It was early afternoon. Morgana stepped through the forest. Her gown became entangled on a branch, but she ripped it free and pressed on. Needless to say, she was beyond angry and extremely frustrated. The woods were thick with mist when she stepped into a little clearing, waiting for Morgause.
"Sister," Morgause greeted her solemnly, stepping out from behind a tree. Morgana turned at her sister's voice, but didn't smile. "What troubles you?"
Morgana hesitated. "It's Merlin," she confessed. "He and the ginger sorcerer escaped the dungeons last night."
Morgause did not look surprised and Morgana had the sneaking suspicion that her sister already knew what had transpired. It irked Morgana.
"Who is this ginger?" Morgause asked curiously.
"I do not know," Morgana replied with a shake of her head. She took a step and Morgause drifted after her. The sisters circled the little glen in the sunlight. "He claimed he had enchanted Merlin to kill the prince. But, but he couldn't have. Merlin didn't do anything – I accused him of sorcery."
Morgause looked thoughtful, but she waited for Morgana to draw the same connection. The younger sister lifted her head, eyes filled with speculation. "That's exactly what happened when we tried to off Gwen." She said through clenched teeth. "Another sorcerer appeared to take the blame!"
"Do you think he is the same? The old man and the ginger."
Morgana's brow furrowed in thought and she sat down upon a conveniently placed chunk of granite. She longed to do something to vent her frustration, but settled for sneering and lip-curling.
She shook her head. "I don't know. But it's more than a coincidence."
"Indeed it is," Morgause replied, placing a consoling hand on her distraught sister's shoulder. "We must find a way of killing him."
"He vanished last night. I asked Gaius about him and he said he exploded."
Morgause's brows shot up. "Exploded?" Morgana nodded.
"Ginger sorcerers tend to explode, according to the good court physician of Camelot." Morgana said in a slightly mocking tone.
"I have never heard tell of this," Morgause said, a scheme forming on her face. "I must test it!"
Morgana frowned, but didn't object. What Morgause did in her spare time was entirely up to her.
"But what's to be done about Merlin?" Morgana asked impatiently.
"Patience sister. Uther will execute him, just as you planned. The explosion of the ginger should have no bearing on his sentence."
"But the guards said they saw Merlin stab him."
Morgause frowned and Morgana continued, "And they think that Merlin killed the sorcerer and broke the enchantment."
"You will have to wait and see what Uther has decided then," Morgause concluded firmly. "Surely by the time you return to Camelot, something will have occurred."
"I only hope I haven't missed the execution," Morgana muttered. "But if Merlin has gone free…."
"Peace, sister. You will think of something. Why not just kill him outright?"
Morgana shifted on her rock. "That's a good idea, sister."
"Merlin, must you make such a racket?"
Arthur massaged his brow in a futile attempt to drown out the foot-tapping. Merlin was polishing his armour in his room again whilst banging his foot incessantly on the table leg. And it was getting quite annoying.
Arthur lobbed the closet object within reach at his manservant. Merlin ducked and the rock went flying across the room.
The door opened. Both men looked up to see Uther standing in the doorway looking a little sick.
"Arthur," Uther said, rubbing his stomach gingerly where the rock had struck him. He frowned at Merlin a moment before saying, "I'm glad you're feeling better. You gave us quite a scare for a few days."
"Yes, it's good to be well again," Arthur said. "I owe it all to Gaius."
"Indeed," Uther nodded. He stood there awkwardly for a moment. Arthur glanced around his room and back to his map. Uther took that as his cue to leave and made for the exit. "I will see you at the feast tonight."
"Feast?" Merlin asked when Uther had gone.
"Yes, Merlin, you know the events where we eat lots of food?"
"And I stand behind your chair fetching you this and that and more wine?"
Arthur contained a puff of laughter. "Don't be such a clotpole, Merlin."
Merlin paused in his armour polishing. "That's my word."
"And it suits you perfectly," Arthur replied smugly, leaning back in his chair to get better access to the light. Merlin rolled his eyes behind the map and Arthur's chainmail promptly slid off the table.
The prince glared over Camelot's borders.
"Armour's all done," Merlin said, standing abruptly and watching in dismay as his chair toppled over. Arthur's forehead hit the desk in annoyance, but when he looked up, a semblance of a smile graced his features.
"Your forehead is all red now," Merlin remarked. "You shouldn't do that."
The smile turned to a look of annoyance again.
"I'll shut up," Merlin amended lamely. The two sat in silence, remembering the events of the past few days. It had only been that morning that Merlin was cleared of the charges laid against him. He caught Arthur glancing at his bruises from time to time and wondered if the prince felt guilty. He shouldn't really; it wasn't his fault in the least.
A little while later, "Merlin, we need to talk."
Merlin stiffened. "About what, sire?" he asked, noncommittally.
Arthur lounged against the wall near the window, the late morning light illuminating him like a golden statue. "You know." Abruptly.
Merlin's shoulders sagged and he took a seat at the table. The wood felt unusually hard and Merlin kept squirming, unable to get comfortable. Arthur took a seat across from him. He looked equally ill at ease, but his court training was coming in handy. Merlin seriously considered experimenting with an invisibility spell.
"So," Arthur said, leaning forward on his elbows and putting on what he hoped was an open expression. "Gaius already told me quite a bit, but I imagine there's more." He paused, looking away from his manservant. "Why would you come to Camelot when you practice magic?"
Merlin shrugged because he really didn't have a proper answer. "My magic was out of control. Mother, uh, she thought it best that I go to Gaius so he could help me. I don't think she knew it was banned. It's not illegal in Cenred's kingdom."
"And you've been …" he choked out the word as such an idea was foreign to him, "protecting me all these years?"
Merlin grinned. "You don't know how many times I've saved your royal backside."
Merlin closed his mouth.
Finally, Arthur said, "Were you ever going to tell me?"
"Of course," Merlin said swiftly. "When you were king, I was going to reveal myself. It," he paused reading Arthur's hurt expression, "it just got harder and harder the longer I kept it in." He glanced down at the table and suddenly Arthur was hit with just how stressful it must be to have to hide who you are. His face softened and he patted Merlin's shoulder awkwardly.
"Lighten up, it's going to be okay."
"You're not going to turn me in?" He thought he knew the answer, but he wanted to be sure.
Arthur crossed his arms across his chest, wearing his best prat face. "Merlin, you imbecile. I just spent several days posing as a sorcerer, not to mention those awful potions Gaius brewed." He waved his hand as though to dispel an unpleasant scent. "Do you honestly think I'm going to hand you right back to my father?"
"Prat," Merlin clucked. "But no, because if you did, who would be around to bring you breakfast and wash your royal socks?"
Arthur emitted an amused sound.
"But you are okay with it? With my magic?"
"I'll have to get used it, I suppose," Arthur said. Merlin grinned from ear to ear. "Don't look so pleased with yourself."
The smile remained.
The next bit of conversation dealt with Morgana, and Merlin struggled with the desire to spill everything out into the light or to continue concealing information that could hurt the prince. In the end, he settled for hinting at her possible treachery. Arthur would find out soon enough; Morgana and her sister were always scheming.
Arthur fixed his manservant with a serious look. "I don't want you going near her, Merlin. If she is trying to harm you, I want you to stay away from her, is that clear?"
"Is this because you care about me?" Merlin asked, somewhat astonished and hopeful, and somewhat cynical.
"Don't be ridiculous," Arthur scoffed.
Merlin nodded slowly. Arthur wasn't quite sure his warning had gotten through to his wayward friend, but he took Merlin's acceptance and the subject was closed for the time being.
"Are you sure you're feeling well enough to attend to Arthur at the feast and the celebrations?" Gaius asked solicitously as Merlin donned his servant's garb. Merlin made an affirmative noise from beneath the shirt as he searched for the head hole.
"Yeah, I feel fine, Gaius," Merlin replied, his head free. He combed his fingers through his hair, smoothing down the fly-away ends.
"Because you're still covered in bruises, Merlin. Can't you get rid of them?"
Merlin turned around, slightly annoyed. "Get rid of them? What, you think I can just magic them away and no one will notice? Maybe bruises blow up too?"
Gaius pressed his lips into a firm line at the jibe. "You're lucky I thought of it."
"I'm just shocked the king actually believed you. Who in their right mind would even consider that to be sound?" Merlin shrugged in answer to his own question and picked up the feathered hat. Making the obvious decision, he put it back into its box and stepped around Gaius towards the main room. The old physician trailed after him.
"At least the uniform covers most of it," Gaius muttered, reaching for a jar of salve. Merlin instinctively backed away, shaking his head. "Come on, Merlin. It isn't that bad," Gaius said, holding up the salve as though it were a sacrificial offering. Merlin took another step back and banged his elbow into something.
"But it smells horrible!"
"Stop whinging Merlin, it will make the bruises go away faster."
"They can stick around for as long as they like," Merlin said, swiftly side-stepping the onslaught of salve. Gaius raised his hand towards Merlin. "You wouldn't," Merlin said, looking at his mentor's hand. He didn't really expect Gaius to put a spell on him, but he supposed he deserved it.
"Don't test me, Merlin. Now come here."
Merlin sighed histrionically and slumped over towards a stool. Gaius began to apply the salve liberally, covering every inch of Merlin's face. He was careful around the fractured cheekbone, but Gaius swore his salve helped broken skin and bone to heal faster as well. Merlin was of a differing opinion.
"I suppose it can't hurt," Merlin sighed dejectedly. Gaius looked approving. "I mean, if it doesn't poison me outright, the smell will surely do me in."
"Merlin," Gaius quipped, slapping an extra big dollop onto Merlin's head.
"Hey!" the warlock flinched away, but only managed to make it worse. A bit got too close to his mouth and he could taste something awful blooming on his lips. "What's in this stuff?"
"I told you," Gaius replied, intent on his salve-applying as he worked his way down Merlin's neck. "It's a salve to heal bruises and mend broken flesh."
Merlin looked dubious. "What's in it?"
"You smell awful," Gwen said, taking a step back and holding the jug of wine against herself like a shield.
"Gaius smeared me with a paste. It's to help the bruises," Merlin added sarcastically. "I think he just enjoys making me squirm."
Gwen chuckled, "Well, you certainly won't have any problems with the ladies of court tonight."
"That's one good thing," Merlin agreed. He didn't quite understand it, but apparently several of the ladies fancied him. "Tell me another?"
Gwen shook her head, laughing and moved off to refill goblets. Merlin hovered in the background behind the prince's chair, anticipating the cup to run dry.
"Any second now..." Merlin whispered to himself. Arthur drained his goblet and Merlin was instantly by his side again, pouring more liquid. He noticed the prince was holding his breath.
"What is it? Do I smell bad?" Merlin asked. Arthur glared at him. So far, Merlin had been hanging around Arthur, enjoying the effect Gaius's paste had on the prince. Merlin himself had gotten accustomed to smelling like Gaia berries and was now happily mingling with those he did not hold in high esteem.
"Planning to go wildoren-hunting again, Merlin?" Arthur bit back, breathing through his mouth.
"Ready when you are, sire," he replied in his most chipper voice. "Gaius has plenty more salve for you."
Arthur took a gulp of air and waved his manservant away. Merlin moved off with a sly grin.
The dancing was in full swing when Merlin stepped into the courtyard for a breath of fresh air. A full moon hung overhead and Merlin gazed at it, suddenly puzzled. He hadn't recalled seeing the moon any other way since he came to Camelot. Merlin sat on the steps and rested his head in his hands. His face felt sticky, warm, and flushed from the activity within the hall. It had been raining earlier that afternoon and several small puddles sat like glistening pools of starlight on the stones. Merlin inched closer to one and peered at his reflection. The bruises were fading, but the side of his face where Uther had smacked him with a metal glove was still looking nasty.
Merlin looked up searching for whoever had called his name. The courtyard was dark and empty.
"Merlin," the voice said, full of warmth. Merlin turned his head towards the puddle again looked into it.
"Freya!" he exclaimed, his own voice cracking. Tears sprang to his eyes and he leaned over the puddle as though he could dive into it. "Is that really you?"
"Yes Merlin," she replied; her image surfaced on the water, rippling delicately. "I've missed you."
Merlin, speechless, could only nod.
"I want you to be careful," she said, her voice falling like raindrops on his ears. "The witch whose dress you borrowed is angry with you."
Merlin's smile faded. "The witch whose dress... oh. Oh. Morgana," he said.
Freya's watery image nodded. "Take care, Merlin. Do not drink anything she gives you."
"I'd never drink something from her. I'll be careful, Freya." Her named sounded wonderful on his tongue. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Merlin. I will wait for you."
Merlin smiled back before it registered. "Wait for me? Will I see you again soon?"
Freya laughed softly, making the edges of the puddle tremble. "I hope so, Merlin."
Merlin loved the way hisname sounded on her lips.
The feast was still in full swing when Merlin slipped back into the castle. Gwen and another maid were replacing the tapers and Gaius was sitting beside Uther showing him some illuminated pages in a book. Merlin had a very good guess what was on those book pages. Gaius had asked him to conjure some pictures like he had with Lancelot's forged Northumberland papers of exploding ginger sorcerers. The physician caught Merlin's eye across the way and he gave his ward a conspiratorial eyebrow. Merlin grinned and ran into a stone column.
"Merlin!" Gwen was hovering over him. Merlin cracked his eyes open and sat up. "Are you alright?"
"I- I did not just run into that," Merlin said, rubbing his shoulder in denial. Gwen gave him a lopsided smile.
"Is your shoulder all right? You're not going to be bruised again, I hope. You bruise very easily."
"Let's hope it wasn't your brain," Gwen muttered, offering her friend a hand. "There," she said, dusting off his red livery.
"Thanks," Merlin replied. "I think I need a drink."
Gwen raised her eyebrows to an impressive altitude at this and Merlin made a mental note to put her in the running for his Eyebrow Awards.
"Are you sure you should be drinking? You've only just begun to recover. And, and that salve is still..." she flapped her hands a bit.
"I'm not the lightweight everyone would believe me to be," said Merlin defensively.
"All right," Gwen replied, picking up her jug of wine and wandering off.
"Hey! I thought you were going to give me a cup of that."
"Pour your own!" Gwen called over her shoulder with a grin as she melted back into the crowd.
Merlin was jostled to and fro between undulating bodies dancing the night away. He spied Morgana in a glittering white dress watching him and he hastily averted his gaze. Hurrying to the other side of the hall, he ran into Arthur dancing with one of the ladies of court. But the prince wasn't watching his dancing partner; his eyes were locked with someone else's (Gwen's) across the room. Merlin drifted towards the prince.
"Sire," he inclined his head. Arthur and his lady slowed their dancing and regarded him with relief and annoyance respectively.
"Ah, Merlin, just the man I needed to see," Arthur said. Laying a gentle hand on the lady's shoulder, he said, "Forgive me for this interruption, but I really must see to, um, I must see to something rather urgent."
"Of course my lord," the lady replied demurely. Merlin thought she sounded quite put out. She curtsied and drifted away to the edge of the room.
"You're a life saver, Merlin," Arthur whispered in his ear as they made their way towards the food table. "Listening to her prattle on about dresses and fabrics was almost as bad as listening to your nonsense."
Merlin acknowledged the second definition to 'life saver' with a smile. "Well," he began.
"You still smell terrible."
"You're welcome," Arthur replied. "That was a compliment."
"I see," said Merlin, not seeing at all. A servant passed by bearing a tray with two goblets. Merlin plucked them neatly off the tray and handed one to the prince. "Well, cheers," he said.
Arthur smiled, lifted the goblet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Morgana watching the two of them intently. Suddenly mindful of his earlier conversation with Merlin, Arthur had one of those gut-wrenching moments when he knew something bad was going to happen. Usually it was Merlin who experienced such things, but Morgana had a strange look about her.
"Don't!" Arthur cried suddenly, snatching the goblet from beneath Merlin's lips. The liquid sloshed over the edge, sizzling on the floor where the droplets sprayed. Merlin stared in horror at it and the back at Arthur.
"What-" he began, but stopped when Arthur poured some of his own wine out. It hit the floor steaming.
"Poison," Arthur said quietly. "Come with me."
He stepped around the spilled wine which had reverted to its normal colour. Merlin followed him into the shadows of the banquet hall.
No one around had taken notice of the strange drinks. Arthur chanced a look back at Morgana. He saw the familiar spark of anger in her eyes; he had seen it all too often as a child and now it was written all over her face like a storm cloud.
Merlin was shaking slightly, whether it was due to his recent ordeal in the dungeons, the sickening stench of the Gaia berry salve, the collision with the stone column, or the shock of nearly drinking poison, Merlin wasn't sure. He berated himself for not heeding Freya's warnings. They had hunkered in the back of his mind – the forefront being overwhelmed by seeing her again.
"Are you alright?" Arthur asked, in an unusually gentle voice. Merlin nodded, feeling a bit dizzy.
"I think... I'll go back to my room... if that's alright with you," Merlin managed. Arthur nodded.
"It's fine, Merlin. You – you can have the rest of the night off."
"Thank you Arthur." Merlin staggered from the hall.
The next morning arrived like any other. Merlin was late for work as per usual, dashing down the hallways with the prince's breakfast in his arms. He burst into the chambers without knocking and tripped over an apple core on the floor. The food tray went flying.
"Merlin, what the -" Arthur froze mid-sentence just as the tray of food froze in mid-air. The door slammed shut. Merlin gathered himself up off the floor and plucked the tray down like any normal person would take something off a shelf. Arthur would later deny the fact that he sputtered like a fish out of water.
"Sausages," Merlin announced grandly, sweeping the plate under the prince's nose.
"Why is there only one?" Arthur crossed his arms and picked up the single sausage on his plate, waggling it in front of Merlin's nose.
Merlin went slightly cross-eyed looking at the hunk of meat and took a step back, knocking over the sword propped against the table. That too, righted itself.
"I believe, Merlin, that this is going to take me a little longer to get used to than I anticipated."
Merlin snorted, making a face.
"Do that again."
"That weird, scrunched up expression."
"I have no idea what you're talking about..." Merlin gave the prince a funny look, clearly confused.
Arthur shook his finger at him. "No, I've seen that somewhere before."
Merlin began to look apprehensive. "Um, I'm sure you haven't really, sire. I mean, I -"
It dawned on him. "It was you!" Arthur shouted.
"Who was me?" Merlin edged towards the door. Arthur picked up the nearest object within his reach – a pitcher.
Instead of answering his manservant's question, Arthur continued, "You said I mistreated my servants and you called me... a spoilt arrogant brat, was that it, Merlin?"
"Um, it might have been?"
The pitcher missed by a long shot.