Arthur took the spare shirt, trousers, and neckerchief that he'd managed to pinch from Merlin's room and put them in the saddlebag. He had already packed a few days worth of food, a pair of waterskins, a blanket, a flint, a few coins, and a small dagger. Satisfied, he headed to the stables to wait for Merlin.
He knew his manservant would be late, again, but he didn't mind this time. Arthur had been putting this trip off for a while now; a few more minutes wouldn't make much difference. He took the reins of both horses from the stable boy, patted and murmured to the animals, and waited. Sure enough, a good 15 minutes later, Merlin came dashing into Arthur's view, red-faced and out of breath.
"I'm sorry, Sire," he managed, "but Gaius had me running errands, and then…"
"It's okay, Merlin," interrupted Arthur easily. "Here's your horse. Get on."
Merlin's face grew even redder. "Oh, I should have saddled these horses for you," he moaned guiltily, taking the reins held out to him.
"Actually, no," declared Arthur. "I asked the stable boy to have it taken care of before we both arrived. I didn't want you to have to work when I'm giving you the afternoon off." His eyes twinkled at Merlin's confusion.
"I have the afternoon off?" repeated Merlin. "Then what are we doing with the horses?"
"Why?" answered Arthur innocently. "Can't two friends spend an afternoon riding together, just for the fun of it?"
Merlin's face suddenly split into a huge, delighted grin, and Arthur couldn't help but respond with a smile of his own, even as his stomach lurched. But this has to be done, he told himself. He clapped Merlin on the shoulder, mounted up, and the two rode off into the forest.
Merlin kept up a steady stream of friendly chatter, talking about palace gossip, herb collecting, and just about anything else that came to mind. Years of practice sitting through boring banquets and trade negotiations allowed Arthur to let his mind wander and still be able to sound as if he were following the conversation, answering with an appropriate "yes" or "ummm hmmm" or even just a simple nod.
"Arthur, I'm hardly letting you say anything," Merlin said guiltily after about an hour.
"Don't worry about it, Merlin. I like listening to you rabbit on," Arthur teased. He was rewarded with another goofy grin. Arthur could tell Merlin was really enjoying himself. I'm glad one of us is, he thought grimly, and not without some guilt.
A few minutes later they arrived in the open area Arthur had chosen as their destination. He stopped and dismounted, waiting for Merlin to follow suit. "Here, Merlin," he said, handing over his reins, "why don't you lead the horses over there to graze a bit." As Merlin did so, Arthur slid his sword out of its scabbard as silently as possible. He held it lightly across his body, right hand on the hilt, left thumb moving almost absently as if testing the edge.
Merlin turned back around and stopped in surprise at the sight of Arthur's naked sword. He stared at it for a few seconds before his gaze rose slowly to meet Arthur's eyes. All trace of a smile was replaced by wariness and confusion, combined with something else Arthur couldn't quite read.
As soon as their eyes met, Arthur took a commanding step forward. "So, Merlin," he said, his tone deceptively casual, "just how long have you been a sorcerer?