tiredness showing in his eyes and the bandage around his head, Merlin looked luminous in the firelight. Arthur couldn't prevent his hand from reaching out and tracing that jaw, the sharp line of cheekbone….

'Do you know how many times I've had to stop myself from touching you?' Arthur asked hoarsely.

'Do you know how many times I've touched you, hands on skin and yet had to stay distant and objective, the perfect servant?' Merlin countered; his tone accusing.

This confession left Arthur without even the wit to mock his 'perfect servant' assertion.

'Merlin….'

'I mean…. You made me wash your hair, undress you, see you standing naked….'

Merlin's plaintive protests were smothered by the heat of Arthur's mouth, distracted by the tug of fingers tangling in his hair, soothed by a gently cradling hand.

Arthur reluctantly broke the kiss and drew back, gazing at Merlin's slightly shocked face.

'Is this alright?' he asked, breath whispering over Merlin's skin like silk. He didn't know what he'd do if Merlin told him no.

But with a curl of hand around Arthur's neck, his question was answered when Merlin pulled Arthur back to the kiss. It was tentative and sweet, mouth gently exploring. Arthur closed his eyes. Lost himself in the warmth of Merlin's touch, coiled tension seeping away and he was falling bonelessly into Merlin, greedily seeking more. Needing more.

A sudden 'crack' brought them whirling back to their surroundings and landing with a jolt, breathless and blinking and pupils blown wide.

'What was that noise?' Merlin asked.

'The fire, idiot.'

'Idiot?' Merlin's touches became more playful and teasing, drawing goosebumps across Arthur's body, until Arthur was trembling to his touch.

'God, Merlin, I need...' Arthur murmured. 'I need.'

And Merlin was similarly destroyed.

'Arthur? Let's go home,' he whispered. And took him by the hand.

...

'Then I followed them back from the forest,' Caradoc said, 'and set Willard and Montague to guard their door to make sure no servant could accidentally disturb them.'

'You followed Arthur and then watched him and Merlin during their most intimate moments?' Geraint asked with a look of disbelief.

'Of course, we have to keep watch over them' Caradoc replied, wondering what the boy's problem was. 'So our plan came good in the end,' he said smugly.

'Merlin's really a sorcerer?' Romford asked, still feeling bewildered by all these events they described that he had managed to perfectly forget.

'You really did take a nasty knock to the head didn't you?' Bedevere sympathised. 'Are you sure you should be walking around in your condition?'

'Gaius put a bandage on and said there was a lump, but that other than the memory loss I was fine. Really, I don't know about hitting my head….. I mean, there's no pain.' He touched tentatively at the back of his head. 'I can't feel anything at all.'

Caradoc shook his head.

'What?' Romford demanded.

'Nothing.'

'Look if you have something to say….'

'Well, it's a bad sign, isn't it?'

'A bad sign? What is?' Romford was starting to feel little needles of concern prickling up and down his spine.

'Not being able to feel an injury….'

'He's right,' Geraint piped up. 'I knew a man who injured his finger. He insisted it was fine because he couldn't feel anything. And then it turned blue and dropped off.'

Everyone's eyes swivelled curiously to Romford's head.

'What? Oh, good grief! Don't be complete idiots. My head is not going to drop off!'

They continued to stare at him and it seemed there was slight air of expectancy. Romford goggled at them, his colour mounting in annoyance.

'Will you stop staring at me!' He was beginning to look like he was going to have fit of apoplexy.

'Of course your head's not going to fall off! I mean, look, it's not even blue. More a sort of purple. Purple's not blue is it?' Caradoc asked uncertainly. 'Maybe you should go for a lie down. You're not getting any younger you know,' he finished kindly. And took a quick step back at the venomous glance Romford shot his way.

'I'm only trying to help,' he protested.

Romford gave an angry 'Hmph'.

He'd had more injuries than they'd had hot dinners. Heads didn't just fall off without the accompanying aid of a sword or axe. Still, he was very careful as he settled himself into a chair.

Kay patted his arm.

'He's only teasing you. You shouldn't you know,' he said turning to Caradoc. 'The elderly should be treated with respect...'

'Elderly!'

But before he could work up a full head of steam he caught the grin that Kay was trying to hide, and after the initial surprise came a rush of pride. That shy, serious boy was growing up into someone bright as a spark and smart as a whip. He settled back into his chair. He'd seen them all arrive as boys, timid and uncertain in a strange court, and look at them now. The mice had become lions

'Taunt an injured man, would you? Don't forget. It's still me you'll face on the training field,' he said ominously.

'Then that's my privilege,' Kay replied with a slight bow of his head.

And charming as well? Who taught him to be charming? Perhaps it was Gawain or maybe Willard. Willard was sort of charming.

'Bedevere? You may leave the court without fear or concern over how much I'll miss you. I have a new favourite.'

'You do? I thought I was your favourite,' Caradoc said plaintively.

'Is today Thursday? Then no, you're not my favourite. On Thursdays it's definitely Bedevere,' Romford replied placidly.

'So when am I your favourite?'

'Tuesdays. Evening. Between dinner and bedtime.'

'Oh I know the time you mean. Just after dinner, when he's become inebriated and passes out?' Gawian supplied helpfully.

'Precisely,' Romford said.

'Ouch. I'm hurt. To think I've loved you like a grandfather...'

'You're leaving?' Kay asked, ignoring the gentle bickering of the knights.

Bedevere nodded.

'I received a letter from my father yesterday morning. I leave tomorrow.'

Kay remembered Bedevere lost in the forest, desperately searching for a phantom Arthur. It was no wonder that separation had been so much on his mind.

'I'm sorry. It will be strange without you.'

Bedevere smiled. He had always known he would have to leave. And now Arthur had someone else to look after and to care for. The time felt right.

'We're all Arthur's knights. I will see you again.'

Montague, with Willard following behind, chose that second to walk through the door. He was looking particularly smug.

'Is all well?' Gawain asked anxiously.

'All is better than well,' Montague replied.

'So? Don't keep us hanging, man. What happened?'

'What happened? We stood guard over Arthur's chambers all night,' he replied easily.

'You're not the slightest bit funny. Details, my man. Details.'

Montague laughed and gave in gracefully.

'Very well. You know Caradoc fetched me and Willard whilst they were stabling Arthur's horse?'

'Yes, we know that bit. And we know you stood guard at their door. So I ask again. What happened?'

Montague gestured towards Willard, who gave a heartfelt sigh and took up the story.

'We saw them. Like figures from legend, Achilles and his Patroclus, Apollo and Hyacinthus, they drifted through the night. Hands clasped together and eyes full of moonbeams and stardust. They had eyes only for each other. They looked beautiful, as though lit from the light of a different world. They looked as only lovers can do.'

When Willard became lost in the picture he was painting, Montague continued, picking up the tale from Willard.

'They didn't even notice us following, which, considering one of them has magical talents and the other is Arthur, is proof of how wrapped up they were in each other.

'They went to Arthur's chambers, and that was the last we saw of them until morning.'

He fell silent and they realised that was all he was going to offer.

'Montague, I've worked for this result for months. I nearly lost the Lady Jemima to the cause. I've been beaten up by a jealous Arthur. I think I deserve more,' Caradoc said with as much patience as he could muster. 'Besides, we don't keep secrets from each other. It's in all our interests that we remain open and honest with each other.'

Romford coughed and Bedevere shuffled uneasily, recalling their conspiracy, secret meetings and subtle manipulations.

'We don't keep secrets unless we absolutely have to,' Caradoc continued smoothly.

Montague and Willard glanced at each other and Willard gave a small nod of agreement.

'There's not much to share. But this is what we heard. Arthur told Merlin to kiss him. You know, like that day on the practice field? When Merlin laughed in his face?'

'Ah yes. I remember it well',' Gawain said with a sad smile. He'd noticed Merlin's before then but that was when he fell for him a little bit. He'd looked so bright and so defiant. And Arthur had known, iknown/i how Merlin would react. And yet put his own pride aside and allowed it to happen. Looking back, Gawain knew he never stood a chance. With either of them.

'So what happened this time?' Romford asked.

'Well, Merlin still can't obey an order. And he is also terribly clumsy. From the grunts and groans we guess that Merlin jumped Arthur instead. Anyway, once they were sure that Arthur wasn't concussed and hadn't sustained any serious damage, they finally moved things to the bed….'

'Excuse me, but isn't this private?' Geraint asked, rather disturbed at their prurient attitude towards the Prince and the Sorcerer.

'Yes, I suppose it is,' Montague said thoughtfully. 'But don't worry we almost consider you one of us.'

'I meant, private, as in between Arthur and Merlin.'

'Of course it's private. It iis/i just between Merlin and Arthur. And us. We're the knights. We're expected to know everything.'

'You can't go around eavesdropping on people like that!'

'They weren't eavesdropping! And I'm shocked that you should think it,' Caradoc protested indignantly. 'Willard and Montague stood guard over the door to their chambers to ensure no one icould/i eavesdrop.'

Geraint eyed them doubtfully, and realised they meant every word, without irony and without sarcasm.

'You lot are a bit scary, you know that, don't you?'

'We're just remarkably well informed.'

'And focused.'

'Single-minded.'

'Something you would do well to learn, young Geraint,' Caradoc informed him. 'Indeed, when I was a young man...'

'You're twenty-two, Caradoc,' Romford pointed out irritably.

'When I was younger,' Caradoc continued.

This felt like the beginnings of a lecture, Geraint thought, as he wandered to the window and gazed out letting the voice fade to a drone.

'Is that Lady Jemima down there?' he asked.

'Ooh where?' Caradoc asked, rushing to the window.

'She's out of sight now. I think she went into the rose garden.'

And that was the end of the lectures. So much for being single-minded and focused, Geraint thought, as he watched Caradoc leave the room only to appear below, making a mad but ultimately fruitless dash towards the rose garden. Still, looking for the Lady would keep him busy for a while.

He sat back and watched these men who would be his family for the next few years. Gawain was trying to hide some inner sadness. Bedevere had noticed too and had a hand on his shoulder.

'They were never going to be ours. Be happy that they're happy.'

The handsome knight smiled.

'I am. I swear. I'm content to watch over them, protect them, lead where they follow. But...'

'I know,' said Bedevere.

'These are going to be exciting times, aren't they?'

'The best,' Bedevere replied.

Romford also was looking a little sad. His gaze looking everywhere except at Willard. Of course, the older knight didn't remember the previous day.

Geraint slipped a cross to him.

'He returns your affection, you know,' Geraint commented casually.

'What are you talking about, boy?'

'After all, you hacked off his hair and he still hasn't killed you. He must like you. A lot.'

Romford stopped pretending that he didn't understand and gave a heavy sigh.

'It doesn't matter. I mean look at him. He's young and handsome. And look at me.'

'It seems to me that he likes what he sees. He's been staring at you for the last five minutes.'

'He has?'

Geraint nodded and moved away.

After a moment Romford got to his feet. For a second he looked nervous. But it must have been a trick of the light because Romford was never nervous.

'They tell me I hacked off your hair. Sorry about that. But it sort of suits you. It looks good. I mean you look good.' The words tumbled out, and Romford was feeling like a babbling idiot.

'You said that to me yesterday, as well,' Willard said with a smile.

'Just shows I was telling the truth then, doesn't it?'

They left the room together.

'I saw what you did there,' Kay said. 'To Caradoc and to Romford.'

Geraint eyed him uneasily and waited for the man to begin the lecture.

Instead Sir Kay said, 'After an exceptionally shaky start, I think you're going to fit in fine. Just don't hit anyone. Especially not Merlin.'

'I wouldn't dare,' Geraint said with a shudder. 'It would be a contest to see who could kill me first. And then they'd probably dump my body in the bog,' he joked.

'Quite,' Kay agreed. 'You're learning.'

...

'You called for me Father?'

'I did. It's about Merlin.'

'Merlin?'

Arthur tried to keep concern from colouring his voice. He thought this was all over. Surely Geraint hadn't had second thoughts...

'Considering all he did for you, I think it would be a noble gesture to reward Merlin.'

'Reward... Yes... Uh. What were you thinking of?'

'There is land between the marshes of the east and the hills of Elmete...'

'You would make him a landowner?'

Arthur couldn't take much more. First the fear that his father had found out Merlin's secret. And now it seemed that Merlin was to be sent to the wilds beyond Elmete.

'It's not much. Sir Alwyn has passed on without heir so the land had been returned to me. It makes a decent income, enough to allow Merlin to marry, bring up children and live comfortably.'

'It's exceedingly generous of you but...'

'You said yourself that he was never meant to be a servant. That he's the worst servant you've ever had. This would be the ideal answer.'

'Father... I do not wish him to go,' Arthur finally blurted out, his face turning a furious pink.

'Now. You must not be selfish... Oh.' Uther finally noticed his son's blushing cheeks, which led him to the kiss-red lips and a darkening bruise just below the bandage on his neck. 'Oh. Yes, I see. Quite. Then what would be a suitable reward other than...' He waved a hand at Arthur and if possible Arthur turned even redder.

'The boy can read, can't he? I mean he is apprenticed to Gaius, isn't he?'

'Yes. I mean, I know I call him an idiot, but he's not. He just sees things in a different way. Which can be useful sometimes.'

'New solutions to old problems,' Uther said thoughtfully. 'I was going to suggest an education, here at court. We have some of the most knowledgeable men in the country. You already trust him. He's obviously quick thinking and loyal. How about your official advisor?'

'Advisor?'

'It was Hector who suggested it. He thought there was more to him than met the eye. Would that be a suitable reward?'

These changes were coming too thick and fast. Advisor? Arthur was trying to absorb exactly what that would mean. Would Merlin agree? But then, Merlin already made suggestions, this would merely recognise his importance.

'I think it would be eminently suitable,' Arthur agreed.

And Uther smiled. It had been a long time since he'd seen Arthur looking this young. Or this happy. Not since that woman, whatever her name was. Yes, this relationship with Merlin suited Uther perfectly. No bastards to muddy the succession, no secret marriages. Arthur's hand in marriage would still be available as a carrot during negotiations. All in all, Uther was very satisfied with this development.

'Well go along with you then. He'll be wondering where you are,' he said and gave Arthur an encouraging smiling that had Arthur blinking in astonishment before scurrying away as ordered.

...

'So you're back with us,' Gaius said as he unwrapped the old bandage, cleaned the cut and began to wind a new one around Merlin's head.

'Yes, I'm back. I'm sorry Gaius, for all the trouble I caused you.'

'You'll be moving your things into Arthur's room?'

Merlin thought about it for a second.

'I don't know. It feels a bit... presumptuous. Besides, you know we're going to argue and fight. I think we both need a space where we can escape each other. Would you mind if I kept most my things here?'

Gaius smiled in relief.

'Of course not! You know you're always welcome here, whatever happens.'

'Thank you.'

'Just be happy, Merlin.'

Arthur appeared at the door, as Merlin said, 'Oh, I will be.'

'Is the head alright?' Arthur asked looking at Merlin with concern.

'It's fine. Clean. Not even a lump. So now then, let's have a look at your injury.'

Arthur took Merlin's place, sharing a look, a touch, before Merlin went into his room to wash and change.

Gaius repeated the process of removing bandages and cleaning the wound.

'You were quite lucky that your attacker knew what he was doing. A tad further and he'd have slit your windpipe. As it is, you might just have a small scar to show for it.'

'All things considered, I think I can live with that,' Arthur replied.

When he'd finished treating the wound, Gaius brought him a drink. Arthur eyed it suspiciously.

'What is it?' he asked, sniffing at the brew.

'Arnica. To help with the bruising.' Gaius turned away and smiled as Arthur began peering at himself in a small piece of polished mirror.

He spotted the bruise and was a mortified that it must have been clearly on display all the time he was talking to his father.

'Ah. Right. Bruises, huh?' He drank the potion down. 'Thank you.'

'No. Thank you. For protecting him. For bringing him back. Just... take good care of him, will you?'

Arthur stood up and gave a shake of his head.

'I'll do my best, but you know that he's going to do just what he wants, no matter what I say?'

And those words satisfied any lingering doubts Gaius might have held. There was no coercion or pressure involved, no sign of master and servant dynamics. Just two men, equal in obstinacy and determination, equal in the power they could wield, equal in the love they could give. Yes, Gaius was very satisfied.

'In fact, Uther is going to make him my personal advisor. I actually have to listen to everything he thinks I should do.'

Arthur began to look perturbed at the thought.

'I'm going to be your advisor? Your Official Advisor?' Merlin asked gleefully, eyes alight with laughter.

A groan escaped Arthur.

'Gaius, what have I done? Father offered him land, I should have accepted it and sent him to the wilds of Elmete...'

'Well, that is excellent,' Merlin said grinning merrily and ignoring Arthur's heartfelt lament.

'This is going to work out splendidly, Arthur. I advise you to help me with my things. And then I advise you to join me for lunch,' Merlin told him imperiously.

'Oh god, he's going to be insufferable, isn't he?'

'I'm afraid he is.' Gaius agreed, amusement threading through his words.

'And then I advise...,' Merlin continued as he walked out the door.

'And you're going to love every minute of it,' Gaius said with a quirk of his eyebrow.

Arthur gave him a grin and then quickly caught up with Merlin.

'Don't be a complete prat, Merlin. You're still my servant and commands outrank advice.'

'But soon I'll be your advisor, not your servant. Commands from someone who isn't my master don't count. Idiot.'

'But you won't be my Advisor until you've finished studying.'

There was a speaking silence.

'You didn't say there was studying involved,' Merlin whined. 'Where was this land you were talking about?'

'Don't be like that. You have to study. I'll need you to give me good advice if we're going to build Albion together.'

There was silence again as Merlin mulled this over.

'We're really going to do this, aren't we?'

And when Merlin turned to him with love and trust shining in his eyes, Arthur knew he could conquer the world.

'We are. How can we not? We're Merlin and Arthur. We're golden. The legends of the future.'

Arthur was grinning at him and Merlin laughed at his extravagance. A small part of him worried at the display of such confidence, but they were young and in love and the future seemed a long way away.

Deep in his cave the dragon stirred in his dreams. This was the beginning, and the fabric of legend was rolling out before his eyes. He gave a rumble of contentment and dreamt of spreading his wings, lifting high on the thermals, a sea breeze in his face and the warmth of the sun on his skin. The reign of Arthur Pendragon was at hand.

THE END