Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.

A/N: I'm sorry about the hiatus, there were so many reasons for it that I won't even try to explain. And as for the show's finale, it obviously never happened in this universe. Just assume that everyone who died in "The Diamond of the Day" didn't, and that the threat of Camlann is still hanging over Merlin's head.

Summary of story so far (I wouldn't blame you if you've forgotten): Merlin doesn't know what went wrong with his time-travel spell, so he needs to retrieve the book that he got the original spell from. He'll need a dragonlord, a necromancer, and some way to get months' worth of supplies for the journey. At the same time, he has worry about how much of an effect the changes he's making will have on his own universe. Most recently, Nimueh's attempt to kill Merlin failed, but Gwen discovered that Merlin has magic and still isn't entirely certain that she's comfortable with the fact. Arthur is trying to goad his manservant into showing the fighting skills he saw Merlin using against bandits (he'd been cheating), and has challenged him to a competition of free combat; Merlin has to last 30 seconds against him or he'll be put on clean-up duty on the dining hall for a month, which would interrupt the free time Merlin needs to perfect his underground rescue plan.

The last chapter ended with a trio of squires baiting Merlin into catching a knife.


Nobles and their pride, Merlin thought scornfully, scowling at the boy threatening to throw the knife.

"I think you will catch a knife," the squire decided, his eyes glinting. "The funny servant will do exactly as we ask, or pay the consequences." His voice had tiptoed into the higher notes, and suddenly Merlin had to wonder if the boy was entirely sane. As far as the warlock could tell, the idiot was going to end up dying in death combat over some stupid insult to his honor.

"I'd rather not," Merlin finally said evenly, struggling to keep himself from reverting into 'scolding parent mode'. As young as he looked, he would sound more ridiculous than threatening.

Something in the squire seemed to switch off as he reacted to Merlin's comment (His intelligence, probably, Merlin guessed) as he pulled his arm back and hurled the knife as hard as his could in Merlin's general direction.

He hadn't even stopped to aim.

Merlin and the other two squires could only watch incredulously as the knife streaked down the corridor (it missed Merlin by more than an arm's length). Merlin would have laughed at the sheer absurdity of the situation, but the emerging, bloodless expressions on the squires' faces made him falter. Just as he turned his head to glance behind him, a familiar, indignant shout echoed from down the hallway.

Merlin nearly dropped the spears as his blood ran cold.

Arthur... was hit?

Time slowed for him as his thoughts began to berate him for not paying more attention and cursing the griffon for his sleep deprivation along with his magic for not alerting him to the danger (he'd put up a blasted spell, for crying out loud). As dark emotions clawed through his heart, and as his magic sought a violent release for this unexpected turn of events, Merlin had to seriously wonder whether his sanity would remain intact when his Arthur died.

Then the merciful sound of the knife clattering against the stone floors cut through Merlin's hoarse gasp of, "Arth-!"

Merlin nearly wilted in relief as his eyes met the bemused gaze of Arthur Pendragon, whose eyes were flickering incredulously between the knife that he'd nearly walked into, his wide-eyed manservant, and the three younger squires who were looking at him with unveiled horror (Wayne's nose was still dripping blood).

"Merlin!" Arthur finally exclaimed, because yelling at Merlin at least made the situation somewhat normal. "What the hell is going on here?"

Merlin licked his lips and said softly, "Arthur."

Arthur clenched his jaw, looking extremely annoyed by the lack of response he was inspiring. "That's 'Sire' to you, Merlin," he snapped. "That thing missed me by six inches! If I had turned the corner a second sooner-"

Six. Inches.

Merlin's hands began to shake and he tightened his grip on the spears. The action didn't steady him.

Arthur was stunned into silence by Merlin's quiet voice. "You are lucky to be alive." A cold chill ran up the prince's spine. He blinked owlishly at Merlin, frantically wracking his brains for a proper response to such a grim statement.

Then he realized with vague trepidation that Merlin wasn't looking at him.

His manservant was glaring at the three squires, whose expressions had transfigured from horrified to startled as they stared at the servant they had grossly underestimated.

Merlin seemed to be trembling slightly. His arms dropped to their sides.

The sound of the spears hitting the floor made the trio of squires flinch; even Arthur jumped slightly. One of the weapons rolled until it thumped against a pillar, then, creaking, it slowly tilted to its side before coming to a complete stop.

Before Arthur could open his mouth to scold his manservant for being a clumsy oaf in an effort to break the off-color silence, Merlin's nervous laughter beat him to the finish line.

"Sorry," the lanky servant apologized softly, looking at the ground. "It's just... Arthur, never do that again."

Arthur wrinkled his nose and was about to indignantly insist that he hadn't done anything, but Merlin (the shameless loudmouth), interrupted his thought process yet again.

"Don't," he said, "scare me like that. Ever. I forbid you from getting into dangerous situations. Particularly when I'm sleep deprived."

"I nearly had a heart attack," Merlin added, and placed a hand on his chest to emphasize his point.

Arthur didn't even bother to hide the fact that his mouth had dropped open in a long 'O' shape, eyebrows raised in surprise.

"And you!" Merlin said, pointing a long finger at the oldest squire, his tone dropping harshly. "ARE YOU MAD? WE ARE IN A CORRIDOR! NOT A TARGET RANGE! ANYONE COULD HAVE COME 'ROUND THAT CORNER! THE KING HIMSELF COULD HAVE COME AROUND THAT CORNER!"

Arthur stared at his manservant in shock. Was Merlin ranting at a noble?

"But... the crown prince came around that corner," Merlin said, lowering his voice to a deadly calm. "And I cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who tries to kill Arthur Pendragon."

I might have lost all rational hold of my magic if you had. You would have been lucky to survive. Collapsing corridors aren't easily avoided.

As these thoughts ran through Merlin's head, a hand grabbed his shoulder.

"Stop talking Merlin," Arthur ordered icily.

"You have a very mouthy manservant, my lord," the oldest squire tried to say smoothly, but the shiver in his voice betrayed his relief at the prince's intervention.

Arthur snorted, still staring his manservant incredulously. "I realize that," he said seriously. "Merlin, go muck out my stables. Right now, you imbecile."

Merlin took in a deep breath.

"Merlin," Arthur warned, adding a sharp jab to his tone.

"Yes, sire," Merlin said with a stiff bow.

It was decided, then. Merlin was going to beat Arthur during their sparring match this afternoon; forget the consequences.

As he walked away from the scene, Merlin heard Arthur snap, "Who threw the knife?"

"It wasn't our fault, my lord!" the oldest squire said vehemently. Arthur must have shot him a look because the boy's next words were more subdued. "Prince Arthur," his voice sounding slick and oiled, "I'm afraid that your manservant insulted our honor and provoked us into a fight."

The boy seemed confident in his allegation. Merlin rounded the corner and stepped out of sight, then quickly pressed himself against the wall to listen to the rest of the interrogation.

"I suppose Merlin was the one who bloodied Wayne's nose?"

The squire made a confused noise.

"Well?" Arthur asked impatiently.

"No," came the grudging response.

"I see," Arthur said. "What happened, then? Gavin?"

Merlin strained to hear their conversation, feeling proud of Arthur as he chastised the three squires without belittling them and causing a major dispute (Merlin tried not to resent the fact that insulting Merlin was his prime way of doing so).

"Merlin," Arthur's voice hissed.

Merlin opened his eyes and lifted his head from its resting position against the wall.

Ah, well, it wasn't the first time he'd fallen asleep while standing.

"Yes, sire?" Merlin asked innocently.

"What are you doing here?" Arthur snapped in a whisper, not wanting to risk any of the squires hearing. He'd just barely placated their anger against Merlin, and there the idiot was, standing around the corner as though he were trying to incite it again.

"Eavesdropping," Merlin said in a mock-whisper.

Arthur grabbed Merlin's arm and hauled him down the corridor, away from the scene of crime.

"I'm sending you to the stocks," the prince said.

"I wanted to know what you were saying," Merlin defended.

"Too bad," Arthur said without pity.

"They were being young and idiotic," Merlin said.

"So were you," the prince replied hotly. "Why didn't you just walk away?"

"They were throwing knives at me," Merlin pointed out.

"And then," Arthur said, ignoring Merlin, "you just had to go and threaten them, didn't you?"

"Only after you were nearly impaled," Merlin countered.

"Sometimes I wonder if you even remember that you're just a servant," Arthur said at the same time.

They looked at each other and scowled.

"I'm tired, all right?" Merlin said crossly, wrenching his arm out of Arthur's grasp.

"Oh, you're tired," Arthur mocked, folding his arms.

"Yes, I'm tired," Merlin repeated, copying Arthur's stance. "Even lazy old me gets tired, Arthur. I just wasn't in the mood for being polite."

Arthur clenched his teeth in anger. "I don't care, Merlin," he finally managed. "You should have remembered your station and acted more respectfully towards them. Now I'm going to have to explain to three of my knights why their squires were brawling."

"And throwing knives at innocent castle workers," Merlin added.

Arthur growled in frustration. "You retaliated, Merlin!" he said.

"Barely," Merlin pointed out. "And considering what almost happened to you, I could have done a lot worse."

Arthur shot him a look. "Nevertheless, they're going to expect me to punish you," he said gravely.

Merlin huffed. "Fine, put me in the stocks for a day," he conceded. As a young man he might have argued against the injustice, but now was very aware of how pointless squabbling about it would be, having spent over a half a lifetime battling the proclaimed superiority of the noble classes. Most of them never learned.

Arthur was a special case.

The dragon had been right about that much.

"And that's what I'm doing," Arthur reminded scathingly, shoving Merlin further along the hallway.

"Hold off," Merlin said, turning around to face the prince. "What about your challenge?"

Arthur smiled evilly. "I'm sure we can fit it in."

Merlin scowled and marched down the corridor as he muttered, "Sometimes I hate you."

"That's treason, Merlin," Arthur pointed out dully.

"Sometimes I really hate you," Merlin amended.

"Idiot," Arthur said, trying to sound stern.

"Prat," Merlin shot back.

"Dimwit."

"Dollophead."

"Not a real word," Arthur said automatically.

"It's idiomatic."

"You know I can keep you in there overnight," Arthur threatened.

Merlin shut his mouth and smiled.

O o O

"What're you doin' in 'ere?" Lady Percival's maidservant asked with amusement as she watched Merlin frantically trying to gather up the food for Arthur's supper.

"Arthur's meal," Merlin explained shortly as yet another bread roll escaped the tray in his attempt to reach the strawberries. Merlin cursed and set the tray down in order to fetch the runaway food items.

Maggie watched as Prince Arthur's manservant examined the dirty rolls, shrugged, and dusted them off with his hand before setting it back on the tray. "Merlin!" she gasped, peering around in case Audrey, the head cook, was lurking nearby.

"What?" Merlin protested. "A little dirt never hurt anyone."

"Merlin, that's 'orrible," she said. "You're goin' to get yourself in trouble one o' these days."

"You mean like today?" Merlin asked as he turned to leave.

Maggie winced but bustled after him as he bolted for the door. "But Merlin! Someone's already taken the prince 'is food!" she called.

Merlin's quick pace slowed to a dead halt.

"What?" he asked with confusion, turning to face her.

"His 'ighness sent for his supper over an hour ago!" she explained quickly. "While you were still in the stocks."

Merlin groaned. "You mean I was in rush for nothing?" he complained. He could have taken proper bath instead of using the rather horrible washing spell he hadn't quite perfected. His skin was itching awfully in the places where the soap hadn't been completely rinsed, and it had done nothing to rid him of the tomato seeds plastered to his hair.

Maggie hesitated. "I'm sure he'd like to see you anyways!" she finally said encouragingly.

Merlin rolled his eyes.

"Right then," he finally conceded. "I'll pop in and see if his royal highness needs anything, shall I?"

Maggie nodded after him, but didn't realize until after he'd gone that he'd never actually put back the food.

O o O

Merlin left Arthur's tray in an abandoned room, finishing off the last of the strawberries as he walked out of the chamber. He'd bring it to the kitchens later. Maybe.

He had to admit that the meat pies had been rather good. Audrey must have divvied out their preparation to Charles. The head cook was exceptionally skilled at giving orders, but when it came to actually putting ingredients together... she might as well have let Arthur do it. Charles on the other hand, now there was someone Merlin could culinarily root for.

Content for the first time that day (despite his aching muscles), Merlin sauntered through the darkening courtyard and into the lower town.

It was time to find Lancelot.

O o O

"Can I help you?" the bartender growled from behind Merlin, making him jump. The man seemed to be in the middle of vigorously scrubbing away at the suspicious stains decorating his counter; his efforts appeared to be in vain.

"Um... possibly," Merlin said, trying to stay cheerful. "I'm looking for someone who might be staying at your inn."

The balding man frowned, then waved his filthy rag with a dismissive growl. "Find 'im yourself, laddie."

Merlin sighed and reached into his pouch, pulling out a couple of bronze coins. "I'm looking for a man named Lancelot – tallish, dark hair... good with a sword?" he inquired, holding up the money so the bartender could see them.

The bartender, while eying the coins, recounted, "If you mean that strange fellow, the one who had some funny ideas about being a knight-"

"That's him!" Merlin exclaimed, setting the coins on the counter. "Where is he now?"

Bartender gestured behind him, towards the stairs leading up to the rooms. "Up there," he said, grabbing at the money. "Third door on your left."

"Thank you," Merlin said, before angling his way around the stools, drunkards, and off-duty guards.

After the stairs, he rounded the corner of the hallway and muttered, "Third door, third door, third door," until he reached it.

With a tentative amount of hesitation, Merlin thumped his knuckles against the coarse wood.

He heard a mattress shifting as someone rose from their position and their light steps as they moved towards the door.

Merlin stepped back slightly as the door was pulled open.

"Yes?"

Merlin stared at the outline of Lancelot, candlelight flickering in the background.

"Hello," Merlin said softly, a quiet smile decorating his face.

Lancelot opened the door more widely. His sword was hanging loosely at his hip, ready to be used if necessary.

"Can I help you?" Lancelot asked politely.

"Are you Lancelot?" Merlin asked.

"Yes," the man said carefully.

"My name is Merlin," the warlock introduced, holding out his hand. He grinned as Lancelot shook it warily, as though not sure what to make of the tired, friendly face in front of him. (Were those tomato seeds in his hair?)

"I heard that you're good with a sword," Merlin said.

Lancelot shifted, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I might be," he said, sounding regretful.

Merlin sent him a sympathetic look. "Yes, I heard you were looking to be a knight," he said. "Found out about the first code the hard way, huh?"

"Something like that," Lancelot said carefully.

"Well, if you're still interested, I think I can get you a job," Merlin offered. "And not as a hired sword."

Lancelot blinked.

"Really?"

"Probably," Merlin said with a smile.

Lancelot hesitated for a moment before standing back and gesturing. "Come in?"

Merlin nodded and moved past Lancelot into the better-lit room, smoky from all the candles.

Of the four beds in the room, only one was in apparent use, with Lancelot's personal items tucked neatly against the wall. He didn't have much, just a traveling pack and the leftovers of a meal he'd brought up to enjoy in peace.

"Here," Lancelot offered the bed as a seat.

"Thanks," Merlin said, immediately taking advantage of the offer. The dry hay crackled under his weight. Lancelot took one of the unoccupied beds, giving Merlin a considering look.

"If I may ask, why would you be interested in finding me a job?" Lancelot finally questioned, then pinched his lips together as he waited for an answer.

Because you deserve it. "Because you're not only good with a sword, I think that time will show that you're an honest and loyal man," Merlin answered with an encouraging smile.

Lancelot lifted his head. "I certainly hope that I'll be able to live up to your expectations," he said austerely.

"I have no doubt that you'll exceed expectations," Merlin said encouragingly.

"So," the knight began when Merlin didn't elaborate further, "what job do you have in mind?"

"Something a bit less prestigious than knighthood," Merlin said, "but I think it'll do for now."

Lancelot looked slightly skeptical.

"Guardsman," Merlin finally announced.

Lancelot blinked. "Of the citadel?" he asked, clearly surprised.

"Or wherever else they station you," Merlin said cheerfully.

Lancelot stared at him for a moment.

After letting the idea settle in Lancelot's head for a while, Merlin pointed out, "It won't have the privileges of being a noble, and you won't get to leave the city as often, but at least you'll have a steady income and secure lodgings."

"Are you a guard?" Lancelot asked hesitantly, taking in Merlin's thin frame.

Merlin blinked at his friend. "Me? A guard?" he asked, his eye twitching at the idea.

"I take it, then, that you're not," Lancelot said, chuckling slightly at Merlin's disturbed expression.

"I'm far too unconventional to ever make the guard," Merlin said promptly.

"And a commoner who's crazy enough to want to be a knight isn't?" Lancelot pointed out.

Merlin grinned. "A different kind of unconventional."

Lancelot shook his head in amusement. "So you aren't in the guard. What do you do?"

"I'm Prince Arthur's personal advisor-attendant-bodyguard," Merlin said. "I also clean his socks."

Lancelot raised his eyebrows.

"Arthur has really stinky laundry," Merlin continued after a moment, wrinkling his nose.

"You're his servant?" Lancelot finally deciphered incredulously. "The crown prince's servant?"

Merlin grinned. "Yep… though sometimes I feel like his babysitter," he said with a small sigh.

"And you're offering to get me into the guards," Lancelot said, still staring at Merlin with a newfound respect.

"What?" Merlin asked. "Is it a crime to actually want a competent guard watching over the city?"

Lancelot sent him a confused look. "Camelot's guards are proficient… aren't they?" he asked.

"You'd think, wouldn't you, considering the castle's reputation," Merlin said. "But in all honesty, you could probably walk through the gates in a billowy, red cloak without them noticing; in fact, it's been done before."

"Surely they aren't so ineffectual," Lancelot said skeptically.

"They have their moments," Merlin said generously. "… But really, if a barrel is rolling down the street, don't leave your post to follow it. If you have to, at least leave someone behind to watch the gate."

Lancelot let out an awkward laugh. "That was oddly specific," he noted.

"It's good advice," Merlin insisted.

Lancelot raised his eyebrows.

"Look," Merlin said, "it probably sounds mad, but I really would like it if you stayed in Camelot. Letting you go back to your old lifestyle seems like a hell of a waste."

He stared at Lancelot with wide, hopeful eyes.

The man stared back at Merlin for a second before running his hands through his hair. "Sounds like a plan," he relented. "After all, what have I got to lose?"

Merlin grinned and jumped off the bed. "That's the spirit!" he said, slapping Lancelot on the back. The man smile back weakly. "Have you got enough money for a couple more days?" he asked.

"For a week, if need be," Lancelot said.

"Excellent," Merlin said moving around the beds and towards the door. "Enjoy yourself. I'll come by sometime later."

"What if I'm not here?" Lancelot asked.

Merlin paused before exiting.

"I'll find you," he said confidently, then closed the door behind him.

Lancelot took a deep breath, a pensive expression on his face. His journey hadn't been completely in vain, then.

A guardsmen.

Perhaps once the nobles saw his skill and determination, they'd be willing to-

He jumped as the door crashed open again, with Merlin hanging into the room. "I am so glad I met you, by the way," the skinny man said with so much sincerity that Lancelot found himself choking on any words he might have thought to say.

"Anyways," Merlin said. "See you!"

Lancelot raised his hand to give and awkward wave, but Merlin had already shut the door.

O o O

"Someone found the dead griffon," Gaius informed Merlin as soon as he entered the room. "No one suspects that any magic was used."

Merlin sent the physician a sad smile. "I made sure of that," he said before shutting the door to his room.

The carcass had been found impaled by multiple spears and arrows.

Sometimes he rather detested his job.

O o O

"Where were you last night?" Arthur complained grouchily, throwing off his bedcovers. If it were up to him, early mornings would be eradicated.

"Recovering," Merlin said audaciously, sounding significantly more chipper than he had the day before, even if he didn't look it with the drooping limbs and sunken eyes.

Arthur snorted. "Ah, the usual then. Shirking your duties…"

"I was in the stocks!"

"As I said, Merlin, shirking your duties," Arthur reemphasized.

"Next time I'll just let myself out a bit early, shall I? Bribe the guards maybe?" Merlin scoffed, throwing a shirt at Arthur's face. The prince caught it deftly, but one of the sleeves managed to elude him and ended up smacking his cheek. Merlin counted the hit as a victory.

"No. Next time, I expect you to keep yourself out of the stocks in the first place," Arthur countered, flipping the shirt upside-down, right-side up, then upside-down again as he attempted to discover the easiest point of access.

Merlin's interest was piqued. "How did your knights take it?" he asked, wide-eyed.

"Well as can be expected – they aren't very happy with their squires… or with you, for that matter," Arthur said, the shirt muffling his voice. "If I were you, I would keep my sorry hide away from them to avoid further incidents." The prince tried awkwardly tugging at his shirt in an attempt to find the escape-route for his head, but he'd gotten caught in one of his sleeves.

"Merlin!" Arthur gasped in frustration. "Get over here!"

Merlin stifled his laughter as he jumped to help the prince untangle himself.

By the time Arthur and his shirt had properly separated, the prince had become an unhealthy shade of red (trouncing even the sunburns he'd gained from the past couple days of cloudless skies).

"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur grumbled.

"I didn't say anything," Merlin said innocently.

"But your thoughts were loud and clear," Arthur snapped.

"Sorry, sire," Merlin apologized, but once again, his face betrayed him.

"Shut up, Merlin."

Arthur plopped himself miserably in front of his breakfast.

"Have you come up with a solution for Drest's petition yet?" Merlin piped up, deciding that a change of subject was needed. What better topic than a dull case of politics to take your mind off an embarrassing moment?

Arthur made a face. "How could you possibly know about that?" he asked, turning his head to stare at his manservant.

Merlin gave him a bland look. "How do I know about anything?" he countered.

"I don't know, but however you do it, it's probably illegal," Arthur said with a snort. The prince turned his attention back on his eggs, completely missing Merlin's unmistakable flash of panic.

Merlin scolded himself and forced his tense limbs to relax.

"And no," Arthur continued, "I don't have a solution. I only just got the information last night, remember?"

"Have you talked to Drest yet?" Merlin asked.

"Like I said, Merlin, last night," the prince emphasized. "I haven't even had time to think about it, much less speak with anyone. My father doesn't expect me to make a ruling until tomorrow."

"Just as long as you don't alienate Lord Oswin…" Merlin said wisely.

"Merlin!" Arthur snapped. "Can we talk about this later? I'm eating breakfast."

Merlin sniffed.

"Oh, but there is something I'd like to discuss with you," Arthur said, suddenly looking perky. "Since you got yourself put in the stocks, we didn't get to have our competition…"

Merlin sighed obnoxiously as he could manage.

O o O

The late afternoon sun disappeared behind another shock of clouds, giving the foursome a small amount of relief from its rays. Both Merlin and Arthur were still suffering from sunburns and neither of them were keen on adding to their misery.

"All right, Merlin," Arthur said, giving his manservant a feral grin. He spun the sword in his hand. "Ready?"

"No," Merlin replied sulkily – the leather padding was making him itchy.

"Too bad," Arthur said mercilessly. "Morgana?"

Morgana fiddled with the small hourglass. "Merlin, just try your best," she encouraged sympathetically.

Arthur rolled his eyes. Morgana had already convinced him to reduce Merlin's losing punishment to two weeks instead of a whole month. What was it about their relationship that made Morgana automatically root for the opposing team?

Gwen stood in the background, biting her lip. Even though Merlin was insistent that he had recovered from Nimueh's attack, there were still deep circles under his eyes that made her nervous.

"Say when," Arthur said with a smirk, holding out his sword. He obviously intended to disarm Merlin as soon as the hourglass was turned. Merlin sighed and unsheathed his own sword.

Morgana poised to turn the timer. "Ready... Set... Go!"

It didn't last more than ten seconds.

One second Arthur was confidently charging towards his manservant, and the next he was staring up at the sky, watching a flock of geese pass overhead.

Gwen's eye widened. Morgana's jaw had dropped open and she was staring down at Arthur with undisguised glee.

Merlin stood over Arthur, his eyes bloodshot, and posture back in a slump. "There," he said in an oddly satisfied tone, and threw down his sword. "No more stables and no clearing tables," he sang, sounding slightly off-kilter.

Arthur gave him a bewildered look. Merlin laughed slightly.

From the grass a few feet away from the warlock, the prone figure pushed himself to his elbows. "What. Just. Happened?" Arthur asked.

Morgana gave him a cool look. "Face it Arthur," she sniffed. "You're no longer Camelot's greatest warrior. You've been outmatched by a servant."

Arthur turned his head to look at Merlin's relaxed form. He crinkled his nose in disbelief. "He must have cheated!" he instantly decided.

Gwen choked.

"Are you all right?" Morgana asked with concern, turning to her maidservant.

Gwen stifled her coughing fit and hastily reassured her mistress. "I'm fine," she said, glancing at Merlin out of the corner of her eye. Cheating, her mind echoed.

"And really, Arthur?" Morgana scoffed. "Gwen and I both saw you. Merlin beat you fair and square."

Arthur clenched his jaw, but really couldn't deny that he hadn't seen Merlin do anything contrary to the contest's rules.

"No stables for a month, remember?" Merlin repeated his reminder.

Arthur looked away, up at the sky, and muttered something indistinguishable.

Morgana put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, sending unwanted warning tingles up his spine. "Well done, Merlin!" she congratulated, smiling up at him.

Merlin bent over to retrieve his sword, if only to shake Morgana's grip. "It was nothing," he said, trying not to flinch.

This is not her. This is not her. This is not her, he chanted inside his head. But it really was no use. Every smirk, sneer, and hint of anger on her part was still all it took for Merlin's magic to go into protective overdrive.

She'd sent many innocent people to their deaths.

Morgan le Fay.

This is not her, he chanted once again, annoyed with himself.

"Of course it was something," Morgana insisted, blind to his discomfort. "In all my years, I've never seen anyone make Arthur look so utterly defeated."

"I think Uther could probably give me a run for my money," Merlin said thoughtfully.

Morgana wrinkled her nose. "Uther? He may have been a warrior in his prime, but I'm fairly certain that Arthur, if he ever had the guts, could disarm him easily enough," she countered.

The prince turned to give his perceptive manservant a startled look. Merlin winced, glad that Morgana hadn't picked up on the subtle meaning behind the comment. Gwen had. She was biting her lip and emanating reluctant waves of sympathy in Arthur's direction. She'd seen her fair share of bitter moments between father and son, most of them ending with an enraged Uther and an embarrassed Arthur.

"Besides," Arthur said awkwardly, trying to get rid of the tension, "that was only round one."

Merlin balked. "We're not doing that again," he said firmly, as Arthur pushed himself into a sitting position.

"You may not have cheated, but you have to admit that during all our practices, you have been holding back," Arthur argued. "You know all my strengths and weaknesses, but you haven't let me see any of yours."

"Just assume you can't beat me in any sort of fight," Merlin said stiffly.

"That's ridiculous," Arthur scoffed. "Just a few days ago you were insisting that you only fight well under pressure."

"Well, Arthur, I lied," Merlin said bluntly.

Arthur laughed in disbelief.

"I told you before," Merlin said. "Just because I'm good at killing people, doesn't mean I have to like it."

Arthur folded his arms.

"Your perspective's all wrong," Arthur said crossly. "As warriors, we hone those skills so we can defend this land, not so we can 'kill people.'"

"Actually, I mostly don't want to see you to continue to humiliate yourself," Merlin said, changing tactics.

"All right, get in position," Arthur said, gesturing for Merlin to stand in front of him. "We're doing this again."

"No."

"Are you refusing an order?" Arthur asked.

"Wouldn't be the first time, milord," Merlin said dully.

"I should sack you," Arthur said.

"You'd get bored," Merlin pointed out.

"Or bit of relief," Arthur countered. "Now hand me my sword."

Merlin groaned, but complied with the prince's wishes. How long many times would it take, he wondered, for Arthur to see that Merlin couldn't be beaten? Or should he let Arthur win?

"Here you are, sire," Merlin said with mocking bow, offering Arthur the sword that had been knocked from his grasp.

Arthur grabbed it away from his manservant.

Merlin bent over to pick up his own sword. He caught Gwen's eyes and sent her a reassuring look. She seemed oddly worried. Perhaps she was worried that Merlin's lack of subtleness would reveal his secret. Morgana, on the other hand, was all for seeing Arthur taken down again and already had the hourglass ready to be turned.

"Ready?" Arthur began. Merlin barely had time to get his sword up before Arthur shouted, "GO!"

In eleven seconds, Merlin had Arthur kneeling on the ground with both swords pointed at his royal throat.

"Would you like to go again?" Merlin asked. "I might actually start to enjoy this."

Frustrated, Arthur whacked away the swords with his gauntlets and stood on his feet.

Despite Merlin's teasing, Arthur demanded a third and a fourth match.

"You're beating me," he said with disbelief, finding himself relieved of his weapon yet again.

"Yes, I am," Merlin agreed, lowering both swords. In the background, Morgana was grinning widely and Gwen was trying not to giggle.

"But you can't!" Arthur said, examining Merlin through narrowed eyes.

"Why not?" Merlin demanded. "Why can't I be better at you in something?"

Prince Arthur threw his hand in the air. "Because you've had very little training, for one thing," he listed. "And two, you're the clumsiest person I know. And three, you can't have hidden this from me for over two months!"

Merlin recognized that he may have overstepped the limits of his disguise as 'the manservant'. Maybe he really should let Arthur win.

"Let's see again," Arthur said, gesturing for Merlin to give him back his sword.

Merlin sighed.

By the eighth time, Merlin was leaning against his sword, staring down at Arthur with an amused expression that could match Morgana's. He really probably should have let Arthur beat him.

"I don't understand!" Arthur said in frustration, almost to himself. He peeled himself off the grass and stood up, grabbing his sword from under Merlin's foot in the process.

"I think you should try one more time, Arthur," Morgana suggested, eyes wide with innocence.

Arthur ignored her and went through the motions of their last fight, thrusting, parrying, then trying to figure out how Merlin had managed to get him on the ground. The prince growled, moved back to the starting position, but the second time switching to Merlin's side of the duel.

"You moved like this," Arthur said, back up and holding his sword as though he were defending from an oncoming attack. "Then like this, but then you..." he tried several positions, but none of them seemed right. Finally he put his foot out, which would have resulted in completely unbalancing his opponent's stance.

"But you couldn't have done that unless you were able to predict my next move," Arthur complained.

Or see them in slow motion, Merlin thought.

"Nope, that's what I did," Merlin said, nodding at Arthur's position.

Arthur shot Merlin a look. "No one is that good."

"Well apparently, somebody is," Morgana interrupted. "Good job, Merlin," she said, giving him a wry smile. Merlin managed to offer her a small nod of appreciation.

Then he turned to Gwen, saw her narrowed eyes, and offered her a self-satisfied grin.

Gwen sighed, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.

"Cheer up, Arthur," Merlin said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "It's not like anything's going to come of it. I am a commoner, after all – a mere peasant, a scruffy farm-boy, a servant, a mistreated servant..."

"All right, that's enough of that," Arthur snapped, sticking his sword in the ground in a huff of emotion.

"Well, now that you know, what are you going to do with me?" Merlin asked.

"Nothing," Arthur said firmly.

"Nothing?" Merlin and Morgana chorused. Morgana sounded irate. Merlin, in the other hand, felt slightly befuddled; Arthur had been so adamant about determining Merlin's skill level that Merlin had figured that Arthur had found a use for his supposed 'talent'.

"Absolutely nothing. Like you said, you're just a simpleminded peasant," Arthur said loftily. "I wouldn't want to burden you with any unnecessary responsibility."

"Thank you, sire," Merlin said dryly. "I still get a month off of stable-duty, right?"

"But, Arthur!" Morgana protested. "Merlin's the best there is – you can't just go and do nothing."

Arthur scowled. "Well what do you want me to do, Morgana? Knight him, I suppose?"

"Please, don't," Merlin entreated.

Arthur ignored him. "Merlin," he continued, his eyes hard, "is just a peasant. Not to mention, he's lazy, undisciplined, cowardly, and certainly someone I would never want in my ranks."

Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw that Gwen was bristling, giving Arthur a look that could melt the chain mail right off his royal person. Merlin internally noted that he would have to reassure her later. After all, Arthur really hadn't known Merlin all that long, and he'd been practically humiliated by him, so the insults really weren't surprising.

"I highly doubt he's as incapable as you make him out to be," Morgana defended, arguing back. "He obviously deserves something better than licking the dirt off your royal boots for the rest of his life."

"It's his job!" Arthur snapped.

"He's wasted there," Morgana insisted, eyes flashing dangerously. "I have half a mind to go to Sir Eustace and have him sign Merlin up for a position in the king's guard. He's already proven to be a loyal servant, and once Uther sees his skills with the sword I'm sure he could be persuaded."

Arthur and Merlin both gaped at her before guffawing loudly.

"You obviously don't know Father very well," Arthur snorted.

Morgana sniffed with indignant confusion.

"He thinks I'm brainless, a complete klutz, and a danger to sit near," Merlin clarified.

"That's because you are," Arthur drawled, pouncing on the opportunity to insult Merlin.

"Be serious, Arthur. Imagine the conversation," Merlin said, spreading his arms wide as if to unveil a painting. "'We'd like to recommend Merlin for your personal guard.'"

Arthur's eyes lit up.

"'He'll be the first line of defense,'" Merlin continued, imitating Sir Eustace's snooty voice.

"'…Dumping pitchers of water on any intruders that try to make it past the west wing,'" Arthur finished the thought, sending Merlin a challenging grin.

"'Tripping into assassins,'" Merlin suggested, laughing delightedly.

"'And his lectures can leave anyone comatose.'"

"Shut up, Arthur."

"That's 'Sire,' to you, Merlin."

Merlin made a face. "You want me to say, 'Shut up, sire?'" he inquired with amusement. "That sounds disrespectful."

"He's also an arrogant little twit," Arthur said loudly. "He can annoy anyone to death."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "And he'll be swiping food from your tray to test it for poison," he added. "See? I'm doing you a service by stealing your food," Merlin said with a nod.

"Food tasters aren't supposed to eat half the tray, Merlin," Arthur reproved.

"I'm saving you from gout," Merlin said haughtily. "Besides, you're fat enough as it is."

"What did you call me?" Arthur demanded.

"You heard me," Merlin said, dancing away as Arthur took a swipe at his head.

Morgana felt strangely sad as she watched their bickering turn into playful wrestling. It seemed that the boy she'd grown up with no longer needed her as a confidant. As much as the prince complained about his manservant, he was becoming uncharacteristically attached to him. The real reason why Arthur wouldn't let Merlin be assigned to any other position was now very apparent.

Rolling her eyes as Merlin landed with a yelp on the grass, Morgana turned and said haughtily, "Let's go, Gwen. It seems that all form of reason has vanished."

Gwen laughed and gathered her skirts to follow the taller woman.

"They are an unusual pair, milady," she said wistfully, watching their interactions fondly.

"Obnoxious is more like it," was all Morgana said as she strode towards the castle entrance.

Gwen hurried after her mistress as they left the field, but not before giving Merlin parting glance. He waved, but his attention was immediately drawn back to Arthur, who was attempting to drag him into a chokehold.

O o O

Merlin was mystified that he had managed to make it through an entire day without incident (Arthur's challenge didn't count because Merlin had won). He'd even passed Sir Borin in the armory, but the man had barely acknowledged him with a scowl.

Now all he had to do was convince Arthur that he was tired enough to go to bed early.

"…I can't believe Father won't allow me to provide more aid. What am I supposed to tell Drest?" Arthur continued his lamentations as Merlin shut the curtains for the evening.

"The truth," Merlin said simply.

"Because of that raid, a third of his village starved to death over the winter," Arthur said intensely. His frustration was being taking out on his dining table, as he used his hunting knife to carve small notches along the edge. "If his village isn't sent enough seed before planting season is over, their harvests won't be enough to carry them through this winter. How can I tell a man that his village is doomed?"

Merlin sighed. "Are you certain that Lord Oswin can't be persuaded to send more supplies?" he asked.

"Positive," Arthur said, cutting another sliver of wood out his tabletop. "Apparently after a tax fraud that happened about five years ago, the man's been suspicious of everything they do. If it weren't for all of the evidence supporting the raid, he would have accused them of faking it. And after his first shipment of aid went 'missing', he never bothered to send any more, believing that the village had procured and hidden it so they could demand for more food."

Merlin pressed his lips together. Actually, he wouldn't have been all that surprised if that was exactly what had happened – Uther had probably realized it as well, which would explain why the king was critical of sending the amount of grain they'd claimed to need. Not many village farmers had much reason to be more loyal to the kingdom than to the village they expected to live and die in. Merlin could see a village leader, not familiar with nobility and politics, convincing the rest of his people to help con their 'local protector' (or 'tax collector') into giving them more food. Undoubtedly Drest's people thought that the meager first delivery was the only delivery, and had taken the actions they believed necessary for their survival. They wouldn't have understood that, unlike during the early, famine-ridden years of Uther's reign, the current prosperity put nobles into a more generous mood and that Sir Oswin would have been willing to help them until they could support themselves. The elders of the village would be too used to viewing nobles as an enemy with whom they had an uneasy truce.

But he wanted Arthur to go to bed, not drag him into an hour-long discussion of rural ethics. They could do that in the morning, after Merlin had gotten a full night's rest.

"Why don't you sleep on it?" Merlin suggested.

Arthur scowled. "Oh, brilliant advice!" he exclaimed, stabbing the table.

Merlin winced. The prince was going to complain about all of the pockmarks later when he used the table to write a report. "I'll try to think of something as well," Merlin tried to sound reassuring as he stared helplessly at the wooden splinters decorating the floor.

"Joy of joys," Arthur said disgustedly.

"Even if we can't convince your father to increase the supplies, there are subtle ways to help Drest's village without having to go to the king about it," Merlin said patiently.

"Like what?" Arthur asked suspiciously.

"Your hunting trips, for instance," Merlin began. "Instead of bringing home meat you don't even need, give it to the village instead."

Arthur frowned pensively, tapping the knife's blade against the table.

"It isn't much, but when you're as poor as they are, you'll take all the help you can get," Merlin said.

Arthur snorted. "I suppose you'd know, wouldn't you?" he said.

Merlin sent him an exasperated look.

Arthur set his knife on the table (missing Merlin's sigh of relief) and stood up, looking expectant. "Very well, then. Since I'll be going to bed early, I expect you to have all of your chores done by the time I wake up. I need my armor polished, my boots cleaned, my dogs walked…"

Merlin resisted the temptation to cut him off with a sleep spell.

Barely.