A/N: Thanks to everyone who has reviewed/read/alerted/favourited this story - it's a little different to most of the other things I've written here, so I'm pleased that people like it. I know I said that this would be Gwen-centric, and it will, but I figured she's not the only one who's waiting... Plus Merlin is just fun to write - he misses Arthur (not that he'd admit it), so he's pretty snarky... Also, to anyone wondering, Galahad is Lancelot's kid. Please review and let me know if you're interested in more - I have some ideas :)
"It's a nice day for an adventure!" Galahad told Merlin enthusiastically, tugging on his bony arm and dragging the warlock further into the woods.
Merlin seemed unconvinced. He had been on 'adventures' with Galahad before, and they were never as much fun as the boy promised they would be…
Merlin peered around the clearing, sighing to himself as he caught sight of the layers of mud now thoroughly caked onto the bottom of his boots that he would no doubt spend forever scrubbing off later. "You know…" he murmured, eyeing a passing woodlouse suspiciously. "These woods are not very safe at this time of day; all kinds of creatures live here."
"What kinds of creatures?"
"Oh… Um… Scary creatures…"
Galahad grinned and whipped out the wooden sword that rested at his side, whirling it around his head energetically. "They do not scare me! Let them try and challenge Sir Galahad the Great!"
Merlin had to try very hard not to laugh as Galahad the Great demonstrated his supreme fighting skills.
Merlin did not find it quite so funny when Galahad twirled around and smacked him squarely in the face.
"Ow! By dose!"
"By dose - is it bleeding?"
Merlin rubbed his nose moodily nonetheless and scowled at the boy. "You deed do be careful wid dat ding! You could dake sumbbody's eye oud!"
Galahad raised a quizzical eyebrow at his Uncle Merlin, but decided against asking him what he was talking about; he had given up on trying to understand Merlin. It was a rare occasion when Galahad knew what it was Merlin was trying to say to him, and an even rarer occasion when the boy took any notice of what the warlock had to say anyway.
The child placed his hands on his hips and frowned at the supposedly all-powerful warlock, who was currently rubbing his nose and sniffling like a wounded puppy. "Come on, Uncle Merlin! We need to go further…" he insisted, trying again to tug the blubbering magician along.
"But… but… What about the creatures?"
"Never fear Uncle Merlin; for I shall protect you! I am Galahad: bravest and most dangerous of the Knights of the Round Table!"
There was a tiny squeak from underneath them as Galahad trampled on the tail of a mouse, and the 'bravest and most dangerous of the Knights of the Round Table' yelped in fear and hid behind his Uncle Merlin, who was chuckling.
"Oh yes…" Merlin agreed, making a concerted effort to step around the indignant little mouse as they went on their way. "I feel very safe with you, Sir Galahad. You're almost as skilled a fighter as the King himself."
Galahad (who had known Merlin long enough to know that any comparison he might make to King Arthur was invariably an insult, no matter how polite it might sound) was offended. "You're hardly a fearsome warrior…" he pointed out sullenly.
Merlin seemed pleased. "I wouldn't want to be."
Galahad gawked at him. "Why would anybody not want to be a knight?"
"Knights are prats."
"Knights are not…"
"And they never win any of their own stupid battles anyway; it's me who does all the work. And do I ever get any of the credit? No… Stupid knights. They get all the girls and all the glory… And what do I get? I get a robe!" Merlin gestured at his shimmering costume. "Oh, don't get me wrong; it's very pretty. But it's a robe! They give me a new wardrobe, stick me in a room at the top of the castle, give me a whole bunch of dusty books to read and expect me to spend every second of every day solving everybody's problems…"
Merlin's rant might well have continued for quite a bit longer, but Galahad certainly wasn't listening to it. Merlin struck Galahad as the kind of person who sometimes just liked to moan about things. In Galahad's limited experience, it was generally best if you just let those people moan for a bit and then changed the topic of conversation. And then there was the nagging little bit of Galahad's brain that was verging on adulthood, which seemed to think that Merlin didn't really dislike the knights at all: he just missed them. Like Gwen had said, he just has a funny way of showing it…
"So… you fight some of the big scary creatures, then?"
"My boy," Merlin began with a grin, "I fight all of the big scary creatures."
"All of them?"
Galahad sighed. "No, Uncle Merlin. A real one."
It was on the tip of Merlin's tongue to point out that Arthur was just that: a real big scary creature, but he sensed that the boy was slowly losing patience with him, and so instead gave his eager audience what it wanted.
Galahad listened, enthralled, through countless tales (that he had probably heard before) of Merlin's glorious - and somewhat exaggerated - victories over dragons, goblins, trolls and wilderin, and the pair of them slowly trekked deeper and deeper down the unfamiliar path before them as it twisted its way into the unknown.
The harsh call of a bird of prey drew their attention rather sharply as it swooped over their heads, and worry settled itself on Galahad's face. "How many of those creatures are here, do you think, Uncle Merlin? Here, in these woods?"
Merlin paused, scratching his chin as he pretended to analyse the terrain around them. "Hmm… Dozens of them; I'd say. So you had better stay with me, understand?"
Galahad nodded, slowly straying closer and closer to Merlin, clinging uncomfortably tightly to his thigh.
Suddenly Merlin stopped, causing Galahad to run into the back of him; crouched down and pointed at a dent in the earth, his expression one of extreme seriousness. "Do you know what that is?"
A wary shake of the head answered Merlin's question.
"That is a footprint!"
"From what?" Galahad inquired, in the meekest voice imaginable.
"From an elf!"
"Don't sound so unimpressed, my boy! Elves are mean, vicious little creatures that nip at your ankles when you walk along!"
"Yes like… No! No… they are far, far worse than ants! A single bite from an elf and your entire foot will turn purple for a whole month!"
Merlin nodded solemnly. "Purple and spotty."
"Purple and spotty?"
"And it'll get really, really sweaty…"
Galahad shuddered. "I hate sweaty feet…"
"They get so horribly sweaty, and smell so awful, that no one will be able to stand being near you and you'll have to plug your nose!"
"How do I stop them from biting my ankles, Uncle Merlin?"
"Ah… that's simple…" he told the boy, straightening up and beginning to move on. "You must walk on your tiptoes."
Half an hour later and Merlin had Galahad teetering along on his tiptoes to avoid his ankles being gnawed at by elves; crossing his fingers so that the sky-pixies couldn't crawl up his sleeves and live in his armpits; and trying to touch his nose with his tongue so that the invisible gnomes wouldn't be able to clamber into his mouth and cut out his tonsils.
"Of course..." Merlin continued, with such an air of authority that many a wiser fellow than Galahad might have been tempted to believe him. "The fiercest and most terrifying of all of these creatures is the Gwen-monster."
Galahad nodded in agreement, whilst still trying to keep the special clover, which would ward off the evil goblins, balanced on his head.
"The Gwen-monster seems nice and pretty, but, when it gets angry… It swells to five times its normal size and becomes very red and goes in search of children to eat!"
Galahad gulped, remembering the one time the other boys had challenged him to scale the walls of the castle blindfolded; he had never seen Gwen as furious as she had been when her hands had reached out and snatched him from the window. She had been shaking with rage; she had practically screamed at him: How could he be so thoughtless? How could he be so stupid? What if he had been hurt? But then, at those few words, the fearsome Gwen-monster had retreated, and she was left holding him tight, tears marching relentlessly down her face.
Galahad hadn't meant to make Gwen cry.
He certainly wasn't about to try pulling any tricks like that again.
The Gwen-monster was scary.
The ambling pair eventually reached an open field, and were confronted by what had to be the most perfect spot for a picnic.
Merlin was absolutely silent. At the total stillness and peacefulness of this place, he found he could not conjure up anymore imaginary creatures with which to torment his companion. Galahad would have been exceptionally glad of this, had there been any space in his mind for anything other than the wondrous scene that now lay before them.
In the distance the hills rolled over one another endlessly like sounds on a tongue; above them the unbelievably blue sky seemed to stretch down from heaven itself to touch the tops of their very heads; a shy stream shimmied under the bridge beneath their feet, giggling merrily up at them, twisting and turning most enchantingly; the sweet, soft scent of the grass tingled through every ounce of their beings, as the blades before them were moved by the comfortable breezes so that they almost seemed to be waving, almost seemed to be inviting them in; and the great, white, impassive clouds that drifted lazily over them observed them with smiling faces.
Of course, they had not brought a picnic with them.
What a foolish oversight.
For a second, Merlin forgot that he was a powerful sorcerer, and was just about to begin whining about lost opportunities, when a not-particularly-ingenious thought suddenly struck him.
He could simply 'magic' a picnic up.
And that was how Merlin and Galahad managed to idle away their entire afternoon, having forgotten that they had promised a certain Queen that they would be back within the hour.
In the months and in the years during the absence of Arthur and his knights, Merlin and Galahad passed many a spring or summer day in this manner, and they were nearly always met by the same angry Gwen-monster, who would furiously demand where on earth they could possibly have been for this length of time, whether or not they were trying to 'kill her with worry', and why it was that Galahad would not uncross his eyes, or remove the pinecones from around his neck.