Sometimes, most of the time, Merlin wishes that he didn't have to keep so many secrets. In the aftermath of Gloria's escape from Camelot, there isn't much that Merlin can do or say. Arthur explodes into a rage, orders searches throughout the city and the surrounding fields and towns. Every time a company comes back with empty hands and no news, Arthur's frown deepens and his jaw tightens into a hard line. Leon's reaction was calm and subdued; a quiet frown that barely creased his forehead, but he'd gone out with the search parties for days at a time.
Merlin knows that Gloria was gone long before morning; that they won't find her anywhere, but he can't tell Arthur that. So he watches as Arthur clenches his jaw and swings his sword a little bit too hard on the practice field. Arthur's frustration with his failings is rising and Merlin doesn't know what to say or do to make it better. He doesn't know how to tell Arthur that it's not his fault and when Arthur has to justify and explain himself to his father's council, Merlin is completely at a loss for words.
Most members of the council are old men who were knighted by Uther when he was still a young man seeking to conquer a kingdom. They were forged in blood and battle and it's not easy for them to accept that they have become too old for all the physical demands of knighthood. It's not easy for them to accept that their place is at the sidelines, gathered around a table to make decisions while bent over parchment and scrolls. It's not easy on their pride that they are governed by a man less than half their age. They are all loyal to Uther and his court and his laws and they question every decision Arthur makes, wonder out loud whether Uther would do the same thing or not. The only person who openly and steadfastly supports Arthur is Leon, but he is a young man compared to them and it's easy for them to dismiss his opinion.
The escape of the witch has enraged the council. They claim Arthur does not come down hard enough on his enemies, that he is not watchful enough, that he does not support the fight against magic in the way that Uther has always wanted him to. Yet they do it in such a way that Arthur cannot arrest them for impertinence or send them away or discredit them as irrational concerns. It's all 'would it not be prudent, sire?' and 'may I advice you, sire' and 'my lord must not take offence when I say...'
Arthur weathers the accusations with a stoic face, waylays them calmly and knows that they would never question his father like this. At the same time, he understands. The witch's escape has embarrassed Camelot at a time when they are already perceived as faltering and weak. They need to show their strength or at the very least quell the rumours that Camelot is ripe for the picking. The easiest way would be to conquer a few villages near the border, but Arthur is hesitant to risk his men simply to demonstrate their strength. The council nods in his face but whispers behind his back that the young Pendragon is weak and does not have his father's blood lust. What Merlin considers a compliment, Arthur considers a grave insult.
"You could conquer Ealdor. I'm sure we won't mind," Merlin offers.
Arthur rolls his eyes and grits out, "shut up, iMer/ilin." without looking up from his scroll.
It's only now that Merlin understands how much of a burden kingship really is, especially when Arthur is still performing his duties as crown prince. He still goes out on patrol when the roster dictates, trains with his knights, attends meetings with his father's council, listens to the grievances of his people and the messengers from other kingdoms. He deals with reports and works out how much footsoldiers and knights Camelot can afford in the event of war. He is constantly busy and Merlin finds himself longing for the days when Arthur could ride out to hunt and simply drag Merlin with him whenever he felt like it.
These days he only sees Arthur sparingly. Merlin brings him breakfast in the morning and receives his list of duties for the day. They see each other briefly in the afternoon when Merlin helps him with his armour and then again at dinner when Merlin serves him and Arthur reads reports while eating.
Merlin used to stay until Arthur went to bed, but now Arthur sends him away because he needs to concentrate and Merlin's bumbling is distracting him. He used to stand at the sidelines and watch Arthur during practice with the knights, but Arthur provides such a list of duties that he hurries away and only hurries back to help with the armour. Arthur used to dawdle during breakfast some times and they'd chat, but these days Arthur sends him away immediately or has to leave himself. Merlin tries to get him to talk because he has to admit, only to himself, that he misses Arthur.
"... mend my shirt, polish my mail, sharpen my daggers, muck out my stables, exercise my dogs, gather the messages from the ..." Arthur trails off and Merlin looks up from where he's been gathering the plates on his tray while munching on the left overs of Arthur's breakfast.
Arthur is leaning against the wall, looking out the window with the view of the courtyard. He's dressed in his usual, simple brown trousers and red tunic. The weak morning sun glints off his hair and Merlin's eyes trace the line of his neck where Arthur stretched back to lean against the wall. Arthur seems lost in thought; his arms crossed in front of his chest and a frown dominating the features of his face. He's nodding slowly to himself.
Merlin's voice seems to snap him out of it and he visibly shakes himself. "Yes, sorry, I was saying ... euhm." His frown deepens. "You need to mend my shirt, I tore it yesterday." He nods and heads over to the cupboard to grab his jacket.
Merlin frowns. "You said that already, about the shirt."
Arthur looks up from where he's been rummaging through the closet. "Did I? Right, I must have." He turns back to the closet.
"Arthur, are you alright?"
"I'm fine." He slips his arms into the jacket and doesn't even turn to look at Merlin. He heads to the door. "I have a meeting with my father's council, but I will be training with the knights in the afternoon so you must have my armour ready."
"Arthur!" Merlin's call makes him turn. "You're not alright. You've been absent minded for days."
Arthur turns around and his face changes from impassive to annoyed in the space of a second. "Absent minded? I don't know what you're talking about. I'm as sharp as I've always been."
"As sharp as this spoon maybe." And Merlin wiggles the spoon at Arthur's face.
Arthur's whole face tightens and Merlin braces himself. "Maybe, you're right, Merlin, maybe I have been slipping. Maybe your mental affliction is catching and I should do better to try and flog it out of you before you infect anyone else!"
It's an excessive threat and Merlin doesn't flinch because he knows it's an empty one. Arthur's temper has been getting out of control lately and this is not the first time Merlin has been on the receiving end of it. He doesn't even have to say anything before Arthur's face softens and he raises a hand to rub his forehead. His fingers shield his eyes from sight and he drops into his seat at the table. Merlin simply waits, standing on the opposite side of the table, the tray with Arthur's leftovers between them.
"I doubt a flogging would do much good." He sounds tired, but Arthur always sounds tired these days.
"I don't much fancy a flogging either." Merlin says and is gratified to see that Arthur is smiling weakly. He sits down in the other chair. "You're not usually that quick-tempered."
Arthur shrugs. "You bring out the worst in me." His half-smile is only half-genuine.
Merlin smiles back. "That's a lie. I'm the only reason you're less of a prat now than before we first met."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "That is not true."
"Been using any servants for target practice lately?" Merlin asks, smug look on his face.
"You, not even two weeks ago." Arthur points out.
Merlin shrugs. "That's just me."
Arthur frowns but doesn't say anything.
Merlin resists the urge to fiddle with something, anything. "Something's on your mind; has been for a while."
Arthur's arm lowers to the table and he fiddles with a grape left on his plate. "My father is still not recovered."
Merlin doesn't really know what to say to that. It's true that Uther has remained in the same catatonic state they found him in while they were fighting for Camelot's freedom. He has no physical injury. He simply lies in bed all day, unresponsive to the pleas of his son and his physician. Every once in a while he mumbles nonsense, half-phrases that make little sense to anyone. Gaius said that Uther had suffered a terrible mental blow when Morgana had betrayed him. There was nothing that would heal the king, except time.
Merlin hesitates. "Well, Gaius did say that it could take a long time."
"I know that!" The words are hissed between the clench of Arthur's teeth. "I've spoken to Gaius about this several times. I know that …." He sighs and scrubs his hand over his face again. "It's an illness of the mind and the heart, not of the body. It will take time for my father to recover. It has been two months and it could take two more," he says, reciting the words almost verbatim. "I know all of that." His eyes meet Merlin's from across the table. He scratches the spot of skin above his left eyebrow with his pointy finger.
"But, I also know that the longer the king is absent from the court, the weaker he seems. A weak king makes a weak kingdom. I do what I can, but rumours are already spreading. My father needs to recover, for the good of the kingdom. We need to give the impression that Camelot is strong." He sighs and scrubs the palm of his left hand over his face.
"And, you know, he's your father. You want him to get better," Merlin says.
Arthur glares at him, but doesn't say anything.
Merlin doesn't know what to say or how to fill the silence. He knows that so many concerns are lying heavily on Arthur's mind. But ... if Arthur was worrying about a warlock, or some magical fiend prowling the forest, those were problems Merlin could fix. But what could Merlin do against this? Gaius had assured him that the injury to Uther's mind could not be healed with magic. If he could have, Merlin would have done so already, if only for Arthur's sake.
"Gaius said that he should be surrounded by familiar people, people that care about him. You go to see him as often as you can, there's nothing more that you can do." Merlin says. It's probably not much assurance, but there's not much else that he can say. "You're doing all you can."
"It is not enough!" The grape is crushed when Arthur makes a fist and slams it on the table. He makes a disgusted face and wipes his hand on a napkin. "I am not enough. If Morgana was still here, she would have ..." He doesn't finish the thought, but he doesn't have to.
Merlin clears his throat. "Well ... Every time you're ill or injured, there's always a storm of people standing outside your chambers. They all want to see you or help; me, Gwen, your father, Gaius, all of your knights. What about your father's old friends?"
Arthur shakes his head. "Most of them have died in battle, or have their own lands or responsibilities in other kingdoms too far away."
"What about some of his knights?"
"He never saw any of his subjects as friends, not the knights, not even Gaius. The only close friends he made were the men he served with as a page or a squire. And like I said; most of them died. The only close friend he still had any regular contact with was ... Lord Godwin."
"Princess Elena's father?"
Arthur nods and idly worries at the nail of his thumb with his teeth. "Yes." The "e" is drawn out, as the lines on Arthur's forehead slowly draw into a frown. If he isn't careful, the signs of his worries will carve themselves into his face permanently, Merlin thinks.
"Last time Lord Godwyn and his daughter visited, things didn't go exactly as planned, but no offence was taken. And my father and Godwyn have been friends for a long time."
"Maybe you could invite them?" Merlin offers. "If his old friend were to visit him; it might do him some good."
"That is not, altogether, a horrible idea," Arthur says. "But inviting Lord Godwyn and his daughter, the Lady Elena, to court is not a light affair. There'd have to be a celebration, something grand to welcome them."
"A grand feast would show that Camelot is not worried or afraid."
"Something even better, a tourney!" Arthur's face lights up with the thought.
Merlin feels something heavy grow in the pit of his stomach. He's never witnessed a tournament in Camelot without something going either hideously wrong or a sorcerer trying to kill Arthur or Uther. Tournaments, Merlin has learned, generate crowds of such magnitude that it's easy for dangerous people to slip into the city unnoticed. Not to mention that people have actually died in tournaments, even without evil sorcerers orchestrating their death.
He clears his throat. "Don't you think a feast is enough?"
Arthur raises his eyebrow. "A feast is fine, but a tournament is better."
"It's just..." Merlin shifts in his chair. "Are you sure that's a good idea? A tournament can be very dangerous."
"Don't be such an old woman, Merlin." He stands from the chair and Merlin does so, quickly, trying to convey his worry.
"I'm just saying, with the king injured and in bed, what will the people think if you get hurt, or worse?"
Arthur smiles. "So little faith in my abilities, Merlin? I'll have you know that I've been winning tourneys since I was fourteen."
"It's not your abilities I doubt." Merlin hastens to reassure and he doesn't know if the twitch near Arthur's mouth means he'd almost made Arthur smile. "It's just … do you remember what happened to Leon after you threw him off his horse when you jousted against him in disguise? It took ages for him to recover."
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Getting hurt is part of it. Besides, Leon turned out fine, didn't he?"
"Yes, but other people have died in tournaments," Merlin points out.
"A tournament would show that Camelot is as strong as ever." He straightens. "It will show everyone that I am as good as ever."
"Arthur, no one is doubting you. You have proved yourself more than enough times."
Arthur's face is stoic now and his smile is nowhere to be found. "I will order the start of preparations for the tournament and I will win this tournament. Now, I suggest you get started on your duties, you have more than enough to do."
Merlin nods. "Right, I suppose it's nothing to do with glory and fame and all those things."
Arthur grins. "It's just one of the perks, Merlin."
There is a spring in his step when he leaves the room and Merlin tries to force the sick feeling in his stomach to go away. Arthur likes tournaments, this will make him relax and maybe even forget for a while. Tournaments mean feasts and good food and people with high spirits. Merlin tries to be happy about it, even if he has to polish armour, muck out stables, exercise dogs, mend a shirt and fetch messages from … somewhere.
To Be Continued