Chapter 1. The Lady Cwenburg
Merlin closed the door to Arthur's chambers behind him and sank back against it, releasing the breath it felt like he'd been holding for the last two weeks.
"They're going. They're really, really going!" Merlin murmured, his relief breaking through in the form of what was almost a nervous giggle. "We're free!"
Arthur raised his eyebrows as he dropped his sword belt onto the table. "They're not leaving until tomorrow, Merlin. Don't go counting your chickens."
Merlin shook his head slightly – he refused to let Arthur detract from this wonderful moment.
"You heard what your father said," he insisted, moving forward to intercept the only-washed-yesterday coat Arthur had shrugged off and was about to drop on the floor. "Two great families, friendships solidified, alliances strengthened, sorry to see them go, leaving tomorrow," he recapped. "'Leaving' – that's the key word here, 'tomorrow' coming a close second."
Arthur sat down in the chair at the head of the table and scrutinised Merlin as he went about hanging up the coat and returned to pour him a drink. His servant was still beaming from ear to ear. He was going to enjoy this.
"You know, Merlin," he began, biding his time, "from the way you're prattling on, anyone would think you're happy to see the back of Lord Aldwyn and Lady Cwenburg. You haven't enjoyed their stay with us here in Camelot?"
Merlin looked up at Arthur with a look of mischievous incredulity. "Have I enjoyed their stay?" he pondered, taking his chin in his hand in mock contemplation. "Oh, yes, terribly. What was my favourite part, I wonder? Perhaps when Lord Aldwyn partook in the libations a little too freely at the welcoming feast and brought up the contents of his stomach all over the floor in the corner of the great hall – twice – and I got to clean it up while people looked on and laughed. That was good. Or when he and half his servants came down with the fever and I had to help Gaius look after a dozen stinking, sweating, bedpan-using strangers for days on end, in between taking care of your ever-so-important royal self. Yeah, that was good, too."
Merlin had now walked around the table and was leaning on the back of one of the chairs as he spoke. Arthur could tell he was only just warming up and, for once, he was quite happy to let Merlin jabber away to his heart's content. He sat back in his chair and worked on changing his self-satisfied smirk into a look of interest and concern.
"But then – what am I thinking! – it only got better from there on in, didn't it?" Merlin was getting animated now that he'd built up some steam. His sarcasm apparently knew no bounds. "With Lord Aldwyn on his sick bed, Lady Cwenburg was free to parade herself all over Camelot and fling herself at every available man, wasn't she? Those seductive looks, her hands roaming freely whenever she thought there weren't too many people watching, outright invitations to nights of...of...debauchery!"
Arthur couldn't hold in the bark of laughter that arose at that. "Oh, come now, Merlin," he remonstrated. "Don't pretend you didn't enjoy the attention!"
Merlin's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "Arthur! She was sixty years old if she was a day!"
The prince again snorted with laughter and watched as Merlin pulled out the chair he'd been leaning on and sank into it.
"That woman," Merlin said, resting his elbows on the table and his head on both his hands, "is terrifying."
"Well, she speaks very highly of you," Arthur countered. "Of your lustrous black locks, your enchanting eyes..."
Merlin looked up at Arthur's mirthful face from between his fingers. "Shut up," he hissed, slowly.
Arthur let that one go, a sly smile still playing around his lips, and calculated his next move as Merlin rubbed his face vigorously in attempt to rid himself of the memory of the past two weeks.
After a moment, he rose to his feet and strode to where his armour was set out ready for his training session. "Not to worry, Merlin. We only have to protect your honour for one more day and they'll be on their way. I'll make sure guards are posted outside your room tonight."
"Ha ha," Merlin muttered, rising from the chair to help Arthur with his armour. "I'm just glad they're leaving this soon. With most of their servants still sick I thought they'd be here for longer. Gaius says most of them won't be ready to travel for days."
"It's funny you should mention that, Merlin," Arthur said, glancing behind him as Merlin began fitting the armour on his shoulder. "Lord Aldwyn is eager to return home as he has issues of some urgency to attend to. As you said, most of the servants who accompanied them here are still unable to travel, and so my father has offered them the service of several of our guards and some of our better servants on their homeward journey."
Merlin nodded and pulled sharply on a particularly stubborn buckle.
"So you'll be in good company," Arthur finished.
Merlin grinned and looked up from his work. "What?"
Arthur didn't even bother holding back the smile now. "The Lady Cwenburg asked for you by name, Merlin, I could hardly refuse, now, could I?"
"Arthur." Merlin abandoned the armour and rounded the prince to face him head on. "Arthur? This is a joke, right? Oh, I see what you did there. Yeah, very funny. You're a funny, funny man." He looked Arthur dead in the eye and the smile fell from his face. "You're not joking are you?"
"You're really making me go with them."
"You've been enjoying this, haven't you?"
"Very much." Arthur grinned broadly. "Armour, Merlin – I haven't got all day. Neither do you, actually. You'll need to make sure your work is up to date before you go."
Merlin stared back at the prince for a little longer and was met by a pair of raised eyebrows. Knowing his pleas would be better met if he was doing what he was told, he returned his attention to the armour and hastily began to petition his master.
"Aldwyn's land is what, a two week ride away? If I'm away for four weeks who's going to look after things for you? You need a manservant, Sire. You are the Crown Prince of Camelot."
Arthur's lips twisted into a smile at the sudden use of the term 'sire'. This was doing Merlin good already.
"There are plenty of other servants, Merlin, who can do the job you do...only much, much better. I'll live."
"But what if something goes wrong? What if you're attacked by a beast when you're out hunting? Or if Cenred attacks again? What then?"
Arthur snorted. "As touching as your concern is, Merlin, I think this would be a good time for us to remember that you are, in most such cases, totally and utterly useless. Therefore, it's hard for me to imagine that your absence will be anything other than a blissful break from your constant mindless chatter. Gloves."
Merlin picked the pair of gloves up from the table and passed them to the prince. "Arthur," he began carefully, attempting to appeal to his better nature, "Please? Lady Cwenburg. She'll...she'll..."
"Eat you alive," Arthur grinned, slapping Merlin on the shoulder and striding towards the door. "Look on it as a learning experience, Merlin. And make sure my stables are mucked out before you go."
And with that, Arthur was out of the door and marching down the hallway, laughing as he went.
Merlin was left standing alone in the room, utterly speechless.
"Lady Cwenburg, personally, asked that you attend her?"
Gaius was having trouble hiding his amusement. Merlin gave a deep sigh and met his guardian's gaze head on.
"You'll have to keep an eye on her," Gaius added, one eyebrow raised as high as it would go.
"I think the problem is more likely to be keeping her eyes off me," Merlin corrected.
As Merlin let his head fall down to meet the table with a satisfying 'thud', Gaius couldn't contain the chortle that rose in his throat. "Never mind, Merlin," he consoled, patting Merlin on the shoulder as he rounded the table to continue on with his work. "It will only be for a couple of weeks and I'm sure her husband's presence will keep her in check."
Merlin sat up and spun around on the bench to face the older man. "You don't understand, Gaius. What about Arthur? I'll be gone for a month, maybe more. What if Morgana takes advantage of the fact that I'm not here watching her? What's to stop her trying to kill Uther again? Or, worse, trying to hurt Arthur? Like you said, he'll be only thing that stands between her and the throne once Uther's dead. We don't know what she's capable of."
Gaius lowered the vial of liquid he had been examining and looked back at Merlin, his face creased into a deep frown. "The news of Morgana's parentage has made the situation more volatile," he agreed. "Perhaps Arthur can be convinced not to send you away?"
Merlin shook his head. "I've tried, Gaius. I followed him down to training and gave him every excuse I could think of. He's set on it. He seems to think it will make me see that there are a lot worse people I could be working for than him."
"Then there's nothing we can do," Gaius resolved. "I will keep an eye on Morgana the best I can and you will have to make sure you get back to Camelot as quickly as possible."
"I suppose," Merlin sighed.
Gaius threw his young charge a comforting smile. "For the time being, I'm afraid Arthur and Camelot will just have to survive without you."