Author's Note - Thank you very much for all the positive feedback. I really hope you like the ending. It was very hard to write and may not be how some of you wanted it to end but...meh, I'm the author! :P
Oh, and I'm ill, so a lot of nice reviews for my last chapter would be nice. Thanks!
P.S. Just to let some of you know if you haven't read it already, I thought I'd pimp the most brilliant Merlin fic I have ever read which is called The Knights Have a Thousand Eyes by Stakeaclaim. It is a Merlin/Arthur fic but its honestly so damn good!
Arthur was marching, he needed to find Merlin, it may be the middle of the night but he wasn't very well going to wait until morning to find out whether his manservant was a sorcerer was he? He was still, hopefully, entertaining the possibility that the future which he had been shown was….incorrect. He was pondering the idea that all these ghosts that he'd been visited by could be illusions or dreams or in fact nightmares which his sleep-deprived brain had conjured up. His kingdom ending would probably be among his most dreaded anxieties but finding out that Merlin was a sorcerer, was that one of his fears? Perhaps, an actual sorcerer had used magic to send these phantoms in order to turn him against his manservant. But what would be the point in that? What on earth would be the point of turning a Prince against his servant? There was nothing to be gained from that.
The Ghost of Winter Yet to come had gone already and Arthur was alone with his thoughts and unanswered questions. Even if the spirit had hung around then he doubted whether he would have got a word out of it. This was for him to figure out. Hadn't the first spectre stated something about him learning about himself and then acting on those lessons to become a great ruler? That must mean that he needed to discover things for himself now the clues had been given to him.
He needed to know whether what he had been shown about Merlin was the truth. Then he would decide how to act upon it.
Finally, after what seemed like a rather peculiarly long walk from his room to the physician's chambers, Arthur arrived at his destination.
Swinging the door open, the prince stepped into the poky little room which belonged to his servant and almost tripped over several books and a shirt which had been thrown haphazardly on the floor. With the reactions and balance of a knight, he righted himself and cursed Merlin for being such a lazy buffoon. No wonder his own chambers were so messy if these were the boy's own standards.
He had been hoping to make an entrance, for what reason was unknown even to him other than he was accustomed to it – he was royalty entering a servant's quarters after all. However, after the mishap at the door and the realisation that Merlin was sound asleep (it was only two in the morning) his plan fell flat on its face. The young man was sprawled peacefully on his too small bed, legs falling off the end and arms hanging over the sides. His face was buried in the middle of his straw-stuffed pillow, which was probably fortunate otherwise Arthur would have been subject to his terrible snoring. For such a slight man, the manservant made an awful lot of noise in his slumber; Arthur had experienced that on the overnight hunting trips they took reasonably often.
Staring for longer than was necessary at the sleeping boy, Arthur had to remind himself that he was gazing at a sorcerer. No matter how much Merlin resembled an exhausted, vulnerable peasant boy who had just spent the entire day serving his grumpy master, he was still capable of performing magic.
Taking a deep breath and trying to think of what he was actually about to say to his puzzling servant, Arthur finally plucked up the courage to wake Merlin. He did so in the usual, rough manner that he used when the boy had failed to turn up for service completely because he had overslept. This was by shaking him.
When Merlin let out a moan of confusion, Arthur stepped back and waited, an ominous figure waiting in the gloom – like an executer waiting with an axe.
The boy's eyes opened and he blinked blearily, still unsure as to what was going on, everything still seemed to be dark; there was no sunshine streaming in through the window and therefore it could not be morning. Shaking his head, sleepily, the manservant settled back down beneath his blankets, hoping to catch another few winks. However, a sudden deliberate cough, startled him and he sat bolt upright in bed.
Black hair rumpled, covers falling down to reveal a pale naked chest and jaw shadowed with overnight stubble, Merlin looked completely unprepared and helpless. He caught sight of Arthur and his eyes narrowed with confusion and annoyance. Hadn't the prince already asked enough of him? Couldn't he get a moment's peace?
"What are you..." he yawned, "Doing here? S'not even morning." The young man had to glance at the window once more to see if he was mistaken but he saw the moon blinking at him from its velvet backdrop and knew he was correct. An unhappy thought entered his head. "We're not going for an early hunt are we?" he asked with trepidation. "If we are then you really are a bloody, annoying prat."
Arthur was honestly thrown by his servant's normality: his unending rudeness and disregard for etiquette or status. Merlin was never afraid to insult his master. However, the prince was in such a mess right now, his whole world having been turned upside-down that he hadn't realised that Merlin would be none the wiser. That made what he was about to do even more difficult….but it had to be done.
He stared at the raven haired oddity for a moment.
"I need to talk to you, Merlin," he finally stated. His arms were crossed over his chest.
"Technically," the boy grumbled, "You are talking to me. And, may I add, in the middle of the night?" Perhaps, if he made a big enough fuss over it then Arthur would push off and he would get some much needed sleep. Unfortunately, that didn't seem the case.
"Oh, well, all right then," Merlin said with somewhat fake enthusiasm, "Go right ahead if it's important."
Merlin was feeling rather strange, sitting here in his own bed, barely dressed with the Prince of Camelot standing above him, staring at him as if he were something alien. It was only now that he noticed that Arthur too was clothed in night garments: a thin linen shirt and a pair of baggy trousers. What on earth had possessed him to pop in for a chat at this time of night? Something had to be up, Merlin realised now.
He braced himself.
Looking terribly unsure of himself, an unfamiliar word associated with the usually arrogant and vainglorious prince, Arthur pursed his pink lips and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
Merlin scratched the back of his head awkwardly. Waiting.
"I want you to understand," Arthur finally said, picking his words carefully, "That I will view your words with the utmost sincerity and deference. There will be no prejudgement. But you must tell me the truth." He looked meaningfully at the young man.
Merlin frowned. "What on earth are you talking about?"
Arthur groaned, perhaps, he was being too subtle in his wording. Merlin did only tend to get things once they were spelled out, letter by letter, to him. Still, it was such a difficult question to ask and really, one that he didn't want to hear the answer to.
"Arthur? You know I'm not used to the gobbledegook you and your father speak in when you are talking seriously. It goes way over my head."
"Most things go way over your head." Arthur found himself saying without even thinking. He kicked himself internally.
Merlin smiled, wryly, "That may be the case but can you please elaborate? I'm only a simpleton, as you so like to call me."
"Fine," Arthur decided, nodding more to himself than to Merlin. He shouldn't be skirting round the issue like this; he was the Crown Prince, not some dithering idiot. He should be facing the problem face on; if he wanted the truth then he must ask for it outright and damn the consequences. "Merlin….are you a sorcerer?"
The effect of the words was palpable. The boy in the bed recoiled, looking for the world like the toddler which Arthur had seen in his visions: his cerulean blue eyes wide with astonishment and his mouth slack with fear. He could have competed easily with Gaius considering how high his eyebrows vanished into his untidy hairline.
Merlin knew that he should be making a better job of concealing his identity; he should have been denying the accusation and lying until his nose had grown a foot in length. But it was too late to do any of those things now; the shock of Arthur's abrupt and out of the blue question had knocked the truth out of him, so it was plain to see, even to the often painfully oblivious prince. He was sure he hadn't even done anything to found Arthur's probing – he'd been ever so careful these past few weeks because Uther had been on a sorcerer killing warpath.
So where on earth could the foundations of Arthur's blunt question have sprouted from?
Floundering, the warlock tried to come up with an answer.
"I'll take that reaction as a yes then, shall I?" Arthur said, softly, his eyes shining with disbelief and something else. Defeat?
"I….I…." The usually talkative manservant was still struggling for words.
It was bizarre seeing his own Merlin again, not the one from the future, they were so different and yet the same. The future Merlin had seemed so confident in himself, free of constraints and talking to Arthur as if he was an equal. This one still had a long way to go.
Except, Arthur didn't want Merlin to end up like the one he'd witnessed, not completely. Perhaps, the backbone and the fluent, mature use of words but not much else. He particularly didn't want to see the scar marring his cheek or the shabbiness of his travelling cloak. He didn't want him be outcast and he certainly, didn't want to kill him. That was a revelation in itself, but having seen what would undoubtedly befall his kingdom if Merlin was banished, Arthur had to rethink things. Maybe at one point – recently even – he would have reacted like the other Arthur had and lashed out but his views had shifted considerably after what he had witnessed.
Having seen things from a different, less heated angle, Arthur was learning a lot of home truths. Unquestionably, what the Ghosts of Winter had foreseen.
"Arthur, sire, I…..can explain…." Merlin managed a few more syllables.
"Can you?" Arthur asked, expectantly, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
"Er…..not really," the boy tailed off lamely.
"I didn't think so."
"Are you going to execute me?" Merlin queried with a resigned look in his eyes. Frankly, he was surprised Arthur hadn't done so already.
Unexpectedly, Arthur actually felt a pang of pain and guilt at the idea that Merlin believed he could so easily go through with his murder. It didn't really say a lot for their friendship and the prince was irked by that. Surely, the warlock realised that Arthur had saved his life so many times for a reason and that he just insulted him and made him work hard because…well, that was just how Arthur was. The knights of Camelot could tell him that. Then again, Arthur had consistently referred to him as 'just a servant' and never once as a friend. Although now the prince realised that was what their relationship had developed to.
"No," he stated.
Merlin performed a rather amusing double take in which he almost keeled off the bed.
"Sorry?" he exclaimed.
"I said, no, Merlin," Arthur smiled, dryly; "I'm not going to execute you."
"But the King would kill me if he knew," Merlin answered, worriedly.
The prince nodded. "That's why he won't find out."
The poor young man looked bewildered.
"You would keep this from the King? You'd keep this from your father?" Merlin asked, incredulously, his eyes incredibly huge.
"If you keep going like that, Merlin, I might change my mind."
"But…I didn't even have to defend myself or explain to you why I'm not a threat to the kingdom."
"It may come as a surprise to you, Merlin, but I'm not a completely unfeeling person and I do have a brain of my own which can come to perfectly good conclusions on its own."
"They are none of your business."
"So, you're really not going to tell Uther?"
Arthur smirked at the grin that spread across the boy's expressive face, his expression was positively glowing, as if all his wishes had come true in one fell swoop. Suddenly, he jumped out of bed and pointed a finger at Arthur.
"How did you find out?"
"Let's just say it took a few old ghosts to make me realise."
"That doesn't even make sense." Merlin made a face.
"Yes, well, I'm not cut out for meaningful statements," Arthur retorted, haughtily, "I prefer killing things."
"I thought I was so careful…" Merlin murmured, pensively.
"Not careful enough. However, you must be even more vigilant now Merlin, just because I know doesn't mean it's a chance for you to send my dirty socks dancing across the bedroom or set fire to things just because you can."
"I already do that."
"Fire?" Arthur said, alarmed.
"No, the socks," Merlin laughed.
"Right, but the King doesn't know and it must stay that way. Do you understand? I'm not sure if I could protect you should it come to the crunch."
"But you'd try?" Merlin ventured.
"Yes," Arthur sighed, he was never going to hear the end of this. "I'd try."
The Winter Festival was in full swing and Uther was astounded at the transformation his son seemed to have undergone over night. Yesterday, he had been stomping round the castle like a petulant five year old and today…today he was exuberant, throwing himself into the festivities in a way the king had never witnessed before. It was like he was a different man.
He hadn't complained about the frivolity of the servants or the noisiness of the peasants or the irritating nature of the many guests which Uther had invited into the castle. That was a first. Usually, the prince sidled up to him and informed him that Lord Byzan was a lying cad and that he shouldn't be expected to believe the prone -exaggerator could kill a bear with his naked hands or that the Duchess of Knor was being her usual lecherous self and trying to seduce him at every given moment – even with her husband standing right there! The King had grown used to such complaints and deafened himself to them.
However, this time, he hadn't said anything.
Right now, Uther watched as Arthur laughed heartily with a young man who sat at his table (the son of Hubert, he believed) and clapped him in a friendly way on the back before tucking into his goose. The nobleman's son looked positively ecstatic at such an amiable gesture and his cheeks wouldn't stop glowing for the rest of the day.
Although Arthur hadn't talked to him personally, several of the gentry had come up to him and informed him of what a distinguished and charismatic son he had. Lady Atlanta had told him that 'he was a charming young man with impeccable manners and a good heart.' When Uther had questioned the last part, she had told him that the prince had told one of the serving girls who was heavy with babe to sit down and rest her feet. 'He even gave her some of the food off his own plate!" she exclaimed with delight.
At first, the King hadn't been sure how to view this development in his son but then decided that although it wouldn't do for his son to constantly be consorting with those of lower status and dining with them, he would allow it just the once as it was a celebration and a time to be giving and caring. If Arthur's actions pleased the visitors then all the better.
Arthur was honestly enjoying himself. He hadn't had this much fun in ages. Well, not since the time he booby trapped the hallway and managed to capture Merlin in a net. The sound the manservant had made as he was swept off his feet was unforgettable: a cross between a rabbit being strangled and a toad's croak – perhaps, there was a little girl's scream in there too. In fact, the prince had been laughing so much that he'd collapsed on the floor and not been able to get up for at least another five minutes, whilst Merlin just sat in his rope prison in a huff.
The morning had been spent enjoying the wintery weather outside, walking in the snow and entertaining some of the village children who had come up to play. He and Merlin had been attacked with piles of snow and then a war had been waged. Although, the prince had never even dreamed of consorting with peasant children as a child, let alone now, his new outlook on life caused him to partake. And he was glad he did.
He had even witnessed a very surreptitious bit of Merlin's magic, a childish trick that reminded him of the younger Merlin stuck in a tree, when the warlock redirected the flight of one of the snowballs so it exploded down the neck of one of the youngsters. He'd had his comeuppance though, when he'd been mobbed and thrown to the ground by the children. Arthur had just stood on the sidelines, laughing.
As the peasant children had left, he knew, with certainty, that he had made their day, much like the sweetmeat shopkeeper he had witnessed on his trip. They would be boasting about their frolicking with the infamous Prince of Camelot for weeks to come.
They had come inside to dancing and entertainment in the form of a court jester and a travelling band of flutists. The atmosphere was warm and euphoric, with people enjoying the food that was spread out for them and the light conversation. Arthur even braced himself to dance with Morgana who would only go on about how he had two left feet.
Surprisingly, however, she complimented his skill and then said, "I just wanted to thank you, Arthur, for the gift." Her green-grey eyes were alight with gratitude and pleasure. "It was so thoughtful of you." She had smiled and left him feeling quite chuffed.
He'd thought long and hard about what to gift his adopted sister and eventually decided upon what she would actually appreciate: a brand new sword. This he had acquired from Gwen who he had given a simple silver necklace in return for her favour (and the money, of course!). She had been so taken by it that he made a note to always give her a present every Winter Festival if that was the wonderful reaction he would get. He never knew it could be so much fun to give rather than receive.
His father had been gifted a brooch which he'd acquired with great haste from a travelling salesman who was a staying at the castle.
There was one last person who he had yet to give a gift to and he was saving that for later when there would be no one around.
Sipping at his goblet, Arthur surveyed the happiness in the room he was sat, his father was right, it was good to keep the spirits of the people up with this annual celebration, it gave them something to look forward to and enjoy. After the feast, he had decided to personally go to the kitchens and thank all who had worked there and then ask them if they would be so kind as to take the leftovers and give them to the citizens of Camelot. That way, everyone would get to enjoy the delicious food and not be hungry.
Behind him stood Merlin, tall and lanky in his royal serving attire; Arthur had allowed him to forgo the feathered hat but the rich blue and red garments were essential. However, somehow, the manservant always managed to make them look ridiculous on him – perhaps, it was because they were so big and baggy. Arthur hadn't forgotten the promise he'd made to keep his servant well fed and was secretly passing food from his plate to the skinny young man. Merlin had initially been surprised but then pleased.
As the evening drew to a close, Arthur decided to retire to his bedroom. He bid goodnight to his father and the other guests and beckoned Merlin to come with him. Once they were inside his bedroom, he turned to his servant with a smile on his face. Through his recent visits from the Ghosts he had learnt a lot of things but the most important thing he had discovered was just how much he cared for his blasted manservant. He didn't know what he would do with out him. There was no way that he would ever let anything happen to his friend whilst he was still alive; as much as he skirted round the issue with Merlin.
"I've got a present for you," he declared.
Merlin looked, strangely, worried. "You have?"
"I haven't got one for you," the manservant suddenly said, his face guilty.
"I didn't expect you to," Arthur replied, "But, having said that, how about, as a present to me, could you please try and tidy my bedroom better in future?" He gestured at the mess his room had become.
"I can do that," Merlin nodded, uncertainly. He wasn't really known for his tidy nature.
"Right, here we go. Now, you have to understand this has been ludicrously difficult to get hold of, for several reasons so I'm expecting a lot of gratitude."
"Uh-huh," Merlin replied, still inexplicably nervous.
Arthur brought something out from beneath the covers of his and brandished it at Merlin.
"A book?" Merlin frowned. It was a bit of an anticlimax.
"Not just any book, Merlin, it's a spell book."
"Nope, Father has this hidden library of books. He…well….he keeps them just in case they are needed in the future to combat sorcerers. He doesn't like to be completely illiterate on mythical beasts and enchantments and stuff."
"Won't he notice you've taken it? Isn't it a bit dangerous?" Merlin asked, the questions flooding forth. He flicked through the pages, his eyes greedily sucking up the new information.
Arthur grinned, "Can't you just be happy, Merlin? Stop asking so many damned questions."
"Sorry," the boy looked sheepish. "And thank you."
"Just make sure you keep it well hidden."
"I already have one. I'll put it with that one."
Arthur looked stunned. "Really?" He hadn't even considered the fact that Merlin could already have a spell book concealed.
"As much as you might think it, Arthur, I'm not completely incapable of hiding things."
"Is it under the floorboards?"
"How did you know?!"
"Gods, Merlin, you are so obvious."
A happy note to end on. Please, please review!