Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I still own absolutely nothing. How unfair is life sometimes?
This is kind of a follow on from "Just One Day." It's not a sequel as such, but you will have a much better understanding of who the characters are if you have read that.
Also please note that it is set between 2x09 and 2x12.
Enjoy and don't forget to review.
It had been months since Arthur had discovered a few home truths about what the situation was like with his servants. But true to his word to Merlin, he had instantly set about making some changes. It had begun – much to Merlin's annoyance – by forcing his own manservant to take a few days off, saying that no one should be at work if they are stupid enough to go three days without eating. What he really meant, of course, is that he wanted to make sure Merlin was alright, but the Crown Prince was not the type to say such things.
Whilst Merlin was recovering, the prince had taken the time to approach his father on the matter. Arthur was sure he had never been as nervous as he had for that meeting. If there was an attack looming, or a problem with the Knights, the young prince knew precisely what needed to be said to get his own way. But in a matter like this? An issue where, technically speaking, he was criticising the King for the way he handled his own staff. Arthur was lucky, he had caught his father in a reasonably good mood and the King had decided that if Arthur was so worried about the situation, he should take it on himself.
So that was precisely what the prince did. It began with making sure Merlin had told him absolutely everything, including whether there were any more unsavoury servants lurking. Three had been instantly dismissed; another two warned that if all the silver didn't reappear, they would be going the same way. Then he had pulled in some new servants, determined to lighten their work load and give them the promised time off. Merlin had flatly refused to have help, claiming that no one else would manage to polish armour in the particular way his 'prat of a master' (his exact words) liked and that he would only have to do it again anyway. Secretly, Arthur was touched, but had handled the situation by cuffing the younger man over the head. Even so, he hadn't given Merlin much choice when it came to taking the afternoon off.
The prince knew how to play his servant when the time came. Scheduling his training around the time he had set aside for Merlin, Arthur knew the boy wouldn't have a good enough excuse to not take the time. It wasn't as if Arthur needed his services, not until much later in the evening when the straw dummies and Knights alike had felt the edge of his sword. After much moaning and whining in the way only Merlin could manage, he finally agreed.
That was where Merlin was now. Stretched out peacefully in front of his lake, his magic book balanced on his lap as he leant against a nearby tree. If Arthur thought he was simply going to sit around doing nothing in the few moments he could now snatch in between his duties, he couldn't be more wrong. For the majority of the week, Merlin was simply too exhausted to contemplate being able to study magic. Between looking after the royal prat and saving Camelot from secret threats that no one seemed to know about, the warlock didn't have the will power to sit up half the night, learning the secrets his book offered. He knew Gaius was beginning to get worried. His magic was slipping. Not in power, he was still just as strong as ever. But Merlin was relying on his raw ability more and more, bringing things floating over to him with nothing more than a flicker of his eyes.
But he wasn't learning anything new, wasn't learning the spells that he knew he would need in order to save Arthur or fulfil his destiny. It was true, his power was still growing, but it wasn't expanding. After Gaius had caught him using it carelessly once again, he had made the warlock swear that he would resume his studies, learn truly who – and what – he was. Realising his mentor had a point; Merlin had taken refuge at the lake on his time off, and sure enough, had learnt more than even he could comprehend at times.
Glancing down at the beautifully illustrated page in front of him, the warlock smiled, his eyes lighting up as he did so. It wasn't magic they were lighting up with though, but sheer contentment. Arthur had stayed true to his word, and the atmosphere in the castle was almost unrecognisable. The servants were almost bouncing around the place, their chores lightened but still providing the income most so desperately needed. Things had never been better in Camelot.
"Verto is gramen," Merlin breathed, allowing his magic to fill him up. As his eyes glowed softly with the power contained within, his hand stretched out over the grass in front of him. A soft light glowed from his palm, and when he moved away, a flower was blooming in front of him; one he knew only grew on the outskirts of Ealdor.
Plucking it gently from the ground, Merlin felt his smile widen. He would take it back to Camelot, back to Gaius. He had felt incredibly guilty when his mentor had told him that he was abusing his gift by not studying, that he would never reach his true potential if he didn't embrace all aspects of his magic rather than just what came elementally to him. But the physician would be pleased with this, Merlin knew he would. The spell was not thatpowerful, transforming something that already existed came easily to the warlock. But the fact he could control it for something as delicate as a flower, Merlin knew that meant something. The first time he had tried it, he had transformed the whole of the area into a meadow of wild flowers, some with a life of their own. He had finally managed to regain control, but Gaius had found the whole thing far too amusing for Merlin's liking.
Feeling a slight chill beginning to settle into him, Merlin glanced up across the lake and found the sun was now directly in between the two mountains, a clear signal that he needed to get a move on. Arthur may have given him the afternoon off, but that didn't mean the evening was Merlin's as well, and the prince hated to be kept waiting at the best of times.
Drawing himself to his feet, he quickly stuffed his book into his bag, making sure it was well hidden before dropping the flower lightly on top. It would do no good for people to start asking questions about where it had come from. Shoulder the bag, Merlin took one long glance back at the lake, a smile on his face even as tears lingered momentarily in his eyes.
"I'll be back soon," he whispered. He had to come here as often as he could, had to know that he wasn't forgetting her. The grief was still raw, but practising his magic in the place where he felt closest to her always brought him comfort. Freya hadn't made him hide who he was, and even now, it was her he turned to when he needed to release the magic within him.
Walking slowly away from the lake, Merlin picked up his pace as he entered the forest, knowing that his luck would mean there was some viscous creature waiting to eat him or something equally as dramatic.
Well, he couldn't help think with a ghost of a smile, at least I could turn it into a flower.
Suppressing the urge to burst out laughing, Merlin moved quickly, adamant that he was going to make it back in time for Arthur. He didn't particularly want the whole evening ducking things or being threatened with the stocks every five seconds.
What he didn't notice however, was the pair of eyes watching him go. They were deep black pits of swirling emotions, no warmth present in the slightest. It was as if all sanity had been stripped away, leaving just an empty shell of the man who had once been there. Watching Merlin go, the man's face split into a leer. His master would be happy with these latest developments.
Satisfied that Merlin couldn't hear him, Greg stepped from around the tree. He was bent and twisted now, walking with a limp as he shuffled his way through the forest, heading in the opposite direction to the warlock. His once idolised prince may have been the one to throw him unceremoniously from the castle grounds, claiming he would return on pain of death, but it was Merlin that the ex-servant sought revenge on most. After all, if it wasn't for the meddlesome youth, he would have secured his position as Arthur's manservant long ago.
The voice echoed throughout his head as Greg forced his scrunched up hands to relax, taking in a shuddering breath. Even if Merlin had seen him, he wouldn't have recognised him, for Greg had changed beyond recognition. His new master had seen to that. He didn't mind though. He liked his new appearance; it matched the blackness within his heart. A blackness that had only grown as Greg had bound his soul to his master and promised to serve him for all eternity.
In return, he was promised whatever it was he wanted. And for Greg, that was revenge on Merlin. Not just on the boy himself, Greg had had many an opportunity to kill the young man ever since he had begun to follow him. No, he wanted something a lot more pleasurable. He would destroy Merlin, that was for sure. But he would do it by bringing down the prince. He knew nothing would give the servant more anguish than watching his master fall.
The fact Merlin also happened to be the Emrys his master was after was just going to make victory that little bit sweeter. After destroying Arthur, Greg knew they would then have the pleasure of destroying Merlin. Greg would make sure the warlock knew precisely who had brought about his downfall, especially when his magic would be hopeless against Greg. The fallen servant was untouchable.
But Greg's part wasn't yet. First, he had to rely on those who had suffered the same fate as him at Merlin's hands. They had only been dismissed rather than thrown from the city, meaning they had become Greg's eyes and ears. Or rather, Greg's master's, but they didn't need to know that, it was beyond their understanding. They would understand soon enough, but first they needed to perform their tasks. Greg knew enough about the relationship between Arthur and Merlin to know it wouldn't take a lot to drive a wedge between them. It would only be a temporary thing, their bond was still strong, but Greg didn't need it to be for long. Just long enough to make Arthur ride out alone.
Merlin made good time back to Camelot, racing through the gates even as the sun began its final descent over the horizon. He knew he would still be cutting it fine getting to Arthur on time, but was satisfied he had long enough to drop his bag off first. He certainly didn't want to have to explain to the prince what was resting within.
He took the steps to Gaius' chambers two at a time, only to skid to a halt at the top.
"Gwen?" The maid was hovering uncertainly outside of Gaius' door, but she jumped and turned towards Merlin at his arrival. Her burnt-honey eyes were filled with concern as her hands twisted somewhat anxiously together and she kept glancing over her shoulder at the shut door.
"Gwen, what is it? Are you hurt? Are you sick?" Hurrying forward, Merlin gazed at the girl quizzically, trying to see if there was anything visibly wrong with her. Gwen shook her head, her curls bouncing even as she spared another glance over her shoulder.
"It's Arthur, he..." She never got the time to finish her sentence however, before Merlin practically broke the door down.
"Subtle as usual, Merlin." The answer came before Merlin had even located the prince, but as soon as he had, he felt a rush of relief at seeing his master sitting up. He constantly worried the prat would get himself killed if Merlin wasn't around. Instead, Gaius was finishing tying up a rather hefty bandage around the prince's shoulder. Merlin knew Arthur had slightly restricted movement in that limb, a lingering effect of the Questing Beast's bite, something that caused great annoyance to the prince.
"What did you do this time?" Merlin asked, sounding exasperated as he moved further into the room. Casually dropping his bag to the floor, he let his foot nudge it under the table subtly, catching Gaius' eye as he did so and shooting his mentor a look that clearly said don't ask.
"Who said I did anything?" Arthur shot back, only to wince slightly as Gaius tied the final knot with a flourish before moving off to get him something to help with the pain. He himself still didn't properly know what had happened; only that Sir Roderick had gained the upper hand somewhat spectacularly. If the blood loss hadn't made his head spin in such a way, Arthur would have laughed at the look of absolute horror on the Knight's face. But the prince couldn't complain. He always pushed them to treat him normally; claiming them softening their blows wasn't going to help him out on the battlefield.
"Oh, of course not. A sword just jumped into the air, did it?" Merlin said drily, moving across the room to get a better look. "How bad, Gaius?"
He wasn't even going to attempt to ask Arthur that question, knowing the prince would just brush it off. It was alright for him, he wasn't the one that would have to keep it clean and make sure the bandages were changed when needed. Arthur got hurt...and Merlin had to deal with the consequences. Gaius glanced over his shoulder to where his ward was hovering uncertainly and found himself smiling, despite the fact he had an injured prince sitting in his chambers.
"He's going to be just fine."
"I never said he wasn't." Merlin responded somewhat heatedly, but turned towards the door as he spoke and so missed Gaius' eye roll. "Gwen? Gwen, are you going to come in or just stand there?"
For a moment, there was silence, before Gwen cautiously stuck her head around the door. Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Arthur immediately sit up straighter, the pained expression on his face immediately melting away as he tried to cover it up. Disguising his own laugh with a hasty cough, Merlin turned away, knowing he wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. He was happy for his friends, he really was. But it certainly provided him with a fool-proof way of being able to wind Arthur up.
"Sire." Unable to stop himself, Merlin snorted in amusement, almost feeling Arthur's burning gaze switch onto the back of his head. Even in the safety of Gaius' chambers, they were still guarded with each other. Before anything could be said however, the door opened once more. Merlin's smile instantly was wiped from his face as he swallowed. It was a good job they had been guarded, for who was to walk in but the king himself?
"Arthur?" Uther brushed past Gwen as if she didn't exist, certainly not acknowledging the deep curtsey she immediately dropped into, her eyes firmly on the floor. For a moment, Merlin found his mind racing. He had never even considered the fact that none of them bowed to Arthur, barely even the lesser servants now. The prince made the point of making sure everyone knew he had a presence in the castle, that he was approachable should the case need it. His rule was certainly going to be different to that of his father's. Eventually though, a sharp prod in his back from Gaius had Merlin lowering his head, even though the physician himself merely dipped it in acknowledgement before turning back to his shelves, determined to find the right potion for the prince.
"Father?" Arthur had tried to rise to his feet when the King entered, but a sharp look from Gaius made him stop. If the King told him to do something, more often than not, Arthur would attempt the opposite, especially when he had been a boy. When Gaius told him to do something, however, even without words, Arthur obeyed. Merlin only wished he knew how the physician managed it.
"Why do I have Sir Roderick begging me to dismiss him? I won't have carelessness amongst my Knights, they are supposed to protect the realm, not try and kill each other."
"An accident, Sire, nothing more." No warning look from Gaius this time was going to keep Arthur in his seat. The prince rose stiffly, causing Merlin to automatically hurry forward, wondering whether his master would need – or admit to needing – any help. Heat was rising in his cheeks now, and Merlin knew it was a mixture of shame that he had managed to get himself hurt badly enough to be taken to Gaius and annoyance that Uther was questioning things. Arthur had let the matter go, it simply undermined his authority with the knights the fact Roderick had gone to his father. "The fault was all my own, Sir Roderick merely did as I had instructed."
"Very well." For a moment, Uther's cold grey eyes bore into Arthur's blue passionate ones, Merlin standing somewhat self consciously in the middle of the two, not wanting to move in case it drew the King's attention to him. The sooner Uther was out of here, the better, for Merlin was more than aware of what was sitting under their table, practically in full sight. "I trust you will be fit for the hunt tomorrow?"
Merlin took one glance at Arthur and immediately winced. He knew there had been something he had forgotten to mention to his master before he had headed towards the lake. Arthur caught sight of his wince and shot him a level glare, one that clearly said he would deal with his manservant later. Whether Gaius was just genuinely concerned or had seen enough of the looks to know what was going on, Merlin wasn't sure, but the physician cut in.
"I'm not sure it is advisable, My Lord. Arthur's arm needs time to heal..."
"I'm fit, Father." Arthur's words had a final ring to them that even Gaius would not go against. Merlin always saw the glimmers of the Future King the Dragon promised him whenever Arthur spoke like that, even if it was normally him being stubborn.
"Very well. I shall be expecting you." Uther turned on his heel and swept from the room, barely giving even Gaius a second glance.
"Merlin?" The manservant had the sudden urge to try his transformation spell again. Maybe turn Arthur into something that couldn't sound quite so threatening with just one word?
"Yes, Arthur?" Merlin said slowly, inwardly cringing.
"Gwen, you'll accompany me to fetch some more firewood, won't you, my dear?" So saying, Gaius bustled across the room, ushering Gwen out in front of him. The maid paused for a split second in the door way, meeting Arthur's gaze and smiling gently before she disappeared from sight, leaving the prince to deal with his manservant.
"Your father requests your presence on a hunt with Lord Banton at dawn tomorrow?" Merlin muttered sheepishly, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck. He should have known this day had been going too well to last.
"Banton?" Arthur's temper finally gave out as he stared at Merlin in bewilderment. "Merlin, you know how much I hate that man! And now I don't have time to come up with any excuses. Nice one, Merlin."
As Arthur sat back down, breathing heavily, Merlin felt a stab of annoyance. He hadn't asked to have the afternoon off, and he was sure he would have remembered to tell the prince. Eventually.
"I'm your servant, not your messenger. He should have just told you himself!"
"Merlin, he's the king. Why would he tell me himself?"
"Maybe because he is your father?" But Merlin knew the second the words left his mouth that he had overstepped the mark, especially by the way Arthur's eyebrow rose.
"Sorry, Sire," he added meekly. Arthur continued to gaze at him coolly for a moment before he started for the door.
"Worse servant ever," he muttered under his breath as he left, knowing that Merlin would be following him. After all, just because he had given the lanky boy an afternoon off didn't mean Merlin's duties for the day were finished.
"I can think of worse," Merlin said in an undertone, his voice dark. Arthur had to give him that one. After all, it was because of said servants that things had changed. Thinking about how Greg had tried to hurt Gwen, Arthur felt his blood begin to boil. It was just lucky the man had indeed fled the city when Arthur had ordered him too, for the prince was not sure he would have been able to control his temper. He was just glad that the situation had been resolved and even the three others that had been dismissed – whilst they were still lurking in the lower towns somewhere - they were not allowed anywhere near the castle. What good was all of Camelot's defences if they were being torn apart from within? After all, whilst it he would never admit it to Merlin, it was the servants that kept this place going. Without them, Arthur knew he wouldn't have a kingdom left by the time he was king.
The two travelled the rest of the way in silence. It wasn't an uncomfortable one however, but one where nothing needed to be said. They both knew what the other was thinking. The year or so they had been together had taught them everything they needed to know about each other. Merlin found it somewhat ironic that Arthur managed to read his mood so well considering the prince didn't know the slightest thing of importance about the man he spent most of his time with. But the warlock didn't mind. He was just grateful Arthur knew him well enough to put up with the servant, for Merlin was more than aware that he didn't stick by the normal servant etiquette.
Entering Arthur's room, Merlin hung back as Arthur practically fell into his seat. They may have been friends on the best of days, but he was still the prince's servant. Someone had already delivered the prince's dinner, and Merlin had a very good idea of who. Mary was constantly covering for him. Every time he was running late, she merely sent another servant, knowing there were plenty of maids lurking around the kitchens with the hope of being sent to the prince's chambers. Merlin was fond of the head cook, and he knew she was of him. After all, who else would insult the prince about his lack of concern in front of the prince himself, even if she hadn't realised who "Archie" was?
"For gods' sake, Merlin, stop lurking and sit." Arthur's sharp command quickly brought Merlin out of his musings and he somewhat tentatively moved around the table, sitting on the edge of the seat as Arthur shoved a dish towards him without looking up. If Merlin had thought Arthur sorting out the servants was enough of a surprise, he had no idea what was coming. The prince was almost paranoid about his servant not eating enough these days. Merlin knew that was again thanks to Mary. She had certainly delivered a few home truths that day. If Arthur ordering more food had been noticed at the kitchens, no one said anything. But the prince certainly wasn't going to let his servant forget about eating. Every time they were in his chambers over a meal time, Arthur made sure Merlin ate something.
There wasn't a lot he could do whenever Merlin was out gallivanting in the way only Merlin could, nor when they were attending anything official. But Arthur could certainly make sure he kept an eye on his servant when it was just the two of them. He just said he didn't want Merlin fainting like a girl in front of the entire court, but Merlin knew him better than that. And he was suitably touched.
It was something about them eating together that had created an even greater depth to their bond than before. There was something more personal about it, something that stripped away titles and positions and just allowed them to be two young men enjoying each other's company. Merlin knew it was the meals that had given Arthur the chance to read his moods, gauge his reactions as they often talked about anything and everything. Anything from meaningless gossip Merlin had picked up during his duties to plans of attack when there was a rumoured bandit attack; the two of them had spoken about it.
"So do you want me to get you out of this hunt then, Sire?" Merlin eventually asked. He knew it would mean a day in the stocks at the very least, especially since the King knew full well Arthur was aware of the hunt. But if he didn't offer, Arthur might think of the idea himself. And somehow, that made it so much worse.
"I should say yes just to teach you a lesson." Arthur muttered, stabbing at his meat with a slight fierceness as he thought about the upcoming hunt. Normally he jumped at the chance to be the one to escort the visiting nobles, but he really couldn't stand Banton. But he knew his father would be expecting it of him, it was his duty as Crown Prince, after all. As much as he might like too, it wasn't fair to make Merlin pay the prince. What Arthur could do however, was make sure his servant found out precisely what the prince thought of him forgetting to pass the message on.
"But I've got a much better idea."
"What?" Merlin asked hesitantly, edging towards the door without leaving his seat, much to Arthur's amusement. The young man looked ready to bolt.
"You're coming too."
"Well, we need a servant, don't we? You're dismissed for the night, Merlin. Don't you dare be late tomorrow or..."
"...it's the stocks." Merlin finished for him, standing up as he spoke. "Understood, Sire." Rolling his eyes at the smirk of satisfaction Arthur shot him, Merlin trailed somewhat miserably from the room.
He had been having such a good day.