Will: Why are you defending him so much? You're just his servant.
Merlin: He's also my friend.
Will: Is that so? So he knows your secret then? Face it, Merlin. You're Arthur's servant, nothing more. Otherwise you'd tell him the truth.
The town, so small it didn't really have a name, had welcomed them graciously the night before. They'd scraped together a decent meal, which was made into a good meal when the knights supplimented it with the rations they had left over from their trip. More than that, Petyr, the leader of the village, insisted on giving Arthur his bed, and the hay and blankets in the barn far surpassed the hard ground the knights had been sleeping on...
"You know, Merlin," Arthur said as the servant helped take his armor off. The room was small and bare, but the bed was soft and covered in warm-looking wools. Arthur had pressed a purse of gold coins into Petyr's hand before going up to the room, and left before the leader could insist on giving it back. "I think we've actually had a week where nothing went wrong. Usually it seems like we face weekly dilemas like clockwork."
Merlin knocked on the wood table without thinking and Arthur, as he always did, laughed incredulously. "You still keep to peasant superstitions?"
"Maybe my knocking on wood is the only thing that's kept you alive this long." Merlin grumbled, blushing to the tips of his ears.
"Heaven knows it wasn't you keeping me alive." Arthur said, swinging his arms, newly freed from the armor. He yawned, stretching. "You sleeping in the barn with the others?"
"I think Gwaine has found a maiden to share a bed with." Merlin said, and Arthur chuckled.
"At least someone is having fun." He raised an eyebrow at his servant. "You haven't found a girl to," he coughed, "share a bed with?"
"Who one of the serving girls?" Merlin asked, laughing a little too, "And when could I lie with them? The hour between polishing your armor and watering your horses I mean to spend sleeping." Merlin shook his head and left the room, still laughing. Arthur watching him go, for some reason not finding it very funny.
The next morning was barely a spot on the horizon when the shouts started. Arthur was up, reaching for his sword even as he listened for the timbre of his knight's voices. Especially Gwaine and Elyan, the most hot-headed of the bunch.
And he did recognize one, rasied high and pleading with someone to stop. And Arthur flew out of the room at the sound of Merlin's voice, cursing himself, as he did weekly, for not teaching his servant some self-defense.
"What's going on?" Arthur demanded, emerging from the house even as he was still fastening his cloak.
There was a small circle of newly-awakened townspeople. The Camelot knights were scattered throughout - Arthur noticed, in his quick survey, Gwaine standing next to a small red-head. And in the middle was Petyr, the leader of the villiage, holding a boy. Merlin was just scrambling to his feet next to them.
"I'm so sorry, sire." Petyr said, sounding sincerely contrite. "We just have a small problem to solve. I was hoping if it happened in the early hours of the morning we woudln't disturb your sleep with the small problems of our town."
"What exactly is going on? Explain it, quickly."
"I caught my servant stealing. Caught him red-handed. I was just going to serve justice, as is my right as leader of this town." Petyr kept his words even, though there was a note warning beneath them.
"And what justice is that?" Arthur asked, wishing he were more awake, wishing they could just have a week of peace.
Petyr looked confused. "Death. I would've made it painless, sire, but we can't allow thieving servants in our midst. It's not our way."
Arthur really wished he was more awake for this.
He took a step forward, and now it was his turn to be confused. "You're going to kill a boy for stealing?" He looked past the man to Merlin, whose face was red and swollen. It would bruise later. "And what happened to you?"
"He tried to stop the hand of justice, sire." Petyr said, keeping a firm grip on the boy in his hands. At Arthur's face, which must have been murderous, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "he's just a servant."
"That's it," Gwaine growled, pulling himself free of the firl and pulling his sword. "Only the king has the power to decree life and death."
"This is the way things have always been." Petyr said, and Arthur was surprised and appalled to see all the townspeople nodding.
"If our leader didn't dispense justice, there would be chaos." Someone murmured, and there were more nods.
Arthur whirled around. He caught Leon's eyes. Leon, who had always had the answer, who looked as bewildered as Arthur felt. Elyan looked angry - his sister was a servant, wasn't she? Percival looked sad. Arthur turned back to Petyr. "Would you kill your brother without trial?"
"My brother owns his own house and land." Petyr said, "This boy never will."
Merlin, still in the middle of the circle, near enough to Petyr to do something reckless, looked like he was about to do something reckless. Arthur shook his head, just a little, and motioned Merlin back. The servant reluctantly did as he was told and stepped back into the circle next to Percival, who squeezed his shoulder and jerked up Merlin's chin. He asked a question and Merlin answered, looking at the ground. When Percival -mild-mannered, quiet Percival - looked up again, his face was murderous.
It could so quickly go wrong. Arthur couldn't very well try to fight his own people, and he knew that was what would happen if he stepped in the way of the "justice" of this place. But he couldn't let the boy die. There was something he remembered a tutor telling him when he was very young, when he still had tutors...something about Might not making Right, about lords standing up for their people.
"I apologize for my servant's interuption," Arthur said, steadfastly not looking at Merlin, "But I'm afraid I have the same qualms he had with your execution of my justice. You cannot seriously mean to kill a child?"
"There can be no exception to the rule, "Petyr said, sounding truly sorry, "But it would be a clean death, done by my own hand. I do hold some fondness for the boy but - go on, Freddie. Tell the kind what I found you doing today."
Freddie was crying so hard that it was fifteen long seconds before he could force words through his tears. Then he nodded and choked out, "I was stealing - candlestick." He cringed away from the king, tugged his arm uselessly, and when he found he was still stuck he burst into fresh tears.
"Now that your servant has seen fit to humiliate the boy in addition to his sentance," Petyr said, shooting Merlin a look of loathing that Arthur didn't miss, "I will continue, if it pleases you sire."
It damn well did not please him, but Arthur was absolutely at a loss of what to do. He could tell Petyr that any dispensation of justice came through Camelot, but then he'd have to make the same proclamation to all the other towns in his kingdom, and risk being overwhelmed by people demanding a fair ruling.
But the punishment had to fit the crime, and as far as Arthur could see this was prejudice against the boy for being a servant. Arthur couldn't imagine such a thing, but he'd often been reminded that he lived in Camelot, which was in many ways more progressive than the villages under its rule. Villages whose people who seldom laid eyes on a king more than once a generation.
"You are right. Justice must be upheld, and I do not deny you your right. But this matter has already scandelized many of your people," He waved a hand at the people, who were thoroughly un-scandalized, "Why don't you hand the boy over to me? We have need of squires in Camelot."
Petyr seemed to like this a far sight more than he would have liked Arthur trying to take over his mode of justice, but still he wouldn't let go of the child's arm. "I'm afraid that will confuse Freddie, sire. Going to Camelot would be rewarding him for his crime."
"Our master of the house will see to it that he regrets his lapse of judgement." Arthur said, and saw Merlin cringe out of the corner of his eye. The master of the house was known for being strict to the point of cruelity, and had more than once given Merlin such a hiding that he hadn't been able to sit on a horse for a week.
In the end, the boy was given over to Arthur's care. The knights didn't linger long after that, getting their horses ready, saying a brief farewell to the strange small hamlet, and, with Freddie riding behind Leon, taking off into the untamed wilderness, more than happy to have their adventure of the week behind them.
"I've never seen anything like it," Arthur said, shaking his head. "Prejudice against magic I understand. Hatred of dragons and wyverns and trolls and ogres. But why hold a grudge against a man because he holds a position that is less than yours?"
"You really have to get out in the world, Arthur." Gwaine said, pulling up his horse next to the king's. "And not as the prince either. You'll never learn anything if people are falling over themselves to cater to your every need. The read world is grim, especially to servants. Tell him, Merlin."
"What?" Merlin said, smiling the smile that held a secret, "I don't know what you're talking about. I already have the worst master in the kingdom."
"Oh shut it, Merlin, at least I don't kill you for being a klutz."
"I'm not talking about our dear king," Gwaine said, raising a knowing eyebrow. "I'm talking about Lord Geofry."
"Gwaine!" Merlin squaked, unable to believe that his friend had betrayed a secret he'd told him in trust that it would never be revealed.
"Arthur's king now. He can do something to stop this madness." Gwaine reached across the gap between their horses and hit Merlin's arm, his unique way of showing affection. "Go on. Tell him what happened."
"Lord Geofry?" Arthur asked, turning to Merlin, bemused. "Who holds Redwall on the Southern border? The only time you were with him was -"
"Last year, when we went down to help with the giant wars." Merlin threw Gwaine a betrayed glance before launching into the story. "You rode out in the morning, but I stayed behind to help tend to the wounded."
"I remember," Arthur said slowly, turning over the memory in his mind. It had been an exhilerating fight, and they'd lost many men, but in the end it was Arthur and Lord Geofry's son together who brought down the raging giantess. "I remember when we got back you were bruised all over. You said you fell down the stairs."
"I did," Merlin said quickly, not wanting his friend to think him a liar. "I just...had some help in the fall."
Arthur turned around so fast his neck cracked. Rubbing it, he stared hard at Merlin. "What do you mean? Why didn't you tell me this before?"
Merlin shrugged, burying himself in his horse, hyper-aware of the fact that all the knights were staring at him. "I didn't want to make a fuss. It was a festive occassion."
"That's not what you told me," Gwaine said, "Or should I -"
"Be quiet, Gwaine." Merlin spat, irritated. "It was as I said."
For once, Gwaine took the order and was quiet, though he spurred his horse ahead to put some distance between himself and the others. Merlin tipped his face down in his cloak, remembering the night when he'd returned from Redwall and only Gwaine had a sympathetic ear, had helped him dress the cuts and listened as Merlin told him the whole truth. "I was afraid Arthur wouldn't care," Merlin had said in the dark room, drinking some of Gwaine's mead gratefully. "I don't know what I would do if he didn't care."
So instead of telling the truth and learning one way or the other whether the friendship he had with Arthur was all in his head or if the king truly cared for him, Merlin had made up a story and smiled as Arthur teased him about it for a week. The smile felt like a lie on his face, and he could see Gwaine shaking his head every time he was in earshot, but what could he do? If he told Arthur and the king just reminded him that he was a servant, and it was within Geofry's rights...
But now Arthur was rounding on him, furious, and pulled his horse until it lay across the road, blocking Merlin's way. Merlin's gelding whickered, annoyed, and bucked a little, and Merlin glared at his master. "Get out of my way."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur demanded, "Truly, Merlin, how can I hope to run a kingdom if I can't even bring justice to my own servant?"
"Drop it, Arthur," Merlin said, knowing it was no use but spurring his horse up the hill and around Arthur anyway. Anything to avoid the moment of truth, anything to avoid this confrontation.
But he had barely spurred his horse into a trot when Arthur was at his side again, and seized his elbow. "Please, Merlin." And it was that, that tone of voice, that made Merlin realize that he could never really keep anything from Arthur. Because he may be blustering and he may chuck stuff at him first thing in the morning and he may make fun of him but there were those moments when Arthur would lower his voice and touch Merlin's shoulder and ask him if he was alright. And Merlin couldn't help but love him for that.
"I was afriad you wouldn't care." Merlin said, feeling silly now. He looked down at the ground, looked behind him at Leon, talking quietly to the boy they'd picked up in some little town. "That you would - you would side with Lord Geofry."
He chanced a glance at Arthur and wished he hadn't. The king's face was stormy. "I'm sorry." He said those two words so often they came as naturally as breathing. He didn't even know what he was apologizing for, really, unless it was not having enough faith in Arthur to do the right thing.
"Merlin." A hand on his arm again, grabbing, holding, pleading. "I will always take your side."
Merlin grinned a little at that, not about to deny the relief that spread like warm flames across his chest. "You shouldn't say that. We've faced so many different forms of evil. One day I might be corrupted."
"Not you, Merlin." Arthur said stoutly, "You're my constant." Arthur suddenly glanced around and noticed all the knights smirking at the two of them. His voice became gruff again, and Merlin smiled at his discomfort. "Now no more of this emotional stuff, okay? It's bad enough when I have to go through it for Guenivere."
"Oh, you have emotional conversations with Gwen?" Merlin said, "I would pay to see that."
"Shut up, Merlin." Arthur said, and this phrase was one that he said so often that, though the knights spread out across fifty yards in front and behind them couldn't hear the actual words, they heard the tone and knew what had been said, and exchanged smiles with each other.
They continued down the road to Camelot, and Gwaine struck up a song about a bear spotting a man in a tree, and Merlin remembered it and began singing, and so did Leon and Elyan and Percival and even little Freddie, his voice high and unwavering. Arthur did too, by the end, and the whole lot ended up laughing, putting the town and its troubles well and truly behind them.
...until later that night, when they made camp and Merlin was lying next to Arthur in the dark. "Do you really think I need to reform the laws governing the treatment of servants?" Arthur dispised anything to do with drafting and diplomacy, and would prefer fighting a battle if a few blows could solve the problem.
"I think you need to do what you think is right." Merlin said, chosing his words carefully, letting them lay on his tongue like flavors before spilling them out. "But I also know that Freddie isn't the only one judged more harshly because of his position."
"I've been in Camelot too long." Arthur said, and Merlin couldn't deny it. He hadn't meant to stay behind the high walls, but as much as Arthur hated diplomacy he was the king now, and had to send other knights out on the quests he so longed to join. This milk run to slay a rogue wyvern was the first time Arthur had ventured out in weeks.
But it wasn't that...it was his stature, his position. He'd been born not only a noble but a prince. Being judged based on who he was had never happened to him. Ever.
"I'm sorry for what Geofry did to you." Arthur's words were a mere breath, blown on the cool night breeze for Merlin's ears only. "If I hadn't been so wrapped up in my own glory..."
"I'm glad you were." Merlin said, "you would have killed him." Merlin saw that now. Saw how loyal Arthur was to his friends, how...protective he was. "Camelot needs any alliance it can get. Even Redwall."
"Still, I'm sorry." An owl hooted somewhere, and Merlin smiled when he heard the soft tune Gwaine was singing to himself as he stood watch. It was a song his mother had often sung in his childhood, and reminded him of the end of the day. "When we get back to Camelot, you will sit on the council to draft this new legislation."
"Me?" Merlin barely remembered to keep his voice down, "But Arthur, I'm just a -"
"Servant. I have been reminded of that often enough today, and that's the point. We need someone who knows the problem, and you're one I trust. You have moments of wisdom in you, Merlin. Perhaps you can summon one for the council when we get home."
"Arthur..." The rest of the words stuck in his throat. This show of faith was unprecidented, and could lead...anywhere. To a career on the council. To a life as an advisor. In Merlin's wildest dreams, Arthur knew of his magic and Merlin was at his side as he reigned, not as a serving boy but as a right-hand man. A confidant.
"Don't thank me. The only way I could stomach this process is if I have a friend in that room of old men with me." Merlin could hear Arthur's smile and smiled himself.
Maybe things would turn to rights. Merlin fell to sleep with his shoulder butting up against Arthur's, thinking of what he'd said earlier in the day. I will always take your side.
That night, he dreamt that the king was telling the truth.
we've long wondered about the fact that...well, Merlin's a servant, and Arthur's not, and that must cause some issues, you know? not just oh-i-have-magic issues but life issues. so this is our attempt to explain that. mostly, this is because we miss merlin...