Arthur knew the logic of setting camp. He just wished he had managed to be closer to the meeting site. He hoped Leon would be all right. He prayed that meeting Merlin again would not be as awkward as he was imagining it would be.
Arthur knew he was the one at fault throughout that entire confrontation over Caerleon. Merlin had kept the rival king alive and enforced peace between the two kingdoms. No further incursions had occurred.
Arthur, on the other hand, had taken Merlin's most trusted friend prisoner, proceeded to make a fool of one of his own knights and spent far too much time listening to other people about what he should do, and about how his father would have dealt with it, despite the fact his father was unlikely to have had the problem in the first place.
Now everything seemed ten times worse with this sudden circumstance which Arthur didn't really understand. Even though he fought against the use of magic he didn't really know anything about it. Merlin did the same thing, when it was needed, but he understood magic, it's dangers and limits. Scores of magic users lived safely within Merlin's kingdom. Arthur presumed they did so within the limits that Merlin deemed acceptable.
It made Arthur wonder how strong Merlin's power was, and if he was capable of feats such as raising the Knights of Medhir. Agravaine remained convinced that Merlin was some part of the conspiracy but Arthur agreed with Gwaine, it didn't seem in character for what they knew of Merlin. His uncle didn't seem pleased with the developments around Gwaine either.
Arthur didn't register Gwaine's voice.
He blinked, jumping in surprise. Gwaine held out a bowl, the stew steaming slightly.
"You should eat something."
Arthur took the bowl, stirring the spoon apprehensively.
"I can't vouch for the taste."
Taking a mouthful Arthur grimaced.
"It's fine," he said as he swallowed. Gwaine smirked, watching as Arthur stirred the stew again before taking a slightly smaller mouthful.
"Are you all right Arthur?"
Arthur wondered if Gwaine deliberately waited until he had a mouthful of food to ask him. He swallowed again.
"I'm fine. Stop asking me things."
"It's the first time I've asked you anything," Gwaine told him. Arthur paused swallowing another mouthful of stew, he was starting to find it a little more appetising.
"It just seems like everyone is asking me questions and making requests."
Gwaine smiled. "You're the king, it comes with the territory."
"My father never had any of these issues."
Gwaine said nothing for a moment. "You don't know that," he eventually mused. "More likely by the time you were aware of things he appeared to have no issues. You don't know what it was like when he was first king, or even when you were young."
"He always seemed so in control."
"And he probably had to learn how to do that. You are not giving yourself enough credit Arthur. And why would you do everything the same way, it's not as if you always agreed with your father's choices. Let's face it, Gwen wouldn't be in Camelot now if you hadn't defied him."
"She wasn't involved in the escape, he couldn't blame her."
"Yes, she was, and he could. If Uther tried her she would have been found guilty. You stopped that happening."
"I was more guilty," Arthur said.
"Because you didn't agree with Uther about hurting Morgana, or Gaius."
"I couldn't let that happen."
"To be honest," Gwaine said, after another pause. "I think your father might have suspected you would do something, and let you."
Arthur looked surprised.
"He loved Morgana, and Gaius had been loyal to him for years. Do you really think he would want anything to happen to either of them?"
"He could have stopped it."
"Could he?" Gwaine asked. "After so many years of ruling as he did could he honestly act in such a way?"
Arthur paused eating for a moment, considering that. Uther had always clamped down hard on magic, and Arthur hadn't agreed with him. He had not wanted to hunt down the druid child Mordred, when Morgana had rescued him from the soldiers, and he had helped Morgana, who had always been like a sister to him, and Gaius had been someone Arthur had known all his life. Occasionally Arthur had publically argued with his father on the subject, much to Uther's anger. Morgana had respected him for that, for standing up for what he believed in, but she had magic, so it seemed obvious that she would.
"And," Gwaine started, very carefully, "things might have been entirely different if your mother hadn't died."
Arthur's jaw clenched. Gwaine leant back slightly, but carried on.
"Don't get me wrong. I don't believe your father would have let her die willingly. Most certainly not judging by his reaction to it, but he used magic himself, and realised the consequences of his actions. On the other hand I think he blinkered himself to some truths. He had to have known on some levels that Morgana might have magic, and he certainly knew Gaius did."
"He trusted him not to use it."
"But how can he ignore evidence, he had killed people for a lot less than what Morgana had done, and openly confessed to. His only option was to let her escape if he wanted to keep her alive."
"And that just makes him a hypocrite," Arthur said angrily. Gwaine shrugged.
"One way or another most people are," Gwaine turned to walk away and then paused. "And I don't think Merlin is the type to hold a grudge. At least not if it's you."
Arthur frowned and stared down at his stew stirring it slowly. He'd find out if that was true. It was the only thing he could honestly make sure of.
And despite Gwaine's casual assurances he still felt nervous when they saw the riders on the horizon. It had been Gwaine who had seen them first.
Arthur had turned, noting that Gwaine, when others could hear them, spoke very respectfully. As Arthur paused to watch he presumed they saw his patrol at the same time as the group immediately veered towards them. Feeling his stomach rippled Arthur turned his own men to intercept. Judging by the scenery they would meet in the small valley nestled below them. He spurred his horse trying to ignore his uncle's disapproval which seemed to hang around him like a cloud. It increased Arthur's nerves at the meeting, after everything that happened.
All of Arthur's apprehension faded as they met, both groups slowing as they came closer. Merlin smiled brightly at Arthur, looking incredibly pleased to see him. He nudged Patience's sides to jog her forward, moving ahead of his men. Percival eased his horse back, keeping the rest of Merlin's men back. Gwaine mirrored the action, sensing Percival's intention.
Either Agravaine was oblivious or he had no intention of being courteous. As he watched him move forward with Arthur Gwaine decided it was probably the latter. He stayed close to his nephew, giving Gwaine an unnecessary signal to stay back. Percival glanced at Gwaine pointedly and Gwaine shifted his eyebrows slightly in return.
If Merlin noticed any of it he gave no indication, he just looked incredibly pleased to see Arthur, easing Patience close to Arthur's horse. The mare's ears flattened down on her head and she gave a loud snort. Arthur's stallion returned the gesture and snapped his teeth at the mare. Patience was far quicker biting Hengroen's neck causing the stallion to jump sideways.
"Sorry!" Merlin said pulling her head away from Arthur's horse. Arthur's legs tensed on the stallion's sides and he kept a tight grip on the reins to prevent the horse from reacting further. Merlin eased his horse further sideways still keeping her head averted, and he put the reins into one hand, holding out his other to Arthur.
The king smiled, reaching out his own hand to Merlin's.
"Merlin, it's good to see you."
Merlin's smiled brightened, and the two horses interrupted the moment by shifting again and the two men were forced to break their hands apart.
"Perhaps we should do this without their help," Merlin said. "We are probably due a rest and it would be good to discuss the issue before we go any further."
Despite the concern Arthur felt, he couldn't help but agree with Merlin. He did want to stop and chat, and just suddenly being in Merlin's presence made him feel as if the situation was now entirely manageable.
"That's probably a good idea, the stream runs into the valley from that coppice, that's a good place to stop."
"I agree," Merlin said, still beaming happily. Arthur couldn't help but grin back, he nudged Hengroen's sides.
"Let's see if your mare can run as quickly as she bites."
Percival watched Merlin race after Arthur, and a few of the others followed. He held onto Blaze's reins, turning him slightly to stop him from chasing off. Seeing him Gwaine did the same, backing his mare down. Agravaine looked between them and the two men racing across the open valley, glaring at the pair of them before turning to head after Arthur. Percival nudged Blaze into a slow canter and Gwaine kept his horse level. They took their time, bringing up the rear, looking around, although there were no visible threats within the valley.
"What, no 'it's good to see you too Gwaine'?"
Percival glowered at him. "You're trouble."
"But good fun, Merlin seems to appreciate that."
"No, Merlin appreciates the fact that you stuck by Arthur."
"That had nothing to do with him. I actually like Arthur."
"So does Merlin, surprisingly."
Gwaine frowned. "Surprisingly?"
"When he was younger he was not best impressed with the stories Iseldir used to tell him about the Once And Future King, and who it was."
"And they nearly killed each other the first time they met."
"Yeah, I heard about that."
Percival glowered again.
"That's not a becoming look Sir Percival."
"I don't trust Agravaine," Gwaine said after a moment's pause.
"Are you really that certain he would betray Arthur?"
Gwaine's eyes darkened as he watched the horsemen ahead of them, they were almost at the stream, Arthur just slightly ahead.
"To be honest?" Gwaine said, almost asking, as he looked at Percival. Percival nodded for him to continue. Gwaine debated the idea of confiding in Percival, and almost immediately decided it was the most logical thing to do. Percival generally acted in Merlin's best interests, which currently coincided with Arthur's best interests. Plus, Gwaine also thought that he could trust Percival to be discreet.
"I don't think there is any betrayal to be done, I don't think he's been on Arthur's side the entire time he's been in Camelot. He loathed Uther, Uther banished him."
"But Arthur's still his nephew," Percival reasoned.
"He's Uther's son, I think that is considered the most important factor."
Percival considered this. "He needs watching. Most definitely he does not want Merlin getting close to Arthur."
"I wonder if he knows something about this prophecy," Gwaine mused. Percival's face darkened even deeper. Gwaine watched him curiously. "What?" he asked.
"They've reached the stream, we should catch up," he turned his brooding glare on Gwaine. "We should talk about this later."
Percival urged Blaze on, causing the horse to leap forward. Gwaine swore and dug his heels into the mare's sides and he felt her pick up pace. Much to his annoyance and Percival's pleasure, he didn't manage to catch him.
The camp could have been rather constrained but Merlin prevented that, at least his delight at seeing Arthur, his constant need to seek him out and talk to him relaxed the Camelot knights. The fact that Percival and Gwaine appeared to be getting on well also helped. Merlin and Arthur took that with approval and although Arthur wished it was Leon instead, that was nothing to do with Gwaine personally.
"Are you all right Arthur?" Merlin asked, as they settled down. Somehow Merlin had managed, or at least thought to, bring some mead with him which had obviously not been used until this evening. It relaxed the atmosphere.
"I just hope Leon is all right. He's normally with me."
"It feels like you are without your right arm without him?" Merlin said, nodding steadily. "I get like that when Percival's not there. It's so rare, it's the most disconcerting thing to happen."
"Gwaine is just as good," Arthur said hurriedly, realising that he was in hearing distance.
"Thank you, I think," Gwaine said. "Although, I'm not Leon. I'm disconcerted without him."
"You've known Leon most of your life though?" Merlin asked Arthur.
"Yes, especially through training. He's a few years older so when I started he was already established, but still new. Some of the knights were too scared to say anything to me and they picked on Leon. Some were and Leon stepped in."
"Similar with me. Actually nobody touched me, they just kept on at Percival until he was too big to beat in a fight and he started to discipline me."
"Really?" Arthur asked.
"Well, dunking me in streams, smacking me round the head and once he made me clean out the latrine."
"But you could have stopped him."
Merlin looked at Percival warily. "He's also my servant, responsible for my clothes, my armour and many other things, sometimes you really do have to cow to his judgement because the consequences are worse. Plus it was generally well planned by us both. People stopped picking on him soon after."
"They didn't make that much of an impression," Percival said. "And I still get extra pudding."
"It's occasionally very noticeable," Merlin said, looking wary as Percival glowered.
"Tell Gwen if he's mean to you," Gwaine said. Percival's face darkened even further.
"What?" Arthur asked.
"I think our big knight here is very fond of your Guinevere."
"Well, yes, we know that Gwaine, don't go there or I will start the lake dumping."
"I don't need you to protect me!" Percival snapped at Merlin. Merlin glared back.
"I know you don't, but you are putting money into helping her brother to make sure that Gwen's dowry is acceptable. I don't see why you are worrying, it doesn't need that."
Percival stood up abruptly and walked away into the darkness. Merlin grimaced.
"Oohhh, I'd better check my saddle over tomorrow before I get in it."
"It's a sensitive subject," Merlin told Arthur. "Percival's liking of Guinevere."
"He doesn't feel he's good enough."
Arthur blinked in shock. "Why not? He's a knight; he's a close advisor to a prince; what's wrong with him?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. But, he's never really been interested, he's not been given the opportunity to be interested and now he has the time to be he falls in love with someone in Camelot so he can't get remotely close to her. As a defensive move it would be brilliant... could Morgana send a letter to bring her over to our court for a while?"
"Erm, I'm sure we could. Morgana would love to see her, I didn't realise that..."
"Oi!" Percival shouted as he ran back. "We have company. Let's get this dealt with and... oh never mind! The Knights of Medhir are on their way!"