Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin

A/N: I know it's not much, but to make up for taking so long, this is my longest chapter yet. Maybe it can help get some of you through until the second part of the finale.


Merlin found himself in need of a long vacation. A very, very long vacation. Only a week had gone by since Nimueh had attacked him and he'd managed to: completely drain his finances, defeat a griffon, completely astonish Arthur, become an irritation of nearly all of Camelot's knights, nearly get sacked, visit a tavern, introduce two people to the oppression of Master Gilroy, increase Camelot's wall guard by one, and compose a defense against one of Kilgharrah's famous lectures.

Oh, and Gwen probably didn't have a crush on him anymore.

But that could be debated.

Merlin sighed and flopped himself onto his bed. The moonlight streamed through his window, projecting its white light onto his walls, making weird shapes out of the shadows. One of them looked like Freya, her hair flowing in the wind.

"I'll go mad," Merlin said aloud. For some reason, talking made him feel better.

"I'm not delegating enough responsibility," he continued. He watched as Freya shifted into a blob that may have resembled Arthur with a beard.

"Arthur, next time a disaster strikes, I vote you go and fix it," Merlin said with a tone of finality, staring at the blob.

Too bad Arthur had a broken leg.

O o O

One Week Earlier:

"Merlin."

"G'way," Merlin grumbled, rolling over in his bed.

"Merlin," the voice got louder.

Merlin grimaced and pinched open his eyes. "What is it?" he asked blearily.

"There's a messenger for you in my chambers," Gaius answered snappishly. The physician was still in his nightgown. "So hurry up and get dressed, otherwise I fear you won't get anything to eat for breakfast."

Curious, Merlin sat up in his bed and quickly exchanged his nightshirt for one of his semi-clean day shirts, then pulled on his boots and hurried down the stairs.

The messenger took in Merlin's mussy hair and disheveled clothes with a controlled lack of interest. So this was Arthur's manservant. He hadn't ever dealt with the man before, let alone talked with him, but he had certainly heard rumors.

"Yes?" Merlin asked, bouncing towards the table and the cold soup Gaius had just barely set out for him. The quickly pulled-together breakfast was made up of the leftovers from the night before.

"There have been multiple attacks on the outer villages," the man said, clicking his heels together as he relayed his message. "King Uther has ordered for Prince Arthur's presence in the throne room, and his saddles packed for a day's journey within the hour."

"Did they say who was attacking?" Merlin asked, his mouth full. If it hadn't been so dark, it would have been easier to see the mysterious steam that was now rising from the supposedly cold meal.

"No," the messenger responded.

Merlin tapped the side of his bowl in contemplation. "Hmm..."

"I'll have the prince up in a minute then," Merlin promised, gulping down another large spoonful of soggy vegetables. He was searching his brain for memories of village attacks, but nothing specific stood out – it seemed as though raiders, mad sorcerers, and wild animals had constantly been on the rampage back when Uther was in charge (which, he supposed, was technically now).

The messenger watched Merlin sceptically. The manservant certainly didn't look like a person who was rushing to get anywhere.

"I'm assuming your message has been delivered?" Gaius asked pointedly, rupturing the man's wandering attention.

"Erm... yes," he said, watching the old physician nervously. He was quite aware that he'd broken the man's slumber.

"Good-bye then," Gaius said, shooing the man towards the door. The man scuttled away, giving Gaius a slightly terrified look before vanishing.

"He was only doing his job," Merlin reminded, amused.

Gaius harrumphed. "Well I'm going back to bed," he sniffed, shuffling towards his personal space to the side of the room.

"Did you have to do any late night rounds?" Merlin asked, concerned.

"Lady Harriet finally decided to have her baby last night," Gaius said, shaking his head.

Merlin smiled. "Little Richard!" he declared.

Gaius frowned. "Merlin, how would you know such a thing?"

Merlin's froze, the spoon halfway into his mouth. He hadn't exactly meant to say that out loud. Richard was the shortest knight of the round table during Arthur's reign, but he was deadly with a set of throwing knives, and had a sense of humor that Merlin rather appreciated, much to Arthur's horror.

"So it was a boy!" Merlin improvised. "They were going to call the baby Lilleth if it were a girl."

"Ah," Gaius acknowledged tiredly, slowly lowering himself to the bed.

Merlin sighed in relief.

O o O

"Gaius!" Merlin exclaimed later that morning, sounding strangely ecstatic. "With Arthur gone, I suddenly find myself with the day off."

Gaius smiled slightly. "Well, if that's the case..."

"Don't get excited, I'm going back to bed," Merlin interrupted. "I still have a headache to sleep off."

"Surely you won't be sleeping all day," Gaius said questioningly.

"No," Merlin agreed. "But I'm not letting you stack any chores on me," he scolded. Gaius sighed in resignation. He really needed his leech tank cleaned.

Merlin smiled slightly, sending a subtle glance in the tank's direction and explained, "Collin and Erin will be here in four days, and I still have to figure out what I'm supposed to do about Arthur thinking I'm some sort of expert sword fighter."

Gaius frowned. "Who are Collin and Erin? And what is this about Arthur?" he questioned.

"Oh... I forgot to tell you," Merlin said, slapping his forehead. "Collin and Erin are the druids who volunteered to live in Camelot."

"And you're sure you have a place for them to stay?" Gaius asked.

"I've already arranged it with Gilroy," Merlin said confidently. Then he paused for a second. "Though... I might have mentioned that they were your great nephews."

Gaius narrowed his eyes. "Merlin, I don't have any siblings," he said with a frown. "And there are people in this castle who are aware of my family's circumstances."

"Sorted," Merlin said promptly. "They're the grandsons of your stepbrother, the brother you never really got to know because you had moved out by the time your father remarried."

Gaius pursed his lips in indignation.

Merlin held up his hands. "I know. I know. Your parents died within a year of each other. But I had to get them a job!" he reasoned.

Gaius shook his head. "So you went and used my family tree?"

Merlin bit his lip before cautiously saying, "Erm... yes."

Gaius looked at the ceiling. "I suppose there's nothing I can do now. They're coming in four days, you say?" he inquired.

Merlin nodded. "I was pleased to find them. They're reasonably powerful and bright enough to understand orders the first time, so I won't have to repeat any instructions," he informed.

"Although it would be good idea to repeat them anyways," Gaius said wisely.

"Probably," Merlin agreed with a smile, he made a move towards his door, but the physician stopped him.

"And you mentioned something about Arthur thinking you are an 'expert sword fighter?'" Gaius quoted, tipping his head expectantly.

Merlin tugged at his neckerchief. "Erm... ahem, yes. Yes I did," he agreed.

"Well?" Gaius prompted.

"I may have used time manipulation to defeat three bandits at once," Merlin said casually as possible. "...In front of Arthur," he added as an afterthought.

"And I suppose Arthur didn't notice when your eyes began to glow," Gaius said in disbelief at his ward's stupidity.

"Of course not!" Merlin replied, miffed. "I made it rain first."

"Oh, you made it rain first," Gaius repeated, giving Merlin a look.

"What? It worked, didn't it?" Merlin said.

"Yes, but now Arthur is going to think that you're a competent weapons user," Gaius said.

"I'm not that bad!" Merlin protested. Gaius raised his eyebrow. Merlin sighed and waved his hand. "Nevermind. Besides, my eyes are the least of my worries. What if I use magic like that again and turn out to be too good? When the bandits attacked, Arthur was too occupied to watch me closely. What if I try something like that again he realizes that I'm moving too fast for any normal man?"

Gaius lifted his head. "Then I suppose you're going to have to convince him that what he saw was an anomaly," he advised firmly.

Merlin shuffled his feet. "He's already challenged me to a match of free combat," he said with a sigh.

"What?"

"If I can't last longer than thirty seconds, he's going have Gilroy put me on table-clearing duty for a month," Merlin said with a tight smile.

Gaius smiled sympathetically. "Well, I'm sure you'll manage," he said with certainty, giving Merlin a look that made the warlock think the physician was glad he was going to have to face some sort of consequences for his rash actions.

"Are you kidding me?" Merlin asked, raising his eyebrows incredulously. "I've barely given Collin and Erin any training – and that has to include both magical and practical training. I want them to know Camelot inside-out."

"And you do?" Gaius asked skeptically. Merlin hadn't been here for more than three months.

"I know it inside-out and upside-down," Merlin emphasized. He really did know the castle upside-down. That wasn't an exaggeration. He'd spent a week walking on the ceilings – mostly for fun, but he'd also managed to put up some nice protective wards in the process. Arthur had gotten a crick in his neck from having to shout up at him every time he wanted to talk.

"Since when have you had time to explore the castle?" Gaius asked.

"Just being a servant helps with that," Merlin said. Gaius may have been the court physician, but he'd never had to carry a tray through a crowded hallway. He'd never been imbued with the desire to search for a deserted corridor where the risk of spilling all of your master's food was considerably less. Spills required backtracking to the kitchen and meant a scolding (and possibly extra chores) for being late.

"Sounds as though you'll have to start budgeting your time," Gaius warned.

"I do budget my time," Merlin defended.

"And spending an hour turning your walls different colors constitutes as...?"

"It's rejuvenating," Merlin retorted.

"Ah," Gaius said with a smile.

"Considering all the stress I'm under, I need some rejuvenating activities," Merlin said. "Do you realize that I'm going to have to set up my rescue system in about five other areas?"

Gaius narrowed his eyes. "No. You failed to mention that particular detail," Gaius said tiredly.

Merlin paused, realizing that Gaius really hadn't been privileged to hear any of Merlin's plans for Camelot. A sliver of guilt tugged at his chest. "Sorry, I'll try to keep you more updated from now on," Merlin apologized.

"It might save an old man's heart," Gaius said with a sigh.

Merlin shrugged sheepishly. "I'll tell you over supper," he vowed.

"I'd hope so," Gaius said. "Now, shoo! Off to bed before you fall over."

Merlin stopped swaying on his feet and smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Gaius. Good night!"

Gaius snorted. "And a good morning to you too!"

O o O

Merlin woke up around midday, feeling oddly heavy. It was as though gravity had taken over his body, forcing him to sink further into his mattress. The sensation was about as tranquillizing as a kitchen fire on a snowy, winter's night. He realized with his half-functioning brain that if he closed his eyes again, he probably wouldn't wake up again for another three hours.

Sighing as his consciousness produced a list of things he needed to accomplish before Arthur got back, Merlin grudgingly pushed away the scratchy, brown blanket, and hauled himself upwards.

As he dressed, he absentmindedly pried up the floorboards and pulled out the small bag of coins that comprised of his life savings.

Maybe he was still slightly out of it, but the warlock held the small deerskin pouch in front of his face, staring in alarm at the dismal weight of the coins tugging against his hands. He knew for a fact there weren't any gold pieces, but he was more worried about his realization that he'd run out of silver as well. This was the first time since getting sent to the past that Merlin fully appreciated how poor he'd once been. How poor he was at the moment.

He'd been planning to go to the market today (he needed supplies for some of the communication charms he was going to make) but he realized with a feeling similar to being punched in the gut that he might not be able to afford everything.

As court sorcerer and as the king's best friend, he'd had a near limitless amount of resources at his disposal. A dozen warhorses? Done. (Not that he could remember ever needing a dozen horses at once, but if he ever did...) Now it was dawning on him just how comfortable he'd grown with being able to traipse through Camelot and purchase everything he needed without a second thought. When had scrimping and saving become a necessity of the past? When had he lost the habit his mother had drilled into him since he was little?

Between the amulet pieces, the new shirt, and the food he bought for his picnics with Gwen, Merlin realized that his savings had diminished to a disturbing low point.

With a sigh, he tied the skimpy bag to his make-shift belt and shoved on his boots, determined to make the best of it.

O o O

Passing the stables on his certified shortcut to the lower town, Merlin rounded a corner and stopped humming almost immediately. The scene that greeted him was a familiar one, but not one that he appreciated.

"C'mon, you little worm!" Sir Borin shouted at his squire. "Move faster."

Merlin felt blood rush to his ears as he watched. He forced himself to count backwards from ten, slowly, and pushed the bout of annoyance back into the corners of his mind. He could not afford to lose his temper.

Sir Borin raised his throwing knife. Merlin winced as he released it, already knowing that the knife was barely going to make it. It landed on the rim of the target with a dull thud.

Borin and the other knights around him crowed in adulation.

Merlin clenched his teeth. These were the newest batch of knights – the ones that had been hanging out with Arthur when he first met Merlin. Over time, most of these men would gain a sense of honor and maturity, but it obviously wasn't today.

He supposed he couldn't blame them entirely. Their role-model, Prince Arthur, had shown them this trick. They had no reason to not copy it for their own purposes.

Still, they should know better, Merlin decided lividly when Wayne let out a small squeal as the knife missed the target and brushed past the teenager's ear.

"He sounds like a little piggy!" Sir Tanimir cried delightedly. Some of the other knights made pig noises.

Merlin would have rolled his eyes if the situation weren't so serious. At this rate, they could seriously injure the young teen.

"C'mon! Zig-zag, boy!" Borin ordered harshly, lifting another knife.

Wayne bit his lip as he tried to pick up the pace.

"You're doing it wrong," a familiar voice called out.

Borin almost lowered his knife as everyone turned their heads in the direction of the interruption.

It was Arthur's manservant, the cocky, buffoon fellow. The one who thought he was so great just because he's been honored with such a high position in the royal household. Until now, they'd left him alone because he'd been given the position by the king himself. But if he placed himself in their hands... Borin smirked in anticipation.

The lanky servant was strutting into the mini arena they'd formed. There was an easy expression on his face, but if they had caught a look at his eyes, they might have seen the black thunder behind them.

"You're doing it wrong," he repeated. But to their surprise, they found he was talking to Wayne, not them.

Merlin took the shield from the startled teenager, and gestured for the boy to go stand on the outskirts. The other knights cocked their heads and shifted their feet warily. What was going on?

Merlin turned to face them, his lips still upturned in a slight smile. He met Borin's eyes and the man froze for a second, his instincts screaming at him to run. But after a nervous split-second, the knight scowled and shook off the ridiculous feeling. This was Merlin. The servant who tripped over everything in sight. The man who'd made a fool out of their prince and got away with it. The idiot who'd offered himself to them as a plaything. The man who was going to pay.

Sir Borin raised his knife tauntingly. "Come to play, little man?" he asked.

Merlin didn't bother to point out that he was actually taller than Borin and instead lifted the wooden target. "I'm not playing."

Borin growled.

The other knights, and the lone squire on the side, looked between the two men warily. Merlin was Arthur's manservant. Technically, the prince should be the one divvying out Merlin's punishments. It was hard to guess how Arthur would react to another knight tormenting the servant.

Who knows, some of them thought. Maybe Arthur would encourage it.

"Run, then!" Borin ordered menacingly.

The first thunk landed close to the center of the board. Borin whooped enthusiastically. The other knights couldn't help but join in. Merlin ran to the right.

Thunk.

The knife hit the board hilt-first, causing it to drop uselessly to the ground.

Disgruntled, Borin threw another knife. This time it hit the board.

The young knight cheered for himself, the other knights whooping somewhat less enthusiastically than they had before. He'd only hit the outer ring again. For some reason, when it was Merlin running the target, such a feat wasn't as impressive.

Maybe it was because when Arthur and Merlin did this exercise, Arthur always hit dead center.

"Faster!" Borin yelled, frustrated by the lack of support.

Merlin complied.

Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

The young knight hit the board in fast succession, one knife after another. Borin smiled in appreciation as the former adulation came back with each strike. His friends were hooting and pounding him on the back.

A grin plastered on his face, and a wicked gleam in his eye, Borin raised his knife, shouting, "Keeping running, bean pole!" and released. As soon as he did so, every knight stiffened in horror, including Borin, who's eyes widened as he watched the path of the spinning knife.

All of them had watched and done enough knife-throwing themselves to know that Borin had just made a fatal mistake. The path it led to was unmistakable. And by the look in Merlin's eyes, he knew it too.

It was fruitless to hope that the servant would have the reflexes to move the shield.

Merlin was good as dead.

Borin was horrified.

The knife seemed to whirl in slow motion as it neared the accidental target.

Borin's mouth opened in a yell.

Merlin eyed the man and almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Then he had to do his best not to laugh at their expressions as he plucked the knife out of the air, grasping the hilt just two inches in front of his eyes.

Everyone stared. Wayne gulped with the realization that that could have been him. And there was no way that he would've been able to do what Merlin had just done.

Slowly, Merlin set down the shield, which now resembled a large porcupine, and placed the offending knife on top of it.

"Arthur only lets servants run around with the target because he knows he isn't going to miss," Merlin informed the group. His voice wasn't kind, but it wasn't harsh either. He didn't want Borin to be completely humiliated (poor Wayne would pay if Merlin did something like that).

Sir Borin clenched his jaw..

"You are very good, though, all things considering," Merlin told him honestly. "Much better than me anyways."

The knights were still too shocked to reply

"You caught the knife," Wayne finally burst out, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Merlin shrugged. "Survival instincts, I suppose," he said. Mostly he was just glad that the sun's reflection easily made up for the flash of gold that filled his eyes.

Wayne looked at him disbelievingly.

"Got to dash," Merlin told them. "Errands to run before his highness returns." Then, with a nod more than a bow, the warlock dismissed himself, turned on his heels, and jogged around the stable corners. One of the knights may have called after him, but he'd pretended to be too far away to hear.

Merlin easily found the side exit that would lead him straight to his goal, feeling slightly put out. That incident was very likely going to come back to bite him in the rear. Noblemen rarely let a humiliation go unpunished.

O o O

"Gwen!" Merlin called, running to catch up with the dark-skinned girl before she entered her house. He'd spent the last three hours haggling with tradesmen, an occupation he rather despised. Some real conversation would be a welcome break.

Gwen turned and smiled at him in greeting. Then her expression faltered.

Merlin realized with a jolt that this was their first time meeting since he'd had to explain his magic to her.

"How are you?" he asked, concerned, approaching her.

"I'm all right," she said, unconvincingly.

"Really?" he asked. "I'm surprised you aren't complaining about nightmares."

He said it in jest, but his eyes widened when she paled slightly.

"Nightmares, Gwen?" he asked, stepping closer so he could examine her face, hidden by the shadows of her thatched roof.

Gwen bit her lip, obviously embarrassed. "I'm sure it was only a one time thing," she said, as though she were trying to reassure herself.

"I hope so," Merlin said honestly. "Was it about yesterday?"

Gwen nodded stiffly, nervously eying the crowd of people moving past them.

"What about?" Merlin asked, looking Gwen in the eye. He ignored the crowd. He'd learned long ago that crowds were some of the safest places for secret-sharing. (They were usually safe, he corrected himself, an unwelcome memory reminding him of exceptions.)

Gwen nibbled on her bottom lip.

"I'm not going to be offended," Merlin promised her. "Magic isn't-"

"Not here," Gwen pleaded desperately, grabbing his arm and dragging him though the door.

When she'd reassured herself by shutting out the crowd, Gwen turned to face him and scolded, "You can't do that in the market!"

"All right, all right," Merlin agreed quickly, before she could lecture him.

Gwen sighed in exasperation.

Merlin leaned against the door. "So, now that we're inside... what was your dream about?"

Gwen fidgeted, looking uncomfortable.

"Was it about magic?" Merlin asked.

Gwen's embarrassed reaction was the only confirmation he needed.

"Like I said, I won't be offended over something like that," Merlin promised. "Even I have nightmares about magic sometimes."

"Really?" She seemed relieved. Merlin nodded down at her, and didn't bother to tell her that most of his nightmares were of himself.

"Just tell me if they continue," Merlin said, placing a hand on her shoulder to reiterate his order. "The Isle of the Blessed is infused with magic – it's very likely that bits of unraveled spells have latched onto you."

Guinevere widened her eyes. "Could it be... doing something to me?" she asked.

"No," Merlin said, taking his hand off her shoulder. "Most of them probably drifted off on their own. But just in case..."

"I'll tell you," she immediately promised.

"Good," he said firmly. "So besides that, how has your day been so far?"

"Normal," she answered with quirked lips.

Merlin chuckled.

"It's strange," she said. "It makes it seem as though yesterday never really happened."

"I know the feeling," Merlin said wryly, remembering all the times in the early days when he'd have to sneak around all night battling monsters, then get back and pretend as though he hadn't been doing anything more exciting than washing Arthur's socks.

"And you have the day off today," Gwen said, smiling at him.

"I spent most of it sleeping," Merlin said.

"I'm not surprised, after what you went through," Gwen said.

"Yes, it was an unpleasant experience," Merlin agreed, reminiscing.

"But you're better now, aren't you?" Gwen questioned. She narrowed his eyes when he failed to agree with her. "Aren't you?"

"I still have a slight headache," Merlin said, smiling sheepishly.

"Is it really just a 'slight headache?'" she badgered, folding her arms.

"Yes, really," he assured her with an eye roll.

"I hope so," Gwen said, clicking her tongue.

"What have you got left to do?" Merlin asked, changing the subject.

"Just some mending," she said, pointing to a pile of clothes on her bed. "Father and I's – not milady's. Compared to Arthur, Morgana hardly gives me any chores at all."

Merlin smiled. "Well, Morgana doesn't have any armor to clean, and she probably doesn't track in mud all over the floors or fling her clothes in every which direction. So I'd have to say, that yes, shes' probably easier," he agreed.

Gwen laughed.

"Then again..." he added slyly, snapping his fingers, "I don't even really have to be there to do my chores."

Gwen raised her eyebrows. Merlin grinned and nodded in the direction of her bed. Gwen whirled around and gasped, covering her mouth before she could manage a full-on shriek.

Merlin bit his lip, attempting to hold in a laugh. Her dresses were currently bobbing through the air, mending themselves. The glint of the needle was oddly hypnotic, disappearing and reappearing into the clothe, a trail of blue tread following behind it.

"Merlin!" Gwen finally breathed out, smacking his arm.

"Cheating, I know," he said, folding his arms, watching his handiwork.

"Put it down," she scolded in a low voice. "What if my father walked in?"

"But it's almost done!" Merlin pouted, gesturing at the shuddering clothes.

"I don't care," she hissed, smacking him again. "Make them stop."

Merlin sighed. "All right then," he said regretfully. His eyes flashed and the clothes fell lifelessly to the bed.

Gwen sagged in obvious relief.

Merlin noticed.

"Too soon?" he asked in a small voice.

Gwen bit her lip. "Maybe a little," she admitted quietly.

"But... do you believe me when I say that magic isn't evil?" Merlin asked. He hoped the crack in his voice hadn't made him sound desperate. He wasn't.

Gwen nodded slowly, smiling at him. "You have a good heart, Merlin," she said. "I don't think that you would ever use something that was evil."

Merlin smiled appreciatively, ignoring the prods of guilty memories threatening to prosecute him.

"But it will take me some time to get used to it," Gwen shifted uncomfortably.

Merlin nodded. "Don't worry about it," he told her. "I know many people... many people who wouldn't have so accepting," he said.

Gwen's heart reached out to her wistful friend. "Oh, Merlin," she consoled.

Merlin waved away her concern. "I'm used to it by now," he said. Merlin took a step back, moving towards the exit. "So, you'll tell me if you have anymore nightmares, and I guess... just... have a great day."

"Are you in a hurry to be somewhere?" Gwen asked, frowning, watching him back away from her.

Merlin paused. He lowered the hand that had been reaching out to grab the door handle.

"Not really..." he said slowly.

Gwen looked at the floor, embarrassed. "I didn't mean to stop you," she said hurriedly. "I'm just making sure you're not leaving because of me."

"What?" Merlin asked, confused.

"I mean, I got kind of snippy about the mending so..." she trailed off, biting her lip.

"What? No!" he exclaimed. "I just thought we were done talking, is all. Do you have anything else you want to-"

"Oh, no!" she said, waving her hands in denial. "I'm fine. You can go."

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yes, positive," she assured him.

Merlin gave her a quirky smile before opening the door. "Okay, then. See you later?"

"Of course," Gwen said, waving. "Good-bye!"

She saw Merlin send her a small wave back before she closed the door with a profound sense of relief.

Well that was awkward, they thought at the same time.

Now back in her comfort zone, Gwen leaned her head against the cool wood, glad it had been too dark for Merlin to see her flushed cheeks.

Standing in front of her small house, Merlin grimaced. He'd hoped that Gwen had stopped fancying him after the magic reveal. Apparently not.

O o O

"You're back earlier than I expected," Gaius commented as Merlin cleared the table.

"Turns out I don't have much money left," Merlin said matter-of-factly, moving a tray of sample tinctures.

Gaius raised his eyebrows. "What exactly have you been spending it all on?" he asked incredulously. "The price of your meals are taken from your wages and you don't have to pay for a room."

"I've gone on too many picnics," Merlin said dully.

Gaius snorted. "You know, that might be one of the reasons Gwen fancies you, Merlin. Most men don't spend that much on a girl, even one they like," he informed.

"Gwen helps pay for them too," Merlin countered, pulling hard-earned materials out of his satchel. "Besides, it wasn't all picnics."

Gaius walked over to the table, his forehead crinkling as he saw what Merlin was setting out.

"What's all this?" Gaius asked.

Merlin put down another leather strip. "I'm going to be doing some leather working," he explained.

"Whatever for?" Gaius asked, moving around the table so he could stand next to Merlin.

"Short-range communication tools," Merlin said. The bench's legs screeched against the floor as it was pulled out in order to accommodate his long legs. "I'm making belts for Collin, Erin, and I. They aren't skilled enough mind-speak with anyone they aren't looking at, so I'm going to amplify their powers so we can communicate from anywhere in the castle. I was going to make more, just in case, but my funds have given out on me, I'm afraid."

Gaius frowned, looking up and down the table, now littered with needles, oddly-shaped knives, awls, and several strips of thick leather.

"And are you going to be doing this on my supper table, Merlin?" Gaius asked, raising an eyebrow.

Merlin paused, trying to interpret the physician's tone. "Erm... yes?" he said, sounding unsure.

"What if someone walks in?" Gaius asked incredulously.

"They'll wonder at my amazing talents," Merlin said decidedly. Gaius gave him a look. "Please," Merlin snorted, "it's not like they're going to catch me using magic. Most of this is grunt work anyways."

"I hope so," Gaius said honestly.

Merlin smiled slightly and grabbed a small tool, pulling a strip of leather so he could work with it. This was going to be real leather working, but with shortcuts. Magic could make up for any heat he needed.

"Why do you need a belt?" Gaius asked curiously. He was fairly certain that Merlin would have no trouble with mind communication, if his blunt show of magical talent was anything to go by.

"Because the other belts will be focused on this one," Merlin said, tapping the leather. "It wouldn't do for everyone with magic to be able to hear our conversations."

"Ah," Gaius voiced his understanding.

Merlin smiled slightly as began marking the leather for cuts.

"Since we're both here," Gaius said finally, after a moment of contemplation. "Why don't you tell me what exactly you're planning?"

"Sounds good," Merlin agreed. He gestured for Gaius to take a seat, then sent a fleeting glance at the door, his eyes lighting on fire.

"What did you just do?" Gaius asked curiously.

"Something to warn me if anyone get's close," Merlin said.

Gaius positioned himself across from Merlin, watching with interest as his ward pulled and prodded at the leather.

"Have you worked with leather before?" Gaius asked.

"Hm? Oh, yes. I suppose I've done enough to be familiar with it," Merlin commented absently. "Leather may not be able to hold focus spells for longer than a year, but I still like using it."

"I see," Gaius trailed off suspiciously. Hunith had never mentioned Merlin's penchant for leather working.

"Oh, Gaius... may I borrow your whetstone?" Merlin asked, looking up from his work.

"It's in the cupboard," Gaius sighed, gesturing.

Without a pause, the cupboard doors flew open and the small stone flew out, dipped itself in a pitcher of water on the way over, and plopped itself in front of Merlin.

Gaius sighed again, and could only watch in mild disapproval as one of the knives slowly rose into the air and began sharpening itself.

"Merlin..." he trailed off warningly.

"I've put a trip ward in the hallway, Gaius," the warlock reminded, the scraping sound of metal against stone accompanying his voice.

Gaius frowned, but couldn't dispute Merlin's logic.

"So Merlin, this elusive scheme I keep hearing about..." Gaius prompted.

Merlin carefully punched a hole in the material. When he was done, he looked up. "Right. Where should I start?"

"It's your plan, Merlin," Gaius pointed out.

Merlin pursed his lips as he thought through his entire scheme. "Say that someone is arrested for sorcery," he began slowly. "Uther's going to have them executed, and there's absolutely no way to have them released."

Gaius could recall very few occasions where the condemned had ever been discharged – not after they'd been accused of magic.

"Sometime at night, Collin and Erin will go down to the dungeons, put the guards to sleep, then release the prisoner."

"I don't particularly like where this is going," Gaius commented with a frown.

Merlin grinned. "It wouldn't be a proper plan if you weren't skeptical of it," he observed. Gaius raised his eyebrows. "So, after the prisoners been released, they'll be offered several choices. Either they can lend their services to Lord Reyard or they can live with the druids. If they want to fend for themselves, we won't stop them, other than make sure that they'll never show their face in Camelot again."

"Lord Reynard is offering to take in even more people?" Gaius asked incredulously. "The man just lost miles of farmland – he already has enough starving people on his hands."

"Erm... I may have offered some magical help where his harvests are concerned," Merlin explained, smiling weakly.

"Meddling with nature?" Gaius asked, frowning. "I hope you aren't think of manipulating the weather to-"

"No!" Merlin refuted immediately. "No. No. No. The thunderstorms are bad enough. I've probably created miniature droughts on the continent somewhere."

"Then what will you be doing?" Gaius asked curiously, glad that his ward understood the consequences of upsetting the natural flow of weather patterns.

"Increasing the mineral content of the soil," Merlin said, his voice raised excitedly. "Did you know that there are specific, tiny particles in rocks and decomposing nature that help plants grow? That's why manure works so well. All you have to do is find exactly the right particles and incorporate them into your crop soil. You're practically feeding the plants. They eat, Gaius! Just through their roots instead! Did you know that they take water, sunlight, and air particles and make sugar out of them? That's what we're eating when we pick them! Isn't that brilliant? I heard that humans can synthesize particles too, sort of, in a different way, but we don't really use sunlight all that well... Oh! And apparently, sorcerers – at least the powerful ones – can do the same thing with magic. That's why I don't need to eat as much as most people, even if having an empty stomach is ridiculously uncomfortable."

Gaius stared at his ward in awe. What was the lad babbling about now? Particles? Sugar? Eating the sun?

Merlin stared into the distance for a moment, reveling in the wonders of the earth. He'd been shown that this world could be split into even tinier worlds, worlds that kept getting smaller and smaller until they couldn't even be seen with magic. And it worked together so perfectly. Nature really was brilliant.

Gaius coughed and Merlin was jolted out of his reverie.

"Oh, and I'm giving him the layouts for a water wheel too."

Gaius looked at him blankly.

"It's for grinding wheat," Merlin clarified. Sometimes the best way to make progress was to travel. Some of the buildings he'd toured on the continent made Camelot's castle look like a stone hovel. It certainly wouldn't hurt to improve things around here by borrowing a few ideas.

"Where have you acquired all of this information?" Gaius asked.

"I learned about fertilizers from traders from Francia," Merlin immediately answered. More specifically, they had been Francian sorcerers who had traveled for months simply for the privilege of speaking to Emrys, but there was no need to tell Gaius that.

"From Francia," Gauis repeated skeptically.

Merlin shrugged. "They had an odd accent, but they spoke British well enough."

"What were they doing in Essetir?" Gaius asked incredulously.

"Sightseeing," Merlin answered honestly enough, if observing people counted.

Gaius didn't want to think of Merlin as a liar, but his stories were becoming ridiculous. No Francian had any reason whatsoever to come as far north as Britain, and had even less reasons to stop in a village as small as Ealdor.

"But we're digressing from the point," Merlin said, remembering that he was supposed to be focusing on making belts. As he looked down, he barely missed the saddened expression his guardian was sending him. "After we explain the situation to the condemned, and discover whether they have any family that will want to come with them, we'll cut off a lock of their hair. If they're one of those people who don't actually have magic, then we'll get them straight to Lyonel and Eythesia, who will be waiting just outside of Camelot to take them to the druid camp until proper traveling arrangements can be made.

"And if they don't have magic, either Collin or Erin will stay behind put on an amulet in their place... have I shown those to you yet?" Merlin asked suddenly. When Gauis sighed he said, "Oh, remind me to, won't you? They will not only disguise the wearer as prisoner, but it will protect them from most physical harm, and it will carry out the illusion of whatever death Uther sentences."

"Even the pyre?" Gaius asked, his eyes widening.

Merlin flinched. "Even the pyre," he said quietly. When he'd demonstrated it for Iseldir, the druid leader had almost forbidden the project because of its inherently violent properties. Collin and Erin had definitely been a little green around the gills, almost to the point of throwing up.

"It makes smoke screen so it's harder to tell it's not actually happening," Merlin tried to remain cheerful.

"But it still looks as though someone is burning," Gaius concluded flatly.

Merlin sighed. "Yes," he conceded. "It is certainly realistic enough." And unfortunately, most of the realism was drawn from Merlin's own, harrowing memories.

"But what will happen when it's time to remove the body?" Gaius asked. "Or... whatever's left of a body?"

"They'll think they're carrying a body," Merlin answered, smiling grimly. "And they'll also feel oddly compelled to leave it alone instead of burying it."

What gruesome business.

"Will the amulet-wearer have to act out the dying?" the physician asked.

"Avalon, no!" Merlin exclaimed. "I doubt anyone would be able to portray it realistically enough."

Gaius sighed in relief.

"And after all that," Merlin said, "Uther will have no reason to send his knights out on a witch-hunt. As far as the king is concerned, that person is dead."

Gaius sat back, watching his ward go back to the once-again forgotten leather work.

"There are too many ways for this to go wrong," Gaius said finally.

"There's no such thing as a plan that's fool-proof," Merlin answered from experience.

Gaius was not reassured. "The best-laid plans are simple, not full of complicated holes," the physician scolded.

"It's for my personal entertainment, then," Merlin said with an grim smile. "I'm beating Uther at his own game."

Gaius frowned at the boy's immaturity. "Merlin, these druids are risking their lives for you," he said emphatically. "You cannot take it lightly."

"They know the risks," Merlin said stiffly.

"But what if they get caught?" Gaius asked. "Their entire communities could be wiped out."

"If it comes to that, I'll reveal myself to Uther," Merlin said solemnly.

"Merlin!" Gaius exclaimed.

"Working for Arthur is more a convenient hobby – yes, I know I complain about it all the time – and if I have to abandon it to protect the people under my care, then I will do so," Merlin said.

"But Merlin-"

"I mean what I said. And if Uther declares war on me, I'll set the goblin on him, but this time I'll make sure he grows grass for hair," Merlin said with complete seriousness.

"Goblins?" Gaius inquired.

"With a daisy," Merlin added emphatically. "And no hats."

"Are you talking about the king?" Gaius asked incredulously.

"Yes, I am," Merlin said. "If he wants to humiliate himself by challenging me, then he can be my guest."

Gaius frowned. "I understand that you don't have a great love for Uther," he said, ignoring Merlin's juvenile snort, "but playing childish pranks on the man will only make him more angry. You'd be setting hell's fury against you."

Merlin raised his eyebrows. "What? He'll throw a few knights at me?" he scoffed. "Accuse me to death?"

Gaius's forehead crinkled as he solemnly considered the boy in front of him. "He just may," he reminded, his eyes glinting. "You may be powerful, but not even you can withstand the entire might of Camelot if it is combined against you. When Uther realizes that you're untouchable, he will look for the people you care about, people who are much more vulnerable than you are. You can't be in more than one place at a time. What of your mother?"

Merlin sighed. "Gaius..." he said quietly, "How powerful do you think I am?"

Gaius closed his eyes briefly.

"Merlin, you are the most powerful warlock this world has ever known," the tired physician finally answered. "Or at least you will be."

Merlin smiled wistfully.

"," the warlock said in the quietest voice he could manage. Gaius probably missed the small admonition.

Then he continued, sounding much more upbeat, "Then again, all of this is purely hypothetical."

Gaius sighed. "Hypothetical, indeed."

O o O

Gaius spent the rest of the evening nit-picking at Merlin's plan, while the warlock tried to pacify the physician with logical responses. Eventually Gaius had to admit that Merlin had convincingly thought through every likely (and even unlikely) scenario. The old man was unwittingly impressed by Merlin's cleverness, but the warlock didn't feel as though he deserved any praise. The rescue procedure wasn't a fancy idea that had popped into his head one day. It was the compilation of the last eighteen years of his life. Ever since magic had been legalized, Merlin spent his darkest nights beating himself up over some of the decisions he'd made as Arthur's manservant. Hindsight was a dangerous tool, and it was often Merlin's greatest tormentor.

One of his biggest mistakes, he feared, was his passivity in situations where he could have made a positive difference if he'd gotten involved. Morgana for instance; what if he'd offered the comfort she deserved when she was scared and alone? What of all the innocent victims of Uther's fire? Sure, he'd rescued Mordred, but why hadn't he tried to save Mordred's father? How much anguish could he have spared himself with that simple act alone?

It was in the hours where he scoured his memories that he reviewed the choices he should have made – the magic he should have used. Admittedly, he wouldn't have had the knowledge required for most of the schemes he thought out, but he did now, and he fully intended to put that knowledge to good use.

Maybe that's why it was taking him so long to get home.

Maybe he was trying to give himself a second chance.

At some point during his conversation with Gaius, two injured squires were tossed into the physician's chambers for injuries sustained during a brawl. Realizing that it was probably going to take Gaius a while to get them sorted out, Merlin retreated into the sanctuary of his room.

The indulged solitude didn't last for more than an hour.

"Arthur's here, Gaius! Got to dash!" Merlin yelled as he flung himself out of his room.

Gaius's heart nearly jumped out of his chest.

"Merlin! Did finish the belts?" Gaius shouted after the precipitate youth.

"Only one!" Merlin called back. "But the other'll probably be done before I go to sleep!"

Gaius frowned and was about to ask just him whether he wanted something to eat, but the pounding footsteps of Merlin's boots were already receding into the distance.

O o O

"Arthur!" Merlin exclaimed as he entered the prince's room.

"What took you so long?" the prince complained, pulling out a chair so he could sit down. "I'm famished!"

"I had to put your horse away because Tyr is sick," Merlin explained, setting out Arthur's supper.

"Who?"

Merlin gave Arthur a look. "Your stable boy," he reminded incredulously. Considering the boy's unnecessary murder in the future, he felt even more obligated to make sure Arthur remembered his name. "Tyr Seward?"

"Oh, right," Arthur said absently.

"Anyways," Merlin said, shaking his head of Arthur's prattishness, "what's the story? I heard that it was... some sort of animal attacking the villages?"

Arthur nodded, using a knife to cut apart the roast. "A giant, winged beast with..." he seemed to struggle with the idea of the next description, "...with the body of a lion is how the villagers kept describing it," he related. "A monstrous creature. It took no livestock – only people."

"A griffon," Merlin identified immediately, flashbacks of a certain knight running through his head. Lancelot was alive.

"A what?" Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose.

"A magical creature that usually lives in the crags at the feet of the mountains," Merlin said absently, still thinking about Lancelot. Did that mean the man was making his way to Camelot already? "They usually feed on fish and and large mammals, but every once in a while, some idiotic hunter will stumble into a nest and the griffon will feel it has no choice but to defend what's rightfully his... Let's just say the hunter usually ends up as a stack of bones in the corner of the nest somewhere."

Arthur blinked. "It must have decided that humans are appetizing," he concluded smartly.

"I hear that we do have an addictive taste," Merlin agreed.

Arthur gave Merlin a disgusted look.

"Don't worry, sire, it will probably take one look at you and fly off to find something that won't make it sick to its stomach," Merlin said nobly.

"And it will use you as a toothpick," Arthur retorted.

"Ha, ha," Merlin laughed dryly.

"So, Merlin," Arthur said, taking a bite of his meal. "Are you ready to face me tomorrow?" he asked.

"Not that I have a choice," Merlin said, grimacing.

"No, you do not," Arthur agreed cheerfully.

"Need anything else?" Merlin asked.

Arthur thought a moment. "Besides my laundry done, bath drawn, floors scrubbed, and reports organized?"

"That last one's supposed to be your job," Merlin said dully, already planning to leave it alone.

"Well, no one else will ever have to know, will they?" Arthur asked with a smile.

Merlin rolled his eyes. "So besides that miniscule list of chores, anything else?" he asked.

"Just to prepare my armor for tomorrow. I'm testing Grimmond for knighthood in the morning," Arthur said, a sigh in the undertone of his voice.

"Grimmond?" Merlin asked with bemusement. "But even I can last longer against you than he can."

"You'd better hope so," Arthur said.

Merlin fiddled with the end of his neckerchief, a bemoaned expression on his face as he bowed and exited the room.

O o O

"Gaius!" Merlin yelled as he pushed open the physician's door.

"Calm down, Merlin," Gaius ordered, wincing as the warlock's voice echoed through the stone room. He'd already had enough shouting grace his chamber that day.

"I'm going to be gone all night," Merlin continued, ignoring the old man's stipulations.

Gaius raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Because the creature that attacked Greenswood? It was a griffon," Merlin informed as he scoped the room for a quick meal.

"A griffon?" Gaius questioned, automatically pulling out the bowl of porridge he'd saved for his ward.

Merlin sighed in relief at the sight of the food.

"Head of an eagle, body of a lion?" Merlin hinted. No recognition shown in Gaius's eyes. "Oh, well, I'm want to leave before it reaches Willowdale. From what I heard in the stables, half of Greenswood was burned to the ground because the farmers tried to ward it off with fire."

Gaius handed Merlin a spoon. "How do you know it's headed towards Willowdale?"

"They say it was aiming south," Merlin replied, nodding his gratitude for the utensil. "Willowdale's next in line."

Gaius nodded slowly.

"Must you leave tonight, though?" Gaius asked. "The sun will be down in less than an hour. I'm afraid you won't do anyone much good in the dark."

Merlin quirked a smile. "Right... the dark," he said in a slow voice. He let out a quick release of magic and his porridge began to steam.

Gaius clucked his tongue, but Merlin didn't know if it was at the unnecessary use of magic or because of Merlin's sarcastic tones. "Have you ever even had any experiences with griffons before?" the physician asked, quite rightfully.

Merlin shrugged. The honest answer wouldn't really check out with his mother.

"If this creature is indeed a creature of the old religion, then it will be very difficult for even you to kill," Gaius warned.

Merlin tilted his head. "Gaius, somehow I think your logic is a tad bit off," he noted teasingly.

Gaius shook his head. "You should wait until the morning," he insisted.

"Sorry, Gaius," Merlin said, scraping the bottom of his bowl, "but I'm not going to let innocent people die if I have a chance to stop it."

"And I don't want you to die doing something idiotic," Gaius said fiercely.

"Gaius, a griffon is about as threatening to me as a chicken – and somehow, I find chickens slightly more disturbing," Merlin said, making a face. He'd never had a favorable opinion of the brainless birds, knowing firsthand what it was like to have a headless chicken tearing after you as a three-year-old (it had probably been attracted to his magic), while he cried and wailed at it to stop following him.

Gaius looked skeptical. "You should wait until first light," he cautioned.

"I won't get back in time to wake Arthur," Merlin said, finishing off his supper. He stood up, giving the physician a slightly apologetic look. "If I want to get anything done, I need to leave now."

Gaius sighed.

"I thought you needed to finish the other belt?" the physician hinted.

Merlin smiled slightly at his guardian's persistence. "I do. But I doubt it will be needed right away," he said. "Bye, Gaius. I'll probably be back before sunrise."

Gaius pressed his lips together. Well, he had tried.

O o O

Merlin stood regretfully over the dead body of the griffon. Splayed across the forest floor like it was, the usually magnificent creature looked bedraggled and filthy – even worse was the smell emanating from the carcass.

Feeling slightly nauseous, Merlin stepped away from the tragic scene, his pale wizard lights trailing behind him. For obvious reasons, their dull light did nothing to brighten the situation like they usually did. In some ways, it only made the scene look more gruesome.

Even more dismaying was the sight to the east.

The sun was rising.

Needless to say, Merlin didn't even bother stopping to check in with Gaius before heading straight to the kitchens to grab Arthur's breakfast.

O o O

Arthur woke to the sound of a tray slamming against the table. He bolted upright, not entirely lucid, his dreams still interfering with reality. So the rose garden had finally decided to rebel, had it? He almost looked around for Morgana's battering ram.

Merlin's cheery "Well, hello, sire!" knocked him to full consciousness.

"Merlin," he said crossly, pulling back the covers.

"Breakfast! And hurry up with it," Merlin ordered. "I'm late today and you've got to be down at the training field in thirty minutes. You're in charge of warm-ups before Grimmond's testing, remember?"

Arthur blinked and glanced over towards the his windows, where a fair amount of sunlight was filtering through. No wonder he felt so refreshed.

"Did I miss anything?" he asked, his feet hitting the floor as he stood. Funny how he trusted Merlin to know these things.

Merlin looked up from his table setting and raised his eyebrows. "Anything important? No," he said. "Nothing important at all."

Arthur finished stretching, then rubbed his hands together, ready for breakfast.

Then he stopped.

"Merlin?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes?" Merlin asked innocently, buttering a roll.

"You've set two places," Arthur said, glancing at the two sets of dishes Merlin had set out on the either side of the table, the other laid out opposite of Arthur's spot. His eyes widened in horror when he the only solution he could think of entered his head. "Morgana isn't coming, is she?"

Merlin looked amused by the idea.

"Of course not," he answered.

"Then who's eating with me?" Arthur asked, a list of knights and nobles running through his head, accompanied by the awkward reminder that he wasn't even wearing a shirt.

Merlin plopped down into a chair. "I am," he answered, reaching for a roll.

Arthur stared.

Merlin rolled his eyes and gestured for Arthur to sit down, his mouth full of bread.

Arthur didn't move.

What?

Merlin swallowed, licked his lips and said, his voice in a drawl, "I was late. That means I practically had to run here, and didn't get to eat breakfast," he said matter-of-factly. "So while I was in the kitchen, it dawned on me that it would just be easier if we ate at the same time."

"But you're eating my food," Arthur spluttered, staring as a grape was popped into Merlin's mouth.

"I know," Merlin said, sounding delighted.

Arthur very nearly marched over there and pulled the grape out of Merlin's mouth with his own fingers. Then Merlin smiled at him, daring him to overreact.

Arthur balked. Then he huffed and silently plodded over to his own seat. There was no way he was going to let a mere servant get to him. No way. He gave Merlin another glance. The servant met his gaze and grinned, before throwing another grape into his mouth. He chewed slowly.

Arthur made a face then grabbed his own roll, one that Merlin had so neatly buttered, and began to eat in a brooding silence.

A silence that lasted for about three seconds.

"We should do this more often."

Arthur looked up from his plate and glared at Merlin, who was currently biting into a sausage, looking delighted.

"Absolutely not," Arthur said firmly, reached for his goblet.

Merlin laughed in response.

Arthur glared at his manservant. "I ought to sack you for pulling this. If Father were to walk in and see us like this..." he trailed off, grimacing at the thought.

"You can tell him you're teaching me basic table manners," Merlin answered with a full mouth.

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Arthur declared. "Although I can't deny it would be a good idea," he continued, watching the crumbs tumble out of Merlin's mouth with minor disgust.

"It's called multitasking, Arthur – eating and talking at the same time," Merlin said. "We're in a hurry. So throw out manners and chew faster."

The next few minutes were spent in silence: Arthur brooding over his meal and Merlin reveling in the richness of the food – something he found he'd missed about his life back home.

"We are never doing this again," Arthur growled, throwing down his napkin.

"Agreed," Merlin said, pushing away the plate he'd cleared of food. "It was much too awkward."

"I only let you today because I felt sorry for you," Arthur justified.

"Why?" Merlin asked, briskly handing Arthur his clothes.

"Because I'm going to beat you to pulp," Arthur reminded, tearing off his trousers to replace them with clean ones.

O o O

Over the course of the rest of the morning, Merlin found himself slowly deteriorating.

His body kept trying to shut down on him. The bobbing head, the fluttering eyelashes, the worse-than-usual stumbling: they were all frustrating side affects that he hadn't anticipated. Apparently his younger body didn't cope as well with sleep deprivation as his older self. Probably because he hadn't finished growing yet. Merlin knew for a fact that he was an inch shorter than his regular height.

"Are you sure you're all right, my boy?" Gaius asked, concerned. In all honesty, he hadn't gotten much sleep himself, being woken from dreams every other hour of Merlin being mauled by giant, flying creatures.

"Well enough," Merlin replied wearily.

"Have something to eat," Gaius prompted, moving towards the cupboards to retrieve whatever food he might have stored away.

Merlin pulled himself away from the door frame that had been supporting his weight. "I already ate," he said with a slight smile. "Besides, Arthur thinks I'm in the armory right now. I only stopped in to inform you that I'm alive."

"Well thank you for that much at least," Gaius said dryly, closing the cupboard doors.

"I'll be in later," Merlin said, before slipping through the door and closing it quietly behind him.

Merlin made it back in time for Arthur to finish up with morning warm-ups.

"Ready?" Merlin asked sympathetically as he handed Arthur a second sword. Grimmond was waiting – he seemed to be practicing his growls.

Arthur sighed dramatically. "I'm going to finish him off in five seconds," he lamented.

Merlin smirked. "And so ends the era of Camelot's formidable reputation. Isn't he the third to fail this month?" he asked.

Arthur grunted noncommittally. He looked annoyed, but Merlin knew the frustration was directed more towards the squires than anything else.

"How am I supposed to defend Camelot with rubbish like that?" Arthur complained after a moment.

"Who knows, maybe he'll surprise you," Merlin suggested.

"Doubt it."

From the other side of the field, Grimmond like out another loud, "Aurgh!" as he hacked into a practice dummy.

"Yeah," Merlin agreed.

O o O

Merlin leaned up against the fence, acknowledging the fact that he might actually enjoy watching Arthur pummel people. As Arthur called Grimmond up, and Merlin watched with an amused grin as the prince held back a much needed eye-roll against the knight-in-training.

"Grimmond wasn't at the tavern with you last night, was he?" a stern voice asked a few arms' lengths away from Merlin. It was Leon.

Grimmond stood in front of Arthur, looking as menacing as the over-confident warrior could manage.

The younger man being addressed by the senior knight looked nervous as he answered. "Well... yes," and before Leon could scold him he hastily continued, "but he remained honorable! He did nothing but service for the reputation of Camelot's knights."

Leon's face was drawn into an expression of disapproval. "I'm not worried about the dishonor, I'm wondering whether his drinking would affect his chances today," he said pointedly.

The young knight bit his lip.

Leon sighed and watched as Grimmond was easily disarmed and knocked in unconsciousness.

The knight beside him groaned. "He's the third this month!" he cried in dismay as the small audience cheered for their prince.

"Next time a squire is petitioned for submission, leave the celebration until after he's been knighted," Leon ordered.

The young man straightened and bowed. "Yes sir," he managed, looking sheepish.

"If it happens again, you will be put on probation. Hamish, was anyone else with you?" Leon asked.

Hamish looked uncomfortable as he gave Leon a list of knights.

"There was a strange bloke at the tavern last knight," Hamish said, trying to ease the tension.

"Was there indeed?" Leon asked, not sounding terribly interested. They watched as a squire and Grimmond's servant hoisted the man off the field to be taken to a shady patch by the tents.

"Some peasant who thought he'd come here to try out for knighthood." He waited for the senior knight to react. Merlin reacted. His spine straightened and he cocked his head so he could hear better.

Leon raised his eyebrows. "Really? Definitely not a nobleman?"

Hamish snorted. "Hardly."

Leon apparently found the news amusing enough to chuckle a bit. "I suppose he hasn't heard of the First Code of Camelot."

"You should have seen the look on his face when we told him," Hamish laughed. "Like a girl who'd lost her favorite doll."

Leon frowned. "You didn't behave in a way detrimental to the knight's code, did you?" he asked suspiciously.

Hamish shrugged off Leon's disapproval. "We didn't hassle him at all, if that's what you mean. Just taught the man his place."

Leon looked slightly appeased. "Good."

Merlin slumped, relieved. A man like Lancelot didn't deserve to have his dreams literally beat out of him by a pack of intoxicated nobleman. Maybe he would visit his friend later... Lancelot was probably feeling fairly let down, and Merlin felt he owed the man, considering everything he had done for the warlock.

Maybe after he took a nap.

O o O

"You there! Arthur's servant! Marvin!"

Merlin turned at the sound of his botched name, holding in a yawn. He really needed to get some sleep.

"Yes?" he asked politely, staring warily at the teenager, who was flanked by two other boys, one of them being Wayne.

The squire who'd called his name wore a sneer on his face, and Merlin immediately wondered whether he should have ignored the shout.

"Wayne told me a few things," the squire drawled. Wayne turned slightly red, and his eyes narrowed angrily. Merlin sighed inwardly. And here he'd been expecting trouble from Sir Borin. "He said, that for all your ineptitude, that you can actually catch throwing knives."

Merlin looked down at the teen, unamused. The warlock was taller than the whelp, over thrice his age, and outranked him in terms of both power and nobility (Emrys was a title, after all).

"But I don't believe him," the squire baited.

Beside him, Wayne growled, "He did, you imbecile. You'll see."

The group leader argued, "But he's just a servant. And every time we see him, he's tripping over his own feet." He mimed out what Merlin assumed was tripping, even though he looked more like someone who was throwing up their breakfast. The squire guffawed loudly, and the boy next to him laughed in the same demeaning manner.

Merlin wondered whether they actually thought it was funny, or if their knight training had gotten them gotten their brains bashed in one too many times.

He blinked at them, waiting for them to continue, but they stared at him expectantly.

"Is that all?" he asked, mimicking the same tone Uther used whenever Arthur suggested any peasant-friendly measures.

The squire – who's name Merlin still couldn't remember – cocked his head stupidly. "Prove it," he ordered.

"Prove what?" Merlin asked.

"That I wasn't wrong," Wayne jumped in, his voice cracking slightly. "I'm being accused of lying – an error I want to be amended."

"And how would you like me to do that?" Merlin asked indulgently, leaning against the spears he'd been carrying down to the armory.

"Catch one," the first squire said, and lifted his overcoat slightly. Merlin gaped, looking at the pouch of throwing knives the squire had just revealed.

Merlin twitched slightly, then regained control over himself. He asked slowly, "Are you sure that's the best idea?"

Obviously the boys thought it was, as they were all looking exceptionally pleased with themselves.

"C'mon then," their leader said. "Put down those spears and show us what you can do."

Merlin really didn't feel like doing this now.

"Sorry, but no thanks," the warlock said dryly. He swiveled on the balls his feet and began walking in the opposite direction.

The leader of the trio snickered and yelled after him, "Coward!" then preceded to taunt Wayne. "'Oh, Marvin's just sooo marvelous! You should have seen him! He's just amazing for a mere peasant!'"

"It's Merlin, you idiot," Wayne said, punching the older boy not so lightly in the arm. "And I did not say that."

"Might as well have," Merlin heard the boy scoff. "Peasant-lover. Have a new hero, do you?"

There was a shout and Merlin turned to see Wayne as he laid a punch into the other teen's face. The third boy backed away, looking more excited than anything.

"Hey!" Merlin called out, gripping the spears tightly, resisting the urge to knock each of them over the head. He doubted the satisfying action would improve the mood, but it was one he couldn't help considering.

Wayne let down his defenses and received a bloody nose. The boy clenched his jaw and wiped the mess on his sleeve, looking ready to charge at his opponent.

All right, that did it. Merlin's eyes glowed and the floor beneath them slicked out, causing the two brawlers to land hard on their backsides. Both of their eyes widened in embarrassed shock.

Quite unintentionally, Merlin laughed. Loudly.

All three sets of eyes settled on the manservant.

"No fighting in the corridors!" Merlin called to them, still laughing as he turned away.

In his tired state, he failed to recognize that a knife was being thrown in his direction until after it hit the column next to him.

Merlin froze.

He turned slowly, his eyes dropping into a stormy blue as he realized that the oldest boy was already holding a second knife. A maniacal look crossed the squire's face.

"Did you just laugh at us? Did you think that was funny?"