Dabbling in Falconry

Chapter 1

Dropping a tray on the way from the kitchens, that was problematic. Allowing Gwaine into a tavern on the wrong side of noon, that was problematic. Letting loose a goblin which nearly resulted in the death of his guardian, that was problematic. Getting stuck as an old man and nearly being burnt on the pyre, even that was problematic.

This... this was downright disastrous!

OK, granted Merlin knew he was probably over-reacting a little bit. But honestly, was it too much to ask for his spells to go right the first time for once? In fact it would be even nicer if his magic could tell the difference between when he was conscious and unconscious in the first place!

Stressing out was getting him nowhere. So, with an effort, he forced himself to calm down.

Merlin could admit that last thought was a little rash; both Arthur's life and in extension his own had been saved by his magic being so instinctual as to work when he wasn't consciously directing it, more than once in fact. But at the same time he couldn't help but feel that in this case it was a little justified.

It had been a good six months now since Morgana's ill-fated reign. Outwardly, not much evidence of her short rule remained; structures had been repaired and job positions re-appointed. However, underneath the surface, the kingdom was still very much reeling.

King Uther was a broken man. He was generally always in a catatonic state and when he did speak, very few people could talk to him without fear of some form of backlash – be it words or even a trip to the dungeons. As such, the kingdom was being led more and more by Prince Arthur and many were now expecting the prince to take a more firm role as Regent. Though nothing had been officially decided yet, the prince was as good as running Camelot at the moment regardless.

But that wasn't without its own problems. During the crusade to topple Morgana's immortal army, Arthur had knighted Lancelot, Elyan and Percival – commoners. He had also knighted Gwaine who – despite being noble by birth – wasn't exactly the traditional nobleman and had actually been banished from the kingdom at the time. It was a testament to how out-of-sorts the king actually was that he hadn't noticed the new additions, which was astonishing in itself considering how much it had thrown everybody else. Though none would dare outwardly oppose their knighting, the four of them were constantly shunned by nobles and servants alike – the former looking down on them and the latter not quite knowing how to act around them anymore. No matter the bravery and loyalty they had shown, noone seemed to be able to get past those facts. And that was nothing compared to how Gwen – the servant-turned-Lady – was treated.

Rumour was rife and it was putting everybody on edge.

Merlin himself was the only one out of the group who had taken a stand – now known as the Brotherhood of the Round Table after the table they had been seated around – whose status had not changed after everything was over. Though recognition of his efforts in emptying the Cup of Life would have been appreciated, in the end that was how Merlin preferred it. Unfortunately, this meant that Merlin himself was still treated exactly the same as before by the masses and while it was nice not to be talked about, some of the rumours he heard about his friends were devastating to hear.

Apart from the odd spell to discretely lift heavy objects and the like, Merlin had not used his magic at all since blasting Morgause across the council room. So last night he had taken the opportunity to peruse his spell book for the first time in ages. As was often the usual for him, Merlin figured he had fallen asleep whilst reading, and that was what had landed him in his current predicament.

Said spell book was now face-down on the bed and he shot it his best glare before heaving it over so that he could see the pages. It took every last ounce of his strength and once he had righted the thing he let out an irritated sigh.

Or he tried to at least, because right now he was a bloody bird. Who knew that birds couldn't sigh because of the difference in their lung structure? Go figure...

Merlin had only limited knowledge of transfiguration, but it was sod's law that he would fall asleep whilst reading the spells and just happened to say one in his sleep to successfully transform himself. He wasn't entirely sure exactly what he was – he couldn't see himself properly for that. However, considering the barred feathers on his chest, as well as the bright yellow feet and thick black talons, he was pretty sure he was a bird-of-prey.

But that wasn't his main concern. Oh no, it was the fact that he couldn't talk that was so bothersome. Without lips he couldn't physically form the words to the counter-spell and although he could attempt to do it mentally, he couldn't be sure he was doing it right.

There were four spells for transfiguration on the page in front of him; all allowing a human to take on the appearance of any animal one could think of. The first involved changing others and Merlin wasn't going to go near that one anytime soon; the last thing he needed was to accidentally change someone into a toad or something and not be able to revert them back to normal. The second was the most difficult, but was easily the most practical. It was a transfiguration spell combined with a sort of projection spell, which allowed the transfigured person to retain the power of speech through some kind of telepathy. The third was actually quite dangerous, as the person who was changed acquired the basic instincts of the animal they changed into. Brilliant for if you wanted to change into, say, a dolphin, and not retain a human's instinct to breathe regularly. But it made it harder to change back because you would have to subdue the animals' instincts in order to concentrate enough to transform. The last spell was almost identical to the second, only without any ability to talk.

In truth, Merlin wasn't yet sure whether he had subjected himself to Spell 2 or Spell 4. He hoped to God that it was the former, but he couldn't exactly tell whether he was projecting his thoughts or not until Gaius came into the room and he could test it out. He had tried mentally saying the counter-spells to both, but neither had worked.

Seriously, Merlin had hoped he was past this by now!

His mental rant was ended before it began when Merlin was startled by Gaius calling up to tell him breakfast was ready.

Purely out of habit, Merlin attempted to call back. Only for a rather embarrassing cross between a squeak and a squawk to be all that came out.

There was a pause before the sound of footsteps could be heard as his guardian moved up the short flight of stairs to Merlin's bedroom. The door creaked loudly as the physician opened the door quite slowly, as if afraid of what he would find this time.


Merlin couldn't remember the last time he had been so relieved to see his guardian and responded with a jubilant squawk:


The physician physically jumped and responded with a shout of his own:

"Merlin! What did you do?"

"You can understand me?"

"What. Did. You. Do!" Gaius repeated frostily, though in his relief Merlin was quite oblivious.

"Oh thank God! I was afraid I wouldn't be able to-"



Gaius just raised an eyebrow. It really was amazing how much he could convey with just that one facial expression and it immediately set Merlin off babbling.

"It wasn't my fault! I was reading up on transfiguration last night, but Arthur had me run ragged yesterday so I must have fallen asleep. Really! I woke up like this!"

During the warlock's hurried speech - which soon dissolved into observations on how much his body had changed once he awoke - the physician's eyebrow climbed higher and higher on his forehead. Despite his exasperation, Gaius was admittedly impressed; only Merlin would be able to perform such a difficult spell in his sleep. The physician knew the boy would have already tried to change himself back by now and obviously it had been unsuccessful. For now, he just let the warlock chatter away in order to work off his nervous energy. Then, maybe they could sort this thing out.

"-but then I couldn't tell which of the spells I'd done until I tested out whether people could understand me or not, so I decided to wait for you. I would have come out earlier, but I could barely move the book – there was no way I would be able to get the door open..."

Merlin trailed off into silence, finally finished. He had to admit that knowing he could at least still communicate in some way was a huge relief. And now that he had calmed slightly he asked the first burning question he had:

"What am I?"

Merlin watched as Gaius studied him a bit more closely. However, whatever response he was expecting, it definitely was not for the man to suddenly burst out laughing.

Quite affronted, Merlin attempted a scowl. However, being a bird, he didn't have the capacity for such a facial expression. So, he merely ended up fluffing up the feathers on his head and neck, which only worsened Gaius' giggles.

After a few minutes Gaius managed to calm himself down. He made his way over to the bed and perched on the edge of it, careful not to knock Merlin over.

"I am sorry my boy, but fate certainly seems to have an ironic sense of humour. You're a merlin."

It took Merlin a few seconds to work that one out, but once it had sunk in all of the feathers on his body puffed up in his indignation.

If Gaius was honest, it had required the closer look for him to identify what species Merlin was in the first place. Although he was certain the boy was in the form of a merlin, he wasn't a typical specimen. The feathers on his underside seemed to be much more dilute in colour, with his belly being more grey than the usual brownish orange. The backs of his wings on the other hand, were a much darker shade of slate than was normal. The dark-coloured stripe across his eye was black and much more pronounced, as were the other markings on his chest and wings that would usually be brown. His eyes were the most significant change, being the same vivid blue that they usually were. The overall effect was quite striking.

He watched as Merlin tried the counter-spell a second time, his eyes flashing gold. Again it was unsuccessful. The boy turned back to look at him and if ever a bird looked sorrowful, Merlin pulled it off spectacularly.

"What am I going to do Gaius? I'm going to be late to attend to Arthur as it is!"

"Calm down, we'll think of something. Maybe there's something in one of my books? There has to be a reason why you're not changing back."

Gaius got to his feet and watched as Merlin shakily waddled over to the edge of the bed. He peered down to the floor; it suddenly looked a long way down.

"Err... Gaius? Could you...?"

"Of course. Watch your talons though; I don't want you shredding my wrist with them."

Merlin nodded – actually, it looked like more of a bob, but it meant the same thing – before daintily putting first one foot, and then the other on the hand Gaius offered and perching there.

Balancing proved to be a whole new basket of worms for Merlin. As soon as Gaius moved his arm upwards and forwards as he straightened, Merlin spun backwards. His stomach – or was it his gizzard? He wasn't sure - lurched as he ended up with his talons tangled into Gaius' sleeve as he dangled upside-down, his wings fluttering feebly.

"I'm going to fall!" Merlin shrieked, the statement accompanied by a couple of pitiful squeaks.

"Honestly Merlin..."

Gaius attempted to close his hand over Merlin's back and carry him that way. But the boy was fluttering his wings so much that the physician was afraid he would damage them, and no amount of soothing words were calming him down.

Sighing to himself, the physician instead moved to grab both of Merlin's feet – carrying him upside-down in the same way one would corral a troublesome chicken. He made his way into the main chamber and then promptly deposited Merlin on the table after pushing their breakfast bowls aside.

"You could have carried me the right way up."

"I tried. You were the one panicking."

"I wasn't panicking! I was... trying to fly. Yeah, that's it."

Once again, Gaius raised his eyebrow and he watched as Merlin shifted from foot-to-foot under his scrutiny. It was nice to know that he could still make the boy uncomfortable and prevent him from trying to lie to him, no matter what form he was in.

"Well, I suggest you be careful and keep your attempts at flight to a minimum. You may look like and be able to move like a bird, but you don't have the instincts of one."

"Does that mean I won't be able to fly?"

Merlin understood that he needed to figure out how to change back before he did any experimenting, but he couldn't help but feel disappointed. He had flown before on Kilgharrah's back, but there had always been a serious underlying reason for him to undertake that mode of transportation, so he'd never really had much of a chance to relish it. The times he had flown he had loved and there was something alluringly exciting about the prospect of flying himself and not simply riding as a passenger.

"Oh you could. But it would be hard; Man wasn't born with wings so he has no idea how to use them. It would take a lot of practice."

Merlin was about to reply when the door to Gaius' chambers burst open, crashing into the wall with a bang. A grinning Gwaine walked in, followed by a more cautious-looking Lancelot.

"There's such a thing called 'knocking' Gwaine." Lancelot commented, closing the door much more gently behind him before turning to check the wall for damage.

Gwaine had the grace to look sheepish, having not meant to be quite so exuberant in opening the door. But with a flip of his hair, his usual grin returned.

"Mornin' Gaius. The stress is getting to our fickle Princess and he's spontaneously decided we're going on a hunting trip. So we thought we'd come and hurry Merlin along before he starts to moan." He looked up towards Merlin's closed door and started towards it. "Is he up yet?"

Gaius exchanged a startled glance with the bird sat amongst the crockery on his table, before looking towards the quirky knight – who had just flung Merlin's door open with the same flare as the other one – and making up a story on the spot.

"I sent him out at sunrise to collect some herbs for me. I'm a little short of the ones I need for the King's remedy, so I thought it imperative he get some as soon as possible."

To be fair it was only a half-lie, Gaius really did need to go collect some more herbs.

"Oh, fair enough."

Lancelot, finished with his inspection of Gaius' wall, came over to the eating area. "I'm sure Arthur will understand. It's for his father after all."

"Mm... I'll punch his lights out if he tries to moan at Merlin though; he needs to learn gratitude... Why is there a falcon on your table?"

Merlin, who had been trying to hide behind the water jug, jumped and turned to face Gwaine as the knight wandered over and leaned down to peer at him. Lancelot also turned to stare at him with similar curiosity.

Inwardly, Gaius scrambled for an explanation, though outwardly he gave no reaction and his answer was calm.

"Merlin brought it home the other day. It was injured; you know how he is."

"So the guy decided to nurse it back to health, I might have figured. Hmm... Merlin's merlin. Ha! That's a good one."

Chuckling to himself, Gwaine reached out and started scratching the back of Merlin's head. At first Merlin tried to pull away, but to his surprise it was actually quite a pleasant sensation and before he knew it, Merlin was tilting his head and closing his eyes as he leaned into Gwaine's hand.

"Cute little fella... I've met a man who specialised in falconry before. Once fully-trained they're good to have around, you know. People use them for hunting and they can be taught to carry messages too. This one's got the right temperament for it." Completely lost in the bliss that was getting his head scratched, Merlin made a happy little chirping noise. "I've never seen one with blue eyes though. Maybe it's a mutation?"

That snapped Merlin out of his trance-like state and he immediately pulled away and fluffed himself up, hiding his head behind a wing and feigning preening his feathers. With his head tucked away, he missed the widening of Lancelot's eyes as realisation dawned. But Gaius didn't and he sent an imploring look towards the knight, who nodded minutely in reply to the silent request. Gwaine carried on, unawares.

"Maybe we should take it with us? We can start trying to train it."

This time Gaius did stutter, not knowing what excuse to come up with to put the man off of his idea. But Gwaine didn't give the physician the chance to formulate words; instead he confidently picked up Merlin by encasing his wings with both hands and tucking the bird to his chest, then he strode from the room, chattering about gauntlets and something called a jess.

"What happened this time?" Lancelot asked once Gwaine's voice had faded.

"He transfigured himself in his sleep," the physician replied with a sigh. "Could you make sure they stay out of trouble? I have a feeling I'm going to have to search the library for more books and I really do need those herbs."

"Sure, I'll keep an eye on them."

"Thank-you Lancelot, it shouldn't take too long."

Nodding, the knight started for the door, only to be stopped by Gaius calling to him again.

"Oh and Lancelot? Merlin may look like a bird, but despite appearances he actually isn't one. Make sure he doesn't try anything stupid."

Raising an eyebrow in an unintentional mirroring of the man before him, Lancelot turned and made his way out, hurrying to catch up with his two runaway friends. He had the distinct suspicion he was going to have his work cut out for him – bird or not, Merlin always managed to get himself into trouble, especially when Gwaine was around to help him.