Hello, one and all. I've decided to have a go at another story, but I can't stress enough that updates might not be very regular. I've literally written this chapter and half of the next one and that's as far as I've got. I'll do my best, but I can't promise anything. I'm going to try for weekly updates to start with and then we'll see from there.
So…this story was originally going to be a sort of quiet, introspective tale, with not a lot of epic-ness, but then I thought of another story which had the same first 4000 words, but past that, bore no resemblance to the original. Guess which one you're getting!
Hope you like it. Please let me know!
'I'm just saying: now that you're married, you can't go around smiling at all those women,' Merlin told Arthur, keeping his face neutral and fighting the urge to grin.
'Thank you, marital advisor of Camelot,' Arthur shot back. 'And I wasn't smiling at all those women: I was smiling at everyone and some of them happened to be women.' The King pulled his horse up a little so that Merlin could draw level, the knights a few paces behind him. The staggered procession had been purely for show as they left the town that Arthur had been visiting. It wouldn't have done the King's reputation any good if his servant had led the way out.
Now though, they were out of sight of the small community, only the open plain ahead as they reached the end of their ascent out of the Kaiden Valley.
As far as outings with Arthur went, Merlin was more than happy with the current trend. With Morgana's failed takeover a few months behind them, Camelot was experiencing a rare bout of calmness and peace; on the basis of which Arthur had decided to take the opportunity to visit different areas of his Kingdom, particularly ones that had been overlooked for one reason or another in the past.
Since his ascension to the throne, there had been very little time for Arthur to do those sorts of things, but he was determined to show himself as a King who was concerned for and took interest in the lives of his subjects, not the distant King that his father had been. He hadn't said that in so many words, but Merlin could see it in the way he spoke to the people, in the way he treated them with a respect that Uther would have deemed below a King.
Merlin was proud of him for it, and had voiced the thought to Arthur several times; the first few occasions he had been met with a comment of derision, but after a while, Arthur seemed to show genuine gratitude for the sentiments.
But not only was Merlin proud, he was also thoroughly enjoying himself. The trips were giving him a chance to meet new people and hear about the lives they were living; it gave him the opportunity to watch Arthur's kingly skills and actions develop and mature and it also gave him the chance to get away from the constraints of Camelot's hierarchal system. Of course, when they reached a town, both he and the knights dutifully filled their positions, but in the many hours between times, all of them had a chance to relax, chat and generally enjoy each other's company.
Of course, that freedom didn't extend to Merlin getting out of cooking or cleaning duties, but he didn't mind that so much. Anyway, Percival and Elyan would often give him a hand; they still weren't completely accustomed to being waited on, even after all this time. Gwaine made half-hearted attempts to help, but usually ended up causing more problems; Merlin suspected that some of that was an intentional ploy to avoid extra chores.
'What would you recommend I do?' Arthur continued pointedly, 'Glare at them whenever they look my way?'
'Well that's what you do to me and I'm still convinced you should be King.'
A snort of amusement from at least two of the knights behind gave Merlin a smug satisfaction, along with Arthur's glare, which more than proved his point.
'You know, Merlin; I don't have to bring you along on these state affairs; there are plenty of things that you could be doing back in Camelot.'
Merlin just raised an eyebrow at him.
'I'm indispensable on these trips. Trust me: you'd all starve if I wasn't here.'
'I can hunt,' Arthur argued.
'I know, but can you skin, gut, clean, prepare and stew the meat?'
'It can't be that hard,' he retorted, 'you do it.'
'Well why don't you cook tea for us all tonight?' Merlin suggested nonchalantly. 'I could do with a bit of a rest; it's hard work having to talk you up to everybody.'
A friendly shove was the only reply Merlin got for the comment. He glanced over at Arthur to see the King shaking his head in amusement.
A few hours later found all of them sat round eating a stew –prepared by Merlin- and looking back over their most recent tour of the Kingdom.
'The people appreciate your visits my Lord,' Leon was telling him as he dipped some bread –a gift from yesterday's town- in the sauce.
'The mighty King Arthur deigning to come to their humble dwellings,' Gwaine quipped, but he gave Arthur a grin.
'I want them to know that they are important to me,' Arthur returned, 'and that they have Camelot's protection. For too many years, my Father ignored the outlying lands.'
'You can sense the tension at the beginning of the visits,' Elyan nodded, 'there is bad feeling there.'
'Precisely. A Kingdom can not be strong when there is distrust between the people and their ruler. What we are doing is important,' Arthur told them all, looking at each one in turn, his gaze finally landing on Merlin who gave him a nod of assurance.
'You are giving the people what I never had,' Elyan continued, 'a sense of worth; a sense of belonging and protection. I never felt that when I was living outside of the city.'
'Nor I,' Percival added. 'When Cendred's men killed my family and attacked my village there was no help and no expectation of it. We were abandoned. These people no longer feel like that.'
Percival delivered speeches like that so rarely that it seemed to bring the conversation to a comfortable close. Merlin smiled to himself as he washed up, marvelling in the people that Arthur had managed to find to be his closest friends.
'You have loyal knights around you,' he whispered later that night when they were all settled down. Gwaine was on first watch several metres away and Merlin could hear the rhythmic breathing of the rest of the knights. Arthur, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling to sleep. Merlin looked over from where he lay in the darkness, the King's face just silhouetted in the moonlight.
'I have loyal men around me,' he corrected. 'Last time I looked, Merlin, you weren't a knight.'
'Feel free to knight me of you want.'
'I'd have to find another servant: too much hassle. And I can't imagine you sword fighting your way through a battle.'
'You never know. I've been picking up techniques from all of you.'
'Stick to the cooking Merlin; I think you'll be safer.' He sighed heavily and the silence pressed down heavily.
'Are you alright?' Merlin pressed. 'The tour was a great success; the others were right earlier: the people understand that you are for them.'
'I know. I just don't think it's enough,' he said slowly.
'What more can you do? You've been all over Camelot, Arthur; you've seen thousands of people. Even the surrounding kingdoms must see that your lands are defended.'
'That's just it, Merlin. My lands may be defended, but what of the rest. What of Ealdor?'
'You saved it from those bandits all those years ago; it was defended,' Merlin told him incredulously. 'No-one's been near it since.'
'But my father refused the order because it was in Cendred's lands.'
'An order which you defied.'
'But what I mean is: there must be hundreds of Ealdor's out there; villages living under the rule of an unfair king; helpless when troubles come. Camelot can not always come to their aid; we don't hear about the things that go on. It was only your mother's actions that gave us any indication of Ealdor's persecution.'
Merlin again felt a pride well up in him. How far Arthur had come since that first day when he had fought Merlin and thrown him in the stocks. The emotion in the King's voice showed clearly how desperate he was to help everyone; how much he wanted to use his position and influence to provide for the entire land, not just Camelot. He kept these thoughts to himself, though, knowing that Arthur wasn't saying these things for recognition.
'They aren't your responsibility,' Merlin told him. 'You can not feel guilty for things that are outside of your control.'
'What if they were in my control?'
'A war?' Merlin asked, but he doubted that was where Arthur was heading. The prophecy that Merlin had repeated to himself hundreds of times over the years rose in his mind now. The Once and Future King who would unite the lands of Albion.
'No,' Arthur replied. 'Everyone looses in war, the people most of all. But if there was a way for the kingdom's to work together; for all the kings and queens to rule Albion, rather than their own realms.'
'The five kingdoms are united,' Merlin pointed out, but he could sense Arthur shaking his head.
'It isn't enough. And besides, my father's motives were wrong. He looked for political leverage and military security; his mind was not on keeping the people across the five kingdoms safe. Even if that had been the case, it is only a small percentage of Albion. The whole land has to work together.'
Merlin allowed the depth of Arthur's conviction and passion to fill the space between them before he spoke again.
'It is a good dream, Arthur.'
'A dream that I can not achieve.'
That's not true,' Merlin told him, propping his head up on his hand and turning onto his side to face Arthur. 'If anyone can do it, you can.'
Arthur gave a small laugh, but it was not of disbelief. His tone was gentle when he next spoke.
'I appreciate it, Merlin, I really do, but you realise, don't you, that the faith you put in me is impossibly hard to live up to?'
'You haven't let me down so far.'
'Well, just don't…' he tailed off and shook his head again.
'Don't what?' Merlin prompted.
'It doesn't matter.'
'Come on Arthur.'
'We both need to get some sleep. Back to normal life tomorrow. Night, Merlin.'
Merlin gave a sigh; he wouldn't be able to push Arthur; his tone was clear. 'Goodnight, Arthur.' He closed his eyes, the echoes of their conversation still floating round his head as he fell asleep.
Arthur heard Merlin's breathing even out almost instantly; it showed how tired his manservant had been. But sleep still eluded Arthur as he lay there, his eyes on the few stars that he could see through the foliage above him. Merlin's confidence in him, though he often ridiculed it, usually gave him the resolve he needed to carry out a task, but sometimes it just frightened him; tonight being one of those times. His friend always spoke with such a matter-of-fact attitude about the impossible dreams and quests that Arthur set himself. To unite the whole land of Albion? That was surely an impossible dream, and yet Merlin believed in it already. Arthur had only voiced it as the tiniest of ideas, but Merlin had taken it on board as if it was written in stone.
Yes, it frightened Arthur, but not because of the enormity of the task –though that did little to comfort him. No, what scared him was the standards that he would have to live up to. Just don't… he had said, but he hadn't been able to complete the sentence.
'You haven't let me down so far.'
'Just don't stop believing in me if I do.'
That was the thought that had gone though Arthur's mind at that moment. Because he needed that belief from those around him: from the knights; from Guinevere and from Merlin. He needed their belief. They made him who he was; they guided him on his journey.
It took several hours for him to drift off and when he did he dreamt of Albion: together and whole.
It was Elyan who shook him awake the following morning as the birds chorused in the dawn light. Arthur knew that he had been asleep for at least five or six hours, even with his watch shift in the early hours, but he felt utterly drained. Perhaps the travelling of the last few weeks had taken more of a toll on him than he had realised. Now they had finished their current tour, his body seemed to have decided it was alright to give up for a while.
Still, he could hardly lie their sleeping while the rest of his group were eating breakfast and packing up the camp. He spied Merlin throwing a few bits of wood on a small fire and ambled over to him, patting Leon and Percival on the back as he went and giving Gwaine –who had not moved from under his blanket- a gentle kick in the leg.
'Here,' Merlin said, holding out a bowl of a selection a fruit and what remained of the bread from the previous night. He didn't even bother looking at Arthur, focussing instead on the pattern he was drawing in the dirt with a stick.
'Yet more servant-like conduct from you,' he said sarcastically, sitting beside him and throwing a few bits of apple into his mouth.
'I made you breakfast; that felt servant-like.'
'Fair enough. Have you had any?'
'I'm not that hungry.'
Arthur rolled his eyes. How Merlin remained standing when he ate so little was beyond him.
'Eat something now, or I'll tell on you to Gaius.'
'No you won't,' Merlin told him.
The emphatic sigh from his manservant showed that he at least thought it possible that the King would tell on him. Sulkily, he picked up another bowl and began picking at it. Arthur kept his amusement to himself. On more than one occasion, Gaius had asked him to check that Merlin ate enough. The first few times, Arthur had dismissed it as over-protectiveness on Gaius' part, but when the requests continued, Arthur had watched Merlin closely on one of their hunting trips, only to see that Gaius had a point. From that moment on, Arthur had made sure that Merlin ate a reasonable amount of food whenever they were away from Camelot.
It didn't even seem to be that Merlin didn't want to eat; he just tended to forget. He'd get so caught up in whatever they were doing that meals became a low priority. Arthur couldn't imagine ever falling into the same trap.
A few minutes later, all of them were fed and watered and ready for the long trek home to Camelot. Initially, everyone was quiet, so Arthur occupied himself with thoughts of Guinevere. He had missed her terribly while they had been away. He knew she would have come with them if he had asked, but the thought of the Queen roughing it in the wilderness had not sat comfortably with Arthur. It wasn't fit for a Queen, and Gwen needed all the help she could get in understanding how a queen should act.
It wasn't that she was doing a bad job, far from it; the people loved her and she fulfilled her duties with the skills of someone who had been trained for a court position for years. The problem was that she hated having everything done for her. He had been unsuccessful in his attempts to get her to employ some handmaids; the most she had agreed to was one maidservant who, from what Arthur could tell, served more as a companion and friend, than a servant. When he had mentioned this, Gwen had shot back that Merlin could hardly be described as a king's manservant. Their first argument had followed in which Arthur pointed out that while, yes, Merlin was more like a friend, it didn't stop Arthur from ordering him around the majority of the time. Of all the things for them to argue over: Merlin!
From that point on he had given up trying to convince her to treat her servant as such, and had also decided he was fighting a losing battle when it came to stopping her from tidying their shared chambers. He had made Merlin do it for several weeks when he knew that Gwen would be out, effectively stopping her from having the job to do, but Merlin's tidying skills weren't exactly renowned and Gwen had found plenty to occupy herself.
Stopping her from sleeping rough for a few weeks, therefore, had seemed like a good idea. He hadn't realised at the time, however, just how much he would miss her. He missed waking up beside her; missed seeing her smiling at him in that innocent way that she did. On more than one occasion, Merlin or one of the knights had thrown something at him to snap him out of his daydreams.
He allowed himself to revel in said daydreams for a while, but soon the rising of the sun and the heat of the day seemed to animate his travelling companions. Before long there was a steady murmur of conversation -Merlin rambling on most notably- and Arthur was happy to listen in, offering his own comments every now and then.
It was just before lunch that it happened.
They had reached the wooded area at the top of the Aldon ravine, one that was very rarely traversed. The paths were overgrown and the ground rocky. The path they were trekking along wasn't particularly narrow, but the sheer seventy or eighty metre drop down to the white waters of the Bernt River made Arthur a little nervous. He looked back to check on his men, but they seemed to be equally cautious and were trailed back in a single-file line. The knights were someway behind, laughing at something Gwaine was saying, while Merlin was just behind Arthur, asking –much to Arthur's surprise- when they would be stopping for lunch.
Arthur was about to reply when a slight rustling on the ground behind him alerted him to the fact that something was there. Merlin, too, must have heard it because he glanced down, but as he did, his horse jumped back, her front hooves flying into the air as she reared up. Arthur just about caught sight of the snake that had slithered, quite innocently, across the horse's path, before it disappeared again.
Instantly, Arthur felt his heart race. He pulled his horse to a stop and watched in horror as Merlin's horse backed closer and closer to the edge of the ravine.
'Merlin,' he said slowly, holding a hand out, fearful that any sudden movement from him would scare the horse further. 'You need to get her under control.' But even as he said it, the horse reared again, her eyes wide, her nostrils flaring, her hooves loosing footing on the uneven ground. 'Merlin!'
'I'm trying,' he grimaced, but his face had gone pale. His knuckles were white on the reins and his voice shook as he attempted to soothe the terrified beast.
For a split second, Arthur thought his friend had managed it as the horse planted all four feet firmly on the ground. But the relief evaporated in a flash as she reared again, and Merlin, who was usually so good with animals, fought to bring her back under control. Within seconds she had backed up to the precipice of the ravine.
'Merlin, get off her!' Arthur yelled as he jumped off his own horse, deciding that scaring Merlin's steed was the least of his problems compared to the very real threat that Merlin now faced of being thrown over the edge. He ran forward to try and catch the reins, but just before he got there, she jumped again, higher this time, almost overbalancing herself in her desperate attempt to get away from the snake that had long since disappeared. Arthur saw Merlin's hands come away from the reins and then saw them flailing as he tried to find the ropes again, but his grounding was gone.
Arthur felt like his entire world paused for a moment as his eyes met Merlin's. He knew –that much was obvious. He knew exactly how close to the edge he was and exactly how he would fall and exactly what it meant. He looked at Arthur with something like desperation and something like an apology in his eyes, and then suddenly, the world was moving again and Merlin was being thrown backwards, his limbs flailing and clawing as he tried to catch onto thin air.
'No!' Arthur screamed, the cry echoing all the way along the ravine, louder than the rushing water, more powerful than the unforgiving currents that swirled below. He threw himself forward, making an utterly futile attempt to catch his friend as the crazed horse bolted down the path. All he succeeded in doing was nearly following Merlin. Had it not been for some powerful arms that grabbed his legs, he probably would have found himself rushing down towards the swollen river below, the air sweeping past him, howling in his ears as the inevitable ending approached.
As it was, all he could do was watch as Merlin spiralled down, getting smaller and smaller, his head cracking against a small outcrop, before his body was consumed by white fire at the bottom.