"One thing I've learned since being here is that Arthur values your opinion above almost all others...even if he'd be the last one to admit it." Princess Mithian
Arthur changed things. He didn't like politics and he didn't like drafting laws and he didn't like sitting on council meetings, but if the only way he was going to keep his people safe was by listening to boring old Grummore rumble on in the great drafty room...then that's what he would do.
It was Kay who really took matters into his own hands. Kay who wrote out the laws so that there were no loopholes, no possible way that someone could go through what Wart had. He didn't go back to the Forest Savauge, but he did call for his father. Sir Ector left the castle in the hands of his overseer for a month and came to see his son, because the letter was urgent, because Kay didn't back down from anything and he said he was hanging on by threads.
"I can't believe the council is being run by Grummore and Pelinore. Don't you know they're idiots?" Ector laughed and pulled Arthur towards him in a one-armed hug. "We'll see how much I can change in my short time here. How you holding up, young man?"
Too surprised to react well, Arthur disentangled himself from the first hug he'd received from an elder in...years. "I'm doing fine, sir."
Sir Ector searched his face and smiled sadly. "No you're not doing fine. You're barely holding it together. Your father not dead a year, God save his soul, and you decide to take on the most relevant issue of the day." Ector reached across the gap Arthur had put between them and patted his shoulder. "I've always wanted my son to have a brother. Never befriended a soul outside of that servant of his. You're good for him."
"Kay's a godsend," Arthur said truthfully, looking over Ector's shoulder to where his son waited in the doorway, arms crossed across his chest. Wart was lurking right behind him, and with his long frame, his dark features, he looked just like a shadow. Arthur smiled at Kay, who smiled back timidly. "None of this could have happened without him."
And Ector spun and smiled at his son, clapping him on the back, and suddenly Arthur felt dizzy and sick at the sight of the easy interaction between father and son. He'd never have that again. He was an orphan. An old orphan.
"Good lad," Ector was saying as Arthur slipped past him into the hall. He stood with Wart at the entrance, watching the exchange, and both had a look of longing smeared all over their faces. "I knew you'd do well here. Just knew it."
"I never knew my father," Wart said quietly, so only the king could hear him. "I wonder what he'd think of me if he saw what I've become."
Arthur turned to him, and Wart refused to meet his eyes. The man who used to be so brazen, used to talk over his master, used to let everyone know his opinion, had been cowed by a monstrous experience. "You are more than what's happened to you. I will not say to forget your ordeal, but do not let it define your life." Arthur sighed and leaned against the doorway. Ector was spreading out his hands and Kay looked amused in a way he hadn't since before Wart and Merlin had been nearly sold into slavery. "Kay is trying. I'm trying. Soon, it may be possible for you to do much with your life."
"Even though I'm just a servant?" Wart asked quietly, folding his arms across his chest. There were still rope marks on his wrists, white scars that would never truly fade. "I like my life, sire. I am happy to serve Kay. Until the day I die."
Arthur had to leave then, because at that moment the raven-haired man reminded him of another raven-haired man, and he needed to see Merlin to be reminded that throwing his kingdom into chaos was the right decision.
"Redwall has declared war against the crown, and Hogarth and Paxwell will ally with him. We're being attacked from the North and West. Even the smaller villages are up in arms."
"People like their slaves," Merlin said, moving over to the fireplace. Freddie had let the fires go out again. The burn on Merlin's arm twinged at the thought. Even though Calder the Cruel had been dismissed, there was always the possibility, the lingering doubt that everything would eventually return to how it had been.
"I can't imagine how anyone is so vehemently against this action."
"People are stuck in their ways."
Arthur looked up from the missive he was reading and glared in Merlin's direction. "Are you saying something over there?" He watched as Merlin threw another log onto the fire, nearly burning himself in the process. His clumsy servant should never be allowed near flames.
"I'm just saying that the people will be...people." Merlin straightened, sighed. "It will take time, Arthur, to convince them that this needs to be done. Slavery is abhorrent." He shuddered, and Arthur didn't notice.
"I understand that, but maybe it's...too much. My father -"
Merlin turned around, exasperated. "You're father wasn't a very kind king, Arthur. He slaughtered thousands of people in the Great Purge. He brutally enforced laws that condoned the killing of servants and slaves. You have a chance to be better."
Arthur knew that, he knew that his father hadn't been a good or kind man. He'd been hard-pressed to receive a kind word from him, and he was the son. But after seeing Kay and his father, after reflecting on the fact that he was alone, all alone...well, he'd still been his father, and Arthur had loved him in the stupid way a kicked puppy still follows his master. And so he rounded on his best friend, drawing himself up to his full height and throwing up his arm so that Merlin, surprised by the sudden change, shrank back against the table, surprised.
They stood in that position for a moment, and Arthur felt a sick satisfaction (that he would feel so guilty about later but could never deny) at seeing how Merlin's eyes went to his upraised arm, at seeing the flicker of fear there. Merlin was smaller than Arthur, and hadn't been trained in combat since birth. He wouldn't stand a chance in a physical fight.
"What would you know, Merlin. You're just a servant." He didn't meant the words, not at all, but he threw them out anyway because he knew they would wound. Merlin's face rippled with betrayal as his station was thrown in his face by someone he trusted.
"You can't do that Arthur." Merlin said, scurrying out of the corner he'd been backed into and moving to the center of the room, where he stood tall and defiant. "You can't draft laws in defence of slaves and servants and then...I'm more than just a servant, Arthur. You're the one who told me that. You're the one who's trying to make everyone understand that. You can't just acknowledge those truths when it's convenient for you and then claim I can't understand when you wish. That's not how a friendship works."
Arthur gripped the table hard, and guilt spread out through the anger like a drop of vinegar spreads through oil. The anger that had come over him so quickly left and he felt drawn and tired, the way he had since putting on the crown that was at times so heavy he might as well be Atlas holding up the world. "Merlin...I..."
It was only then that Merlin allowed one hand to come up to his face and brush away the tears there impatiently, and that sent a stab through Arthur's heart. After everything Merlin had been through, after everything Arthur had done to prevent such bigotry, how could he dare use Merlin's station as an argument? "I'm sorry." Arthur said, the words feeling inadequit on his tongue.
"Don't," Merlin said, his voice shaking. He drew in a deep breath and moved around Arthur, eyes darting to his hand (oh, god, had he come close to hitting merlin? his merlin? even as boy, watching the way his father and calder the cruel treated servants, arthur had sworn on everything he held dear that he would be a better man. and look at him now.) "I...I need to help Gaius, sire."
"Merlin!" Arthur called. But he was already gone.
That night was the feast. Isn't that how it always was for Arthur? Bad timing all around. He sat between Kay and Leon at the head of the long table where all the council members had seats of honor. They were taking a grave risk with the two controversial laws that were being passed this evening: one to end the lave trade, effective immediately, the other to give higher wages to servants and forbid capital punishment for petty offences. There would be war over this. It was already brewing.
But this evening was a celebration, and everyone in Camelot was congratulating themselves. Two small serving girls, no older than ten, came up to the king stammering their thanks. One girl said that she'd already received her higher wage, and was planning on getting a new blanket. Arthur wondered how his father and the kings of the past had ignored such blatant destitution within their own walls. He wondered how he had ignored it, until Merlin had pointed out the flaws in the system.
Merlin...Merlin was in the corner with Wart, each holding a pitcher of wine to top off the noble's glasses. Before the feast, Arthur had thought that Merlin would sit next at the table, that Wart would, too. They were the reasons for one of the laws being passed. They deserved a place of honor. But since yelling at Merlin early since (nearly hitting him, oh god, he still couldn't believe he'd raised a hand to clumsy, loyal merlin) he hadn't had a chance to talk to his servant.
Kay had picked up on the king's mood. He, too, was muted, not taking part in the festivities as the others were. Arthur had confided his transgression to him before the feast, and Kay had stared at him, disappointment evident all over his face. And that made Arthur feel worse than ever. Since Kay's arrival, he'd tried to impress the older man, even going so far as to read Cicero to keep up with Kay's impassioned speeches. He hung on Kay's every word, sometimes imagining that he was acting in the way he would with an older brother. To see that brother's disappointment made Arthur feel like everything he held dear was coming apart at the seems.
He'd passed laws to help protect his people. Why, then, did he hurt those closest to him?
Speeches were made, honors given, wine drunk. Wart came over and whispered something in Kay's ear that made the other man laugh so loudly everyone stared at him, and Arthur wished Merlin, who was also smirking, would share the joke. But he'd broken a bond of trust that had always been between them. Broken it, and had no idea how it was to be repaired.
The entire feast Arthur was on edge, and his laugh was too loud, his voice was too hearty. No one noticed except Leon, who kept looking at him, forehead wrinkled, and Kay, of course, who ignored Arthur throughout most of the meal. Arthur felt like he was drowning, and for the first time since Merlin came to Camelot he felt alone in sea of people.
"You cabbage head." An affectionate voice came from the doorway, and Arthur stopped trying to tug his chainmail off with one hand. Small, deft fingers untied knots and lifted belts.
"Merlin!" Arthur almost yelped, then leapt immediately into the apology he'd been thinking all through the feast. "I - you should know I don't think of you as just a servant. You're amazingly loyal, and brave. You're my best friend."
A small ripple of laughter, and Arthur was free from the chain mail and could turn, could face Merlin. "You're laughing." He said, dumbly. "I don't understand."
Merlin shook his head, still smiling that smile that always made Arthur grin in return. "You've never had true friends before, have you Arthur? You have a row and then you forgive each other. That's how it works."
"I - but I almost hit you! And I said terrible things!"
Merlin frowned, "Yeah. But the best part about a row is that you get to bring it up later. I can make you feel guilty for months." The frown deepened, and Merlin looked down. "You scared me. I...after the slavers, I've been thinking awful things. About how useless I am, how I'm nothing more than a servant. When you said those things, I thought that they must be true if you believed it too."
"Merlin!" Arthur straightened up, "Nothing could be further from the truth! I was angry, and said what I thought would most hurt you. And I apologize." Arthur touched Merlin's shoulder carefully. Since the slavers Merlin had a tendency to jump at unexpected touches, but he didn't now. "And you are not useless. You are far, far more than a servant. You're best friend to a king. That has to be written down in the history books somewhere."
"You think?" Merlin asked, surprised.
"Of course," Arthur said, "I can see it now: The Epic of King Arthur and Merlin. It has to be true. Our friendship is the stuff of legends."
thank you to everyone who reviewed. we still cannot believe how many people liked this story that has nothing to do with magic. a story that borrows heavily from The Once and Future King and not the show. thank you, thank you for your support. this would not have gone past the first chapter without you.
ps: the last line is from a television show. if anyone can name it, you get our undying respect.