Chapter 1: Gloomy Days

Gloom reined in the castle. Rain fell in thick sheets outside, a cold rain that spoke more of winter than autumn. Candles were lit in the corridors and the chandelier was alight in the throne room, but their light and warmth did little to brighten the castle, or the mood of the people inside of it.

Arthur sat at the head of the council table. After the whole fiasco with Morgana, his father rarely left his chambers. Gaius reported that his father's condition was not caused by any physical injury. Miraculously, Uther had endured Morgana's rein with nothing more serious than some bruises. Gaius went on to say that deep emotional strain could be worse than an injury. With time, physical injuries healed. Emotional ones might never be overcome.

Uther was showing no signs of recovering from his emotional strain. Arthur visited him every day, some days twice. The King sat in his great chair, sometimes staring out the window, sometimes staring at the fire. Some days he refused, toddler style, to get out of bed. He generally refused to speak, not even on issues that used to get him riled. When he did talk, it he just told people to leave him alone. Gaius said the medical condition was called melancholy, and that there was little to do to help him.

Arthur had become king in everything but name. By and large, it worked out fine. Arthur knew enough about the daily goings on to discharge the royal duties, if not quickly, at least fairly. He found that he had the respect of the common people, who looked to him to more fair minded then his father. Most of the nobles respected his judgments, and when they didn't they voiced their concerns in private.

The only real problem was that Arthur hadn't been named King, or Regent even. Gaius felt that if the King gave over his duties to Arthur in name, he would fall even deeper into the depression that gripped him, so deep in fact that he might not be able to recover. Arthur's lack of true title was a problem.

It had been Sir Leon that presented the issue to Arthur and to the council that morning. Every year, in the fall, the king made a tour of several nobles of his court. What had started as a way to sure up his borders, twenty years later, turned into a sort of ambassadorial visit. Now its purpose was to strengthen his alliances with men loyal to Camelot in heart, but far from Camelot in distance.

His father's advisor Camlan said, "We cannot send Arthur without the nobles becoming suspicious of the king's strength and health. The King must be the one to visit. Anything less and we risk losing their alliance and the kingdom with them."

Gaius replied, "Sending the King in his current condition would certainly assure we would lose their alliance. He has suffered too much to deal with the stress of this trip. As his physician I cannot allow him to go."

Both Arthur and Gaius had been vague with the nobles about Uther's true ailment. They had let it known that he had been tortured under Morgana's rule. It wasn't a lie, he had been emotionally tortured. If the nobles thought his injuries were more extensive, it would give Uther more time to recover.

Sir Leon asked, "Can we skip this year?"

Camlan replied, "Not without the same consequence. King Uther uses this trip to show his nobles his power, and to assure them of his ability to defend them in their times of need."

Gauis said flatly, "The King cannot go."

Arther said exasperated, "Then, as I said before, I will go,"

Camlan said through gritted teeth, "My Lord, you cannot go without arousing suspicion to the health and strength of your father and therefore the kingdom."

"Do you have a solution to this problem Camlan?" Arthur asked.

"No, My Lord."

"Does anyone see a way around this problem?" Arthur asked the group at large.

The men at the table all either shook their heads or averted their eyes. Thunder rolled around outside the walls and if possible the room grew dimmer.

"How much more time do we have?" Arthur asked Leon.

"Winter is approaching," Leon said. "We will need to leave by the end of this week to ensure the trip is complete before the chance of snow."

"Well," Arthur said, pushing himself up to his feet. "We'll need to figure something out before Friday then. My Lords, please give this problem your full attention. We'll reconvene this council at four this afternoon. Please bring any of your ideas."

The rest of the table stood and bowing slightly, each of the men took their leave.

Merlin hung back, invisible to the crowd, except to Gaius, who beckoned him over. Checking Arthur, and finding that he was bickering again with Camlan, Merlin crossed over to Gaius.

Gauis pulled Merlin into a corner. Gauis looked older now than Merlin could ever remember. His duties to the king had increased ten fold, and his other duties as doctor to the people had not lessened. In fact, with winter approaching, more people were falling ill.

"Merlin," Gaius looked imploring at him. "Would you be able to round on the widow Martin and the Peterson boy for me this afternoon? I don't think I'll be able to get to them before this afternoon's session."

Merlin sighed. As busy as Gauis was, Merlin hadn't fared any better. Arthur had been busier and consequentially so was Merlin. Arthur hadn't had time to dispense with his usual duties around the town. Collecting taxes, dealing with issues arising between the people, and repairing buildings and roads had fallen temporary by the wayside. Until citizens came demanding audiences with the king.

Since then, Merlin had been arriving earlier than usual, and he helped Arthur slug through the worst of the issues at breakfast before he was dressed. Merlin read the letters to Arthur, wrote up his answers, and saw that they were delivered. Sometimes, he needed to do it personally with a verbal message from the prince. Other times, he had one of boys who worked in the kitchen help him.

Then Merlin did his usual chores and those stemming from the newly appointed knights, Sir Gwaine, Sir Lancelot, Sir Elyan, and Sir Percivial. They were knighted peasants, and therefore didn't have servants of their own. Arthur had graciously volunteered Merlin until they had quarters and means of their own. To be fair, it wasn't a lot more work. Being of Merlin's status, they were used to doing things on their own. But they couldn't be seen mending their own armor or buying their own food at market, which is where Merlin came in.

Something of his annoyance must of shown on Merlin's face because Gaius grabbed Merlin's forearm and said in a hushed whisper, "Merlin, please. I just don't have time to see everyone today."

Merlin bowed his head; guilt flooded him, "Of course Gaius. What do I need to do?"

Before Gaius was done telling Merlin all the woes of the widow Martin, Arthur drew in beside him. Merlin glanced over at the prince. Arthur looked thoughtfully between them, but didn't say anything, so Merlin returned his attention to Gauis.

After he was done, Gauis bowed to Arthur, "Did you need anything sire? I was about to visit your father."

"No, thank you Gaius," Arthur said. "Let me know if there is any change. I will visit him myself later."

"You'll be the first to know," Gaius assured, then turning to leave he said, "Thank you Merlin. Make sure you thoroughly rinse the boy's wound."

"I got it," Merlin said, with a smile.

With a head gesture, Arthur indicated that Merlin should follow him. Merlin did, falling in step next to him as they entered the hallway. They were winding their way through the castle to Arthur's rooms before Arthur spoke.

"I assume you were listening to the problem in the court."

"It'd be hard to miss, sire," Merlin said.

"I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't."

"There has to be a solution," Merlin said, opening the door to Arthur chamber and letting his master walk in before him.

"What?" Arthur said. "No one had any idea at all."

"Give them time. They've only had a few minutes to think about it."

Arthur nodded. Merlin grabbed a candle by the door and used to it light the rest of the candles in the room.

"Have we heard anything about the bandits on the Northern border," Arthur asked, sitting down heavily in the chair behind his desk.

"Not yet. Gwaine was in the troupe that went looking for them. He told me he'd send word as soon as he knew something."

"I didn't honestly agree to put Gwaine in charge of that group did I?"

"No," Merlin said with a smile. "Lord Evelyn is in charge of the group. But Gwaine said he'll send word back."

"Good," Arthur said, his mind clearly in another place. He sorted through the mess of papers on his desk. "Would you light a fire? This blasted rain makes everywhere seem cold. Then bring me some lunch."

"Yes, sire," Merlin said.

Merlin bent to arrange the wood in the fire, picked up the flint and tinder, and then with a flash of gold, and a hushed whisper, the fire started. Merlin added some more wood, until he was sure it would last until evening, when he could rebuild it before Arthur went to sleep.

Merlin left without a word to retrieve lunch for the prince. He returned with it twenty minutes later. His dark hair was messed up; his favorite blue shirt was twisted off to one side.

Arthur, still engrossed with the papers on his desk, said without looking up, "That took you long enough."

Merlin shook his head and said bitterly, "Yes, sire."

Arthur looked up, his expression puzzled, "What happened?"

"Nothing," Merlin said.

Merlin tried to ignore Arthur's intent stare.

"Were you in a fight?" Arthur asked.

"Maybe," Merlin said, setting the tray on the desk.

"With who?" Arthur asked.

"It's not important," Merlin said, picking up the kettle and pouring Arthur a cup of tea.

"I decide what's important. Your job is to answer my questions. Who did you fight with? And why?"

Merlin looked out the window. He still needed to round on Gaius patients and pick up Arthur's laundry. He needed to check on the status of a dispute between two millers that Arthur had settled earlier in the week. That was a job from yesterday. He really needed to clean the floor. The damp weather had made everything slightly muddy. He felt exhausted.

"I had a row with John Henry."

"John Henry? My father's servant?"

"Yes, him," Merlin said.

"What did you get on about?"

Merlin sighed, shaking his head. "It's totally idiotic."

"He can't be more of an idiot than you Merlin," Arthur said with a smirk.

"You'd be surprised," Merlin said with a smile. He leaned up against the wall, letting his head rest against the cold stone.

"So," Arthur prompted when the silence got long.

"As your father's personal servant, part of his duty is to manage the other servants. Meaning, he's in charge of all us in the castle. But lately, considering the state of things, not all the servants agree that he is in charge anymore."

"State of things?" Arthur asked.

"Well," Merlin said, as if trying to collect himself, "Some of the servants think that since you are acting as King or Regent now, that I am, or should be, the master of servants. John Henry is an ass to most people, worse then you truthfully. Two maids that work in the laundry were having a fight and the head of the laundry asked me to sort it out. I had no intention of going, but John Henry overheard her, and he wasn't happy about it. He dragged me from the room, and told me that he would taking my place as your servant."

"He said that?" Arthur asked. "He can't do that. That's not within his power."

"I told him that. Then he hit me."

"He hit you," Arthur said, his voice louder and incredulous.

"Look, Arthur, he's not worth the effort. He's afraid that I'm going to take his job. Not that I want it. With everything that I do for Gaius, and everything I do for you, I wouldn't have the time. Speaking of which…"

Arthur stood up in a rush, cutting Merlin off, "This is maddening. I can't act like King without people worrying about the state of the kingdom. But I have to act like the King or there will be no kingdom. I thought I could walk a fine line until my father recovers, but it isn't working, it's taking too long. People are getting nervous."

Merlin said quietly. "The people believe in you, Arthur. They know that you'll make a good King."

"Is it enough?"

"It has to be."

Arthur shook his head and said, "It still might not be enough."

"It has to be," Merlin said again. "What other choice is there?"

Arthur didn't answer. The silence in the room grew as oppressive as the gray clouds swirling outside the windows.

Merlin continued, "I promised Gaius I would check on a few of his patients. Do you mind if I went now?"

Arthur looked up at Merlin, and nodded slowly. "Go ahead, but be quick about it. I want you at the meeting at four."

Merlin nodded and let himself out of the room, feeling the tension collect around his neck. His head throbbed painfully. Long day indeed.