A/N: Can't believe that this is my last Beyond Recall post, although it is a bit of an epic one. This is the longest instalment by about a thousand words, but there was a lot to cover.
I'm not as happy with the epilogue as I was with the last chapter, but hopefully it will tie things off nicely. Also, I haven't edited this one as much as the others, so I'm hoping that the typos aren't too prevalent. Please forgive me if they are.
Just to say a huge thank you to everyone who has read and favourited and reviewed this story. I really appreciate so many of you taking the time to leave feedback –and a lot of feedback at that; it must have taken ages to write some of those reviews! Thank you so much.
At the moment, I don't have any plans for another story; nothing has sprung to mind recently, and I'm moving to Africa in August, so it might be a tad hectic for me over the next few months! You never know, though: inspiration might strike!
Anyway, enough from me. On with the epilogue and please, for the last time, let me know what you think!
x x x
'Sire!' Arthur turned at the sound of a servant running over to him on the training grounds. He nodded at the knights to continue their drills, signalling to Elyan to take over the session.
'Is there a problem?'
'Queen Guinevere wishes to speak to you.'
'Thank you.' Arthur put his sword back in its sheath and jogged past the servant. He navigated the castle corridors with ease. The busyness of the peace talks seemed like a distant dream now –or perhaps a nightmare- and while he still lived with the deep regret of the failed alliance, he was glad to have his castle back.
Even walking around the castle, however, he was met with reminders of the events that had very nearly led to war. Certain walls and tapestries had clear marks from the clash of swords, while in other areas wreaths of flowers had been laid out for Camelot soldiers who had lost their lives. The courtyard was still covered with flowers, candles and trinkets that the townsfolk and the visitors from the other kingdoms had brought up in the days following the attacks. Arthur had expected the offerings to stop once the other kingdoms had left, but Camelot's citizens had continued in the silent tributes.
The other kingdoms were still very much in Arthur's thoughts and mind. For the first couple of weeks he had remained tense and uncertain, sure at any moment that the fragile truce that they had put together would fail, but it gradually became clear that no-one was willing to risk war.
Arthur had done what he could to try and help build relationships between the kingdoms. He had given supplies to all the visitors for their return journey and he was in frequent correspondence with each of the monarchs, offering aid and future supplies where they were needed. Some seemed to be making the effort to preserve the peace along with him; others were proving to be more difficult.
He quickly closed the distance between the training grounds and his chambers and was met by Guinevere's smiling face.
'What is it?' he asked, matching her enthusiasm though clueless as to what was causing it. She held out a piece of parchment, shaking it at him.
'It's from Chalere; the servants just brought it up for us.' Arthur knew what the parchment said before she told him. He breathed a sigh of relief.
'He's accepted the aid we sent?'
'Yes, and he wishes to work for peace as well.'
Arthur said nothing, just shook his head and then embraced Guinevere. Chalere had been their biggest problem in ensuring that the truce held. If he had been difficult in the talks, then he was even more difficult when war was a possibility. It had been he who had caused Arthur the most concern.
'Then war has been averted?' Guinevere asked.
'Yes, I believe so,' Arthur told her, smiling. 'Assuming Merlin is successful that is,' he added more soberly.
'Merlin will do it,' she told him.
'How can you be sure?'
'Because you asked him to,' she said simply.
Arthur didn't argue. There were not many things that he had come to terms with in the last month, but Merlin was one of the few that he had. And it hadn't been easy. He had put on something of a façade in the few days before Merlin had left as an envoy. It wasn't that everything he had said on the battlements had been a lie; on the contrary; Arthur wasn't sure that he had ever been as honest as he had been that night, but it was not as simple as just starting again. There were so many lies that he had to come to terms with and understand and forgive; so many prejudices that he had to fight and rethink and realign. It had taken many hours of ranting out his difficulties to an ever patient Guinevere; and several nights of wondering round the castle telling himself over and over again that Merlin had only ever done what he felt was right; had only ever protected Arthur and Camelot. And soon the mantras that he had adopted became his truths allowing him to move forward.
There had been many things to consider, especially concerning what Merlin's role would be now. As much as he wanted things to go back to what they had been before with Merlin as his manservant, he couldn't see that future anymore. Merlin was not a servant and to keep him in that position –one that he would probably insist that he wanted to have- was not fair to him; it didn't allow him to use the skills and gifts he had been given, and that was something Arthur wanted to happen. The more he had considered that, the more he understood why Merlin had slipped so easily into Cyathia's way of life; why he had been so willing to fight for it: he had felt that he could be himself, without judgement or fear. One day, Arthur hoped that he would feel the same in Camelot.
That day, of course, would be a long time coming. Arthur had not even begun to consider the ramifications this would have on the future of Camelot when it came to magic. At the moment, he wanted to adjust to the idea himself; anything else would be something for a later time. And when it came down to it, he needed Merlin's help if he was ever to consider the topic of magic in Camelot.
For now, he wanted to ensure that the relationship he had with Merlin was re-established. Anything else could wait until later.
Merlin breathed in deeply as he reached the gate leading into the lower town of Camelot. It had been an entire month since he had left as an envoy and he felt intense relief at being back home.
'Are you going to stand and stare or are you actually going to walk in?' Merlin turned to the speaker with a wry smile.
'I'm savouring the moment.'
'Well savour more quickly. I've got to see if somebody will give me a job. Do you happen to know if Arthur needs another stable hand? I'm really no good at anything else,' Peter told him.
'I don't know,' Gwaine shrugged from behind him. 'Court jester maybe.'
Peter turned and gave the man a glare. The two of them seemed to take great delight in winding each other up, and Merlin had realised over the past few weeks that it was due to the fact they were so similar. Both of them were getting a taste of their own medicine.
'We best get moving,' Leon said, taking several steps forward. 'Arthur is not expecting us. I think, however,' the man answered with a knowing smile, 'that he will pleased at the early return.'
'I really hope so,' Merlin nodded. It wasn't that he thought Arthur would have changed his mind about anything in the past month, but even so, he wasn't sure exactly what the King's reaction would be.
The four of them moved forward, Merlin feeling perfectly at ease in the group. That had not been the case at first. He remembered all too well their journey to Cyathia with the kingdom's survivors. It had been spent in uncomfortable silence with Leon keeping his thoughts to himself, only because –Merlin guessed- the knight had been under strict instructions from Arthur to keep an open mind –the irony! Leon's silence, coupled with Peter's firm defence of Merlin if any comment was made, and Gwaine's constant frowns of disbelief that he had directed at Merlin made for a very long trek.
He and Arthur had talked at length about who should know about Merlin's magic and it had been decided that the inner circle of knights and Guinevere should be told. Merlin hadn't been entirely comfortable with the idea, but Arthur had argued that they needed to know so that they could help with any magical attacks on Camelot, if nothing else. The two of them had told Guinevere together and she, though very taken aback at the news, had not reacted anywhere near as angrily as Arthur had.
The reactions of the knights had been varied. The first thing Gwaine had done was laugh and accuse them of messing around. When they had assured him that it was genuine, and Merlin had given a small demonstration, the knight had laughed again, much to Arthur's chagrin. Elyan and Percival had remained cautiously quiet and had said very little to him, and Leon had, to Merlin's surprise, been the most hostile. It was nowhere near the level of hostility that Arthur had demonstrated, but it went beyond the caution of the other two knights. In the end, Merlin had guessed that it was due to the years that the man had spent fighting against magic. He had been a knight for many years, both under Uther and now Arthur. He didn't have the more common roots of the other knights and he had been fighting against evil sorcerers long before the others had arrived in Camelot.
And yet, when Arthur had decided who was going to go to Cyathia as part of the royal envoy, it was Leon who he chose, along with Gwaine. Merlin knew he'd done it on purpose. If Leon was going to grow accustomed to having a sorcerer in the court, the best thing to do was force him to spend even more time with Merlin. He suspected that Gwaine was there just to balance out Leon's reservations, and he certainly did that. The knight was constantly asking Merlin to show him things with magic, until Merlin felt like he was there solely for the man's entertainment. Leon had not been impressed with the impromptu magic shows.
It had taken most of the journey, but in the end, that knight had come round. Merlin had asked him what had changed his mind one evening in Cyathia.
'Well,' the knight sighed, 'it's hard to believe you're an evil sorcerer when everything you do is just like…well, Merlin.' He smiled. 'Besides, the more I think about it, the more I realise that if you've got magic, then Arthur's better protected than anyone in the kingdom.'
'That was always the plan,' Merlin nodded.
'Well, he's still alive, and I'm sure it's because of you.'
Things had been easier between them after that, which was a blessing considering the difficulties that they were then to face in Cyathia. It had been an arduous and delicate task, one which the three of them had handled to the best of their abilities. It hadn't stopped Merlin from being thrown in prison –a magic-proof one at that- when he had explained his part in Tiden's death, and it hadn't stopped uproar in the court as issues of succession –to which there was no heir- and war with Camelot and retribution were discussed. But their peaceful and open approach –one which Arthur had instructed them carefully on- seemed to pay off in the end. The survivors from the trip to Camelot backed up the story that Merlin told, and the testimony of Steven and his men –retrieved through a complicated magical enchantment that even Merlin couldn't understand- offered even more proof. The five of them were arrested and held in prison. The sentence had not been decided by the time Merlin left.
Meanwhile, the servants and soldiers who had been involved in disrupting the peace talks were also held, while a makeshift government was established to try and ascertain whether they could be accused of treason against Cyathia when they were acting on the misguided orders of their king. More than once, Merlin had wondered what James would have said at these meetings; he had no doubt that the man would have offered strong, wise solutions. Many people asked about James, and Merlin had reluctantly told them, his story being corroborated again by Steven's magically retrieved testimony. Merlin has asked if there were any family members that he needed to contact, but, as he had suspected, James had no known family. It made him sad to think that such a brave man would not be remembered through the eyes of loved ones.
Merlin was released from prison after the first week –partly due to Peter and Gwaine's persistent demands, and partly due to the fact that Leon threatened to contact Arthur over the treatment of his servant- and after that things seemed to improve. Cyathia took some tentative first steps to re-establishing a hierarchy, or at least a temporary one, while Merlin, Gwaine and Leon attempted to begin a diplomatic relationship. It wasn't so much that Arthur wanted to form an alliance with Cyathia, he wasn't ready for that and neither was Camelot, but he did want to be on good terms with the kingdom if that was at all possible. Anything to do with magic would come later, probably much later.
By the time they left, the new Cyathian government were willing to accept Camelot's claims of innocence in the attack and their sincerity in wanting to keep peace between the two kingdoms. That was enough for Merlin.
Peter had appeared the morning of their departure with his bags fully packed and leading his own horse which was loaded down with belongings.
'What are you doing?' Merlin had asked with an incredulous smile, but inwardly he had been overjoyed at the thought of Peter coming to Camelot.
'I'm coming with you.'
'What about your parents?'
'As far as they're concerned I'm helping to bring magic to Camelot. They're very proud. Having a non-magical son in a magical kingdom is a bit of a let down.'
'They don't think that,' Merlin had told him.
'No, but they're glad I'm sticking with you.'
'Sticking with me?'
'Of course; I don't know anyone else. I was thinking,' he carried on before Merlin could speak, 'I could be your apprentice.'
'You just said you didn't have magic!' Gwaine told him. He and Leon had been watching the exchange with amusement. 'And I'm not sure a school for sorcery would be Arthur's idea of a good development.'
'Not that kind of apprentice!' Peter said with a roll of his eyes. 'I mean, like an assistant.'
'I'm a manservant,' Merlin pointed out. 'Servants don't have assistants.'
'You won't stay a manservant though.'
'Well, if things are changing in Camelot, isn't Arthur going to want you at the forefront?'
'Let's not worry about this now,' Leon interrupted. 'We have a long journey back.'
'So I can come?' Peter asked, nearly ecstatic in his enthusiasm.
'Only if you can shut up for the duration of the journey,' Gwaine told him.
'I will if you do,' he shot back.
Merlin smiled as he remembered the back and forth sniping between the two of them throughout their travels back to Camelot. He was fairly sure that their irritation would soon blossom into camaraderie; Merlin wasn't entirely sure he was looking forward to the two of them being on the same side. However, it did remind him of two others who had been at each other's throats at the start of their relationship –actually, that hadn't really changed in all the time he had known Arthur.
He took another deep breath and stepped forward into the town. He needed to speak to Arthur.
With more gentleness than was usual, Merlin knocked on the door to Arthur and Gwen's chambers. He had briefly considered just walking in, but wasn't sure that reminding Arthur about the ease of their previous relationship was the best way forward. It was, however, Gwen's voice that called him in. He pushed the door open and walked in.
The joy on her face as she saw him was enough to make him grin and then laugh at her enthusiasm.
'Merlin!' she called, before running over and flinging her arms around him. 'It's so good to see you.'
'You too, if that's the welcome I get. I'm not sure anyone else will be that pleased to see me.' Gwen pulled back and gave him a scolding look that was full of affection.
'You know that's not true.'
Merlin just grinned at her again, overjoyed at her welcome and so pleased that he could remember just how wonderful she was. He still didn't really understand how Arthur had managed to marry her. Looking back over the weeks of his memory loss, he wished that he had had some memory returns of Gwen. Surely if he had remembered even the smallest amount of her kindness, he would have gone against Tiden sooner. He sighed and shook his head; there was no point reliving everything over and over again; he would drive himself mad.
She asked him a few questions about Cyathia and how everything had gone, which he answered briefly, but the longer he stood in Arthur's chambers, the more nervous he became at the thought of speaking to Arthur and discovering exactly what their relationship now was. His concern must have shown on his face.
'Are you alright?' Gwen asked, one hand on his arm.
'Just…' he smiled and shook his head. '…being back…'
'It will be fine,' she assured him. He said nothing, just gave her an unconvinced nod. 'It will!'
'You tell the future now?' he teased.
'No, but I know Arthur.'
'If you don't believe me, go and talk to him.' The look on her face made Merlin frown in suspicion. She was still smiling at him widely, he enthusiasm infectious.
'Do you know something I don't?' he pressed.
'Merlin, just go and talk to him. It won't be as bad as you think. He's missed you.'
'He said that?'
'It doesn't matter whether he did or didn't; I can tell,' she said forcefully when Merlin opened his mouth to argue. 'Just go and talk to him.'
'Alright.' He stared at her, his eyes narrowed for several seconds. 'Do you know where he is?'
'The north tower I'd imagine, top floor.'
'The north tower?' Merlin asked in surprise.
'Why's he there?' For as long as Merlin had been in Camelot, the north tower had been all but deserted. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with it, but it hadn't been needed in the last few generations and, as such, had become somewhat run down. Even during the talks, only the lower levels had been used.
'Why don't you go and find out,' Gwen told him, nodding towards the door. Merlin laughed at her, intrigued as to what was going on, but it was clear that she wasn't going to say anything else.
'Very well, I'll go and investigate.'
After one more suspicious glance at her, he turned towards the door.
'Merlin.' He turned back at Gwen's gentle call. 'I'm really glad you're back.'
He made his way to the north tower; a feeling of trepidation growing with every step. The last time that he and Arthur had spoken they had been on good terms. There was still the uncertainty and caution that had marked their exchanges since their conversation on the battlements, but that had been over a month ago. He truly didn't know how Arthur would react to him now/
Before he knew it, though, he had reached the stairs that led to the top floor of the north tower –the very dark stairs that led to the top floor of the north tower. Merlin squinted through the gloom, considered using magic to light the passageway and then changed his mind, deciding instead to flail his arms wildly.
'Arthur?' he called, choking slightly on the dust. He searched the walls for a torch, but all of the sconces were empty. He was saved from falling to his death in the darkness by a small amount of light creeping in from a window at the top of the spiralling staircase. A few more turns and he was standing by the window which provided a truly breathtaking view over Camelot, and to the left of the window was a heavy oak door that looked to as old as the castle itself. Hesitantly he pushed it open.
The room that he was presented with sent a strange sense of familiarity and comfort running through him. He frowned at the sensation, unsure of what had triggered it. He had never been in the room before, he was sure of that. It was quite large, easily as big as Gaius' main chamber, if not quite so packed full of things. That wasn't to say that it was empty. It was fully furnished with a table and chairs, a large writing desk and bookcases that were full of various large volumes -none of them looking like particularly exciting reads. On the floor, there were some thick rugs, which looked to be of a good quality. Three large windows letting in light and a lit fireplace on the right wall made the room warm and comfortable. A decorative fireguard stood in front of it, with a few cooking utensils stacked beside it. Across the other side of the room was a bed with a chest at the bottom of it - a very familiar chest at the bottom of it.
'That's mine,' he exclaimed.
Arthur, who had not heard him come in and was currently putting several large scrolls into said chest, jumped violently at Merlin's shout and turned with a furious look in his eye.
Now he realised why the room felt so familiar: it was full of his things. Not that he had many things, but even so, he now recognised some of the souvenirs that he had picked up on various outings, the blankets that his mother had sent over the years were spread across the bed and several of the medicinal books that Gaius had given to him were on the bookshelves.
'Sorry,' he murmured, still searching out items in the room. 'But…what's going on?'
'When did you get back?' Arthur asked, ignoring the question completely.
'Erm…' He turned full circle as he looked around the room.
'Merlin?' Arthur's insistent tone brought Merlin's attention back.
'Not long ago. I went to your chambers and then Gwen sent me up here.'
'You haven't spoken to Gaius?'
'No, why?' Arthur shook his head.
'It doesn't…You're not supposed to be back yet.' Merlin hid a sigh at Arthur's accusing tone.
'Well, we finished early and decided to come back.'
'You've done everything?'
'What can I say, I'm efficient,' he replied with a shrug. Quickly, Arthur replaced the lid of the chest that he had been standing next to, seeming to have gotten over his embarrassment at Merlin scaring him. Merlin took a deep breath; perhaps now their conversation would be somewhat more productive and probably much more difficult.
'How did everything go in Cyathia?' he asked.
'I think it will be alright,' Merlin nodded.
'Yes. We did everything you said. I don't think Cyathia will be a problem. Arthur nodded, a smile creeping across his face. 'And I think I make a good envoy,' Merlin added, encouraging Arthur into some sort of disdainful comment, but the man merely nodded with a half laugh.
'You can usually talk people round.'
'Leon and Gwaine can help me give you all the details latter, if you want.'
'That would be good.'
Silence reigned in the room for several seconds.
'Arthur, what is this place? And why are my things here?'
Arthur looked distinctly uncomfortable at the questions and took to looking around the room.
'Gaius was meant to tell you.'
'Tell me what?'
'About this room.'
'What about it?' Merlin asked, in frustration, although the more he looked around the room, the more he began to get an idea of what Arthur was trying and failing to say. 'Are you imprisoning me in a tower?' Merlin asked nonchalantly. Arthur glared at him.
'I've already told you Merlin: no banishment, no imprisonment, no execution.'
'You didn't tell me the last two,' he argued.
'Surely they were implied!' Merlin couldn't repress a grin at how riled Arthur seemed to be at the comments. The familiarity of it flowed through him, calming his worries and fears. In the days before he had left as an envoy, the banter between them had been almost non-existent; there had been too many raw emotions for that sort of levity, but now, it seemed, time had allowed for some of that lightheartedness to creep back in.
'No, but that's good to know,' Merlin told him. 'So this room is…?'
Arthur sighed heavily.
'Fine,' he muttered. 'While you've been away, I've been thinking about…well, about what you're going to do now. And don't,' he began loudly as Merlin opened his mouth to protest, 'tell me that you'll still be my manservant. You can't do that anymore, Merlin. It's just…it's a waste. Any idiot can clean up after me –you did it for long enough- but now there's a job that only you can do.'
'Arthur,' Merlin began. 'I like being your servant…most of the time. That's what I'm meant to do.'
'No it's not,' Arthur told him. 'We talked about this. You said yourself that you're meant to serve me, and it's an honour for me to have that loyalty from you, but not as a servant. There's too much potential in you for that.'
'So what's this then?' Merlin asked. 'A nice room to keep me as far away from everyone else in the castle as is possible?'
'Don't be so dramatic. Being a long way from anybody will work to your advantage, trust me.'
'What are you talking about?'
'Look.' He had walked to the other side of the room until he was in front of one of the windows, beckoning Merlin to come over. Hiding his scepticism, he did so. Quickly Arthur knelt down, pressing his fingers into the cracks between two of the stone slabs on the floor.
'Arthur, it's great that you're taking such an interest in how clean the floor is, but-'
'Shut up, Merlin,' he muttered, 'at some point you'll have to do this on your own and I'd like to see you try and lift this.'
'Really?' Before he could consider what he was doing and change his mind, Merlin raised his hand and whispered a few words. Instantly the stone slab lifted away from the floor, making Arthur jump for the second time in as many minutes. He looked around frantically for a few moments, then up at Merlin, his expression changing to one of reluctant understanding. 'Sorry,' Merlin muttered.
'You didn't do anything wrong,' Arthur told him, standing up again. Merlin felt a swell of gratitude go through him.
'So, this is a very nice hole in the floor of what I'm guessing is my new chamber, but I think it might be a bit dangerous.'
'It's not a hole, Merlin; it's a door.'
'A door? A door to what?'
At this Arthur did smile.
'To what I can only describe as a highly illegal room. I've broken all my own laws to put it there.'
Merlin frowned at him, tilting his head to the side, but Arthur said nothing, just indicated that Merlin should follow him as he lowered himself into the hole. Feeling somewhat bewildered, Merlin did so. He briefly wondered if Arthur had arranged a secret murder, but decided that if he had wanted to kill Merlin, he'd have done it years ago, and probably much more publically.
Sitting on the edge of the dark space, Merlin dangled his feet into the gloom and felt metal rungs running down the wall. He slowly climbed down the ancient looking ladder for several metres and then found his feet hitting the floor. The new area, however, was pitch black. He raised his hands in front of him and promptly smacked Arthur in the back.
'Merlin,' he growled.
'Well, I can't see anything.'
'There's a torch down here somewhere…' Arthur mused, his voice seeming to jump around as he attempted to navigate the pitch black room. With a sigh, Merlin raised a hand and brought a dozen glowing blue orbs into existence, sending them up to rest on the high ceiling. He looked at Arthur; he was watching the lights with a somewhat strained expression on his face, but, with effort, he nodded at Merlin.
'Arthur, if it's a problem-'
'It isn't,' he insisted firmly. 'It will just take time.'
Merlin nodded his understanding, but was quickly distracted as he glanced around the hidden room that he found himself in. He couldn't stop a gasp from escaping his throat as he looked around and as he suddenly became aware of the atmosphere in the small space.
He took a few steps forwards until he was in the centre of the space, and then turned full circle. Around the room were several bookshelves and every single one of them was filled to bursting with what he instantly knew were magic books. He could sense the power in them, the potential and the history. On the other side of the room was a huge cabinet with cross-hatch windows. But through them, Merlin could see any number of magical artefacts, crystals –he repressed a shudder- and amulets. Against the back wall, there was a massive desk on top of which was his magic book, while his staff was leaning carefully against the wall by the fireplace. And, finally, close to the ladder that he and Arthur had just descended was an apothecary table, loaded up with more jars, pots and vials than Merlin could count.
He turned back to Arthur, his eyes wide and his mouth agape, to be met by the unsure, but determined face of his king.
'Arthur, what…?' He turned again, taking in the room once more. 'Where did you get all of these things?'
'My father had a lot of them locked away during the purge. A few were in certain restricted sections of the archives,' he explained quickly.
'So this place is…' he shook his head, searching for the right word.
'A study, or a workshop,' Arthur offered. 'Everything to do with Camelot's history and politics that you might need are upstairs, but down here, you can work on anything…magical, without worrying about anyone finding out.' Merlin had never heard such nervousness or uncertainty in his friend before. He was struggling, that much was evident, but it was also clear that he was determined to do this, determined to give Merlin this opportunity and experience. 'No-one knows about the false floor, except those that already know about your magic. You'll be safe to work here until things change in Camelot. I don't know when that will be, but one day you won't have to hide.'
'You did this?' Merlin breathed. 'You brought everything up here, organised everything?'
'Guinevere and Gaius helped, as well as Percival and Elyan.'
'But this was your doing?'
'Well I am the King,' Arthur pointed out, a wry smile coming onto his face. 'I'd be worried if it wasn't.'
'Arthur, I…' he laughed and shook his head at his friend, '…I don't know what to say…'
'That makes a change.'
'…I can't believe you did this.'
Arthur began shuffling uncomfortably under Merlin's continual gaze.
'Well, you could hardly conduct magical experiments in the Court Physician's chambers could you,' he answered hastily, moving to the other side of the room as if he was suddenly interested by the books that were on the shelf. Merlin took another look around the room, breathing it all in, feeling at once like this was meant to be his room, his place from which to find ways and means to defend and fight for Camelot.
'Arthur,' he called. The King turned expectantly. 'Thank you.' Arthur simply nodded.
A few minutes later, the two of them climbed back up the ladder and found themselves in what Merlin now viewed as his new room. He looked around once again, reading the titles of the heavy volumes on the bookshelves. He realised what Arthur had been saying about Camelot's political history and frowned.
'So, what exactly is my job now?'
'That hasn't been completely decided,' Arthur told him. 'Obviously, magical issues are now your domain.'
'Not that I'm giving you free reign,' he added pointedly. 'I want you to keep me informed of any magical issues in Camelot: threats, solutions, any ways in which magic could be used to help.'
'So, I'm sort of your advisor,' Merlin replied, keeping his face neutral and fighting the smirk that was trying to creep into his features. Arthur narrowed his eyes at him.
'You are not my advisor.'
'Why not? I'll be giving you advice on how to handle magical issues. And, to be honest, I've always given you advice.'
'Not advice that I listened to.'
'And how did that turn out most of the time?' Merlin asked him with feigned intrigue. Arthur sighed heavily and shook his head.
'Fine,' he muttered. 'It's an advisory position.'
Merlin allowed himself a grin, which Arthur promptly ignored before heading to the door.
'Come on,' he said. 'We need to go and see Gaius; he knows a lot more about everything that's down there.' Merlin repressed a laugh at the wary look that Arthur directed at the floor; he didn't want to embarrass him, not when he was making such a monumental effort. They headed out of the door, Arthur quickly locking it before handing Merlin the key.
The walk down towards Gaius' chambers was quiet, but comfortable in a way that Arthur hadn't dared to hope for this early on. He had expected things to be difficult; that the month gap since their last meeting would have created a void; that his evident reluctance when it came to magic –a reluctance that he was fighting to be rid of- would put a wall between himself and Merlin, but that wasn't the case. Walking through the castle with Merlin at his side felt right, even if their relationship would now have to exist in a different way. It seemed that Merlin's thoughts had taken a similar route because a few seconds later he spoke up.
'If I'm not your manservant anymore, does that mean I won't be going on missions and quests with you?' The man's tone was light, but Arthur could sense the hope. He had been faced with similar questions in the last few weeks, but the thought of going on missions without Merlin had sent a wave of sadness cascading through him.
'Of course you'll be going with me. Only now you can take credit for defeating the thieves and bandits and monsters that we come across.'
'And now I know you can protect yourself, I won't even have to feel guilty about taking you.'
'You felt guilty?'
'On occasion,' Arthur shrugged. There hadn't been many times when he'd felt guilty; Merlin was so infrequently hurt on their trips that he had got used to not worrying; now, of course, he knew why his manservant had always remained so unscathed. 'But then you always did come back,' he added with a wry smile in Merlin's direction.
'So I'll be there as protector, advisor and envoy?'
'You just said I wasn't your servant.'
'And you just said that you still wanted to be my servant. This way you get the best of both words,' Arthur told him, trying and failing to hide the amusement that was crossing his face.
'That's very kind of you, Sire. Your generosity knows no bounds.' The sarcasm in the words made Arthur smile, but he covered it quickly and sighed indignantly.
'I gave you a…' he lowered his voice, '…I gave you a room full of magic books. What more do you want?'
'Can I have a new set of clothes for my advisory role?'
He looked down at Merlin's threadbare clothes, wondering how the man had stayed in them for so long.
'I'll see what I can do,' he nodded after a moment's pause.
'If I'm sending you off as an envoy, you'll need to look respectable.'
Merlin shook his head, smiling to himself and Arthur found himself mimicking the gestures.
'Have you got a new servant yet, then?' Merlin asked after a few moments. Arthur sighed. That was one thing that he hadn't really wanted to deal with. In part, it was because he didn't want Merlin to come back and feel like he had been replaced, but mainly it was due to the fact that he didn't particularly want to go back to having a quiet, frightened servant whose loyalty went only so far. It was one of the worst things that he had had to face when deciding on the new role that he was giving his friend: the fact that he and Merlin would never again have the master-servant relationship that he had taken such strength from before. Although he hated to admit it, he knew that he would miss Merlin a lot. He had reluctantly, and with much prompting, voiced the concern to Guinevere one night, only for her to point out that Arthur needed no excuse to spend time with a friend.
'No,' Arthur sighed.
'What about George?'
'I'm not hiring George. And I'm not keeping the one that I had when I thought you were dead.'
'What's wrong with him?'
'He doesn't say anything.'
'I would have thought that'd be your idea of the perfect servant.'
'It seems, Merlin, that having you as a servant all those years has ruined my ability to tolerate highly competent employees.'
'I think I've just developed your criteria. So you haven't got any candidates?' The way that he said it made Arthur frown in suspicion.
'Why? Do you have someone in mind?'
'Actually, I do,' Merlin nodded. Arthur stopped walking, his eyes narrowed as he looked at Merlin.
'A friend of mine.'
'That doesn't fill me with confidence.'
'He's new in Camelot, he's worked as part of a royal household before and I trust him with my life.'
'He's worked as a servant?'
'Not exactly. But,' he continued hastily, 'neither had I and that didn't turn out too badly.'
Arthur inhaled deeply, considering Merlin's words. He knew that the man wouldn't have made a suggestion unless he was relatively certain it was a good one.
'And you think he'd work well; that I could put up with him?'
'Of course, you're the image of a patient and understanding employer.'
Arthur fixed him with a glare and then continued walking.
'I suppose he can't be any worse than you,' Arthur mused. Merlin said nothing, just fell into step beside him. 'What's his name?'
'Peter,' Merlin replied.
'The Cyathian stable hand you hid from me?' Arthur asked him incredulously.
'I didn't hide him from you; I just didn't let you put him in the dungeons. He was injured trying to help you, remember,' Merlin pointed out. Arthur conceded the point. 'Besides I think the two of you will get along really well.'
'He's a stable hand, not a servant, Merlin.'
'He's a fast learner.'
'Would he even want the job?'
'Erm…' Merlin frowned, looking less than certain of the answer. 'Well, I can always ask. I might as well, you need a servant, Arthur, and what better way of building a relationship with Cyathia than by employing one of their citizens?'
Arthur didn't respond for a moment. Several sentimental ideas formed in his head: the fact that any other servant would never match up to the sort of servant Merlin had been; the idea that a new employee had a tough act to follow. He kept them to himself, but eventually nodded; Merlin's logic was sound.
'Alright, Merlin; I've trusted you this far. And if you are an advisor now,' he added with a roll of his eyes, 'I suppose I should listen.'
'Perhaps, instead,' Merlin replied quietly, 'you should listen because I'm your friend.'
Arthur turned to him, his face softening as he nodded slowly.
'Yes, I think you're right.'
'I always am,' Merlin grinned. Arthur shook his head in amusement and then slung his arm around Merlin's shoulder.
'Come on then, my friend,' he smiled. 'I have a new kingdom to build, and your advice would be greatly appreciated.'