"He's back again, Guinevere."
Arthur's loud complaint woke the cat up from his deep sleep, although the king did sound rather more resigned than annoyed about the intrusion this time around. Yet again, without apparently having any control on the matter, Merlin started to purr.
Gwen sat up slowly and smiled as she saw the animal comfortably nestled in-between them. "How does he keep managing to get in?" she asked. Arthur gave her a sceptical look as she moved to stroke Merlin. "Hey, not guilty – I promise," she insisted.
"Hmm, if you say so," Arthur replied with a smile, moving in to give her a quick kiss. He sighed. "I suppose you need to be getting ready soon?"
"Yes." Gwen's voice had a sad tone to it and Merlin's purring instinctively increased as he wriggled a little closer to the Queen; sensing she needed reassurance, even if he was unable to recall why.
"Of all the times for Merlin to choose to take a holiday," the king complained.
"Oh, Arthur, that's not fair. When has he ever asked this of you before now? And you yourself commented on how unwell he's been looking."
"Yes, yes. I know. It's just …" He sighed. "You know how challenging I find George?"
Gwen giggled and Arthur grumbled as he started to get out of bed, apparently distracted enough to not even attempt to remove Merlin from the bed, even giving him a couple of idle strokes before he walked away. Gwen gave him a more thorough fussing before rising herself, and the pair then simply left the cat where he was and started to get ready for the day ahead.
Not long after, Gwen's maid came in to assist the queen and, seeing Merlin on the bed, instantly came over to fuss him and inform him of how beautiful he was. George was less impressed.
"Is it really wise to keep an … animal in your bed chambers, Sire?" he asked.
"Well, yes, I said much the same thing," Arthur replied. "But I do believe the Queen has grown rather attached to it."
"Very well, Sire." There was a long pause before the servant continued in a world weary voice, "I shall endeavour to find some way of removing all the cat hairs then."
The activity continued around him whilst Merlin happily snoozed, only waking properly on hearing the sound of another four, familiar voices drift over to him from the next room. He sat up eagerly as he recognised the sound and scent, before jumping off the bed and padded into the main room to greet the knights that had entered.
"Oh, he's your cat," Gwaine said, moving quickly over to fuss Merlin. "I met him in the corridor yesterday. What's his name?"
"Pest?" the king suggested with a smile.
"Arthur!" Gwen scolded.
"Suits him though."
"He just turned up yesterday," the queen explained. "We're not really sure who he belongs to."
"Cats don't really belong to anyone though, do they?" Percival said. "They tend to adopt whomever they please."
"Huh," Arthur grumbled. "I'll call him 'Interloper' then, although it's hardly a catchy name."
"That's true," Gwaine agreed. "How about ... Tress Puss?"
"Ha! Perfect!" Arthur agreed whilst everyone else in the room groaned at Gwaine's play on words. "Here, Trespuss, isn't it about time you went outside?"
"Don't you listen to them," Gwen cooed, picking Merlin up and holding him close, stroking him all the time. "You're always welcome here at any time, just you remember that."
"I hate to rush anyone," Leon interrupted with a smile, "but we really should make a start if we intend to get to the cairn and back within the day."
"Yes," Elyan replied with a big sigh. "Are you ready, Gwen?"
She shrugged. "As I'll ever be."
"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?" Arthur asked then.
Gwen laughed. "I know you'd far prefer a day of riding to one sitting in council meetings, but I'm afraid I'm not going to give you that excuse today."
The king smiled gently at her. "Well, it was worth a try. Why don't you all get to your horses and I'll be down in a little while to see you off."
Gwen moved over to give Arthur a quick kiss and deposited the cat in his arms as she did so. "I'll see you when I get back," she said stroking Merlin and addressing him rather than her husband.
"And I'll have a proper name for you by then too, don't you worry," she called over her shoulder as she left with the knights to go and visit her father's grave.
Once the group had gone, Arthur moved toward the desk to collect some papers for his meeting and almost seemed surprised to find he still had a cat in his arms.
"You are a distraction, Trespuss," he grumbled but, despite the stern tone of voice, he still gave the cat a few gentle strokes before putting him very carefully down on the floor. Deciding not to push his luck, Merlin moved towards the main door and sat patiently looking up at it and then around at Arthur as he approached. "See. I told you that was a good idea," the king said as he opened the door. "And it's probably best you make yourself scarce for a while anyway. I don't think George is very keen to have you around."
"The feeling is entirely mutual," Merlin meowed as he strode confidently down the corridor.
Merlin spent the early part of the morning exploring the grounds outside the castle before coming back in for a spot of lunch at the kitchens. A little later, stomach nicely full, he made his way up to the physician's chambers - checking his mentor was absent - before quietly moving into his own room and falling asleep on the bed – already tired from his morning patrol and very heavy meal.
"What in the world are you doing here!" Gaius shocked exclamation had Merlin sitting up on the bed suddenly.
"What?" It came out halfway between a meow and a hiss.
"Honestly, what am I going to do with that boy? Are you just a stray or one of his experiments?"
"Experiment?" Merlin replied indignantly. This was powerful magic and Gaius should be impressed rather than annoyed. Then he remembered the situation and checked himself - giving a softer meow and working hard to look cute again.
"How long have you been in here anyway?" Gaius looked around suspiciously, obviously worried about what he might find on having a cat locked up in a room for over a day. Merlin just stared the old man out for a moment before putting his head back down on the bed. Gaius seemed to have no idea what to do about the situation, finally moving back to the main room whilst leaving the adjoining door open.
Within moments the physician was rushing back in, looking and sounding alarmed as he finally worked out what was going on. "Merlin?" he asked.
"Yes?" The cat lifted his head and chirruped the question.
Gaius' eyebrow raised further than Merlin had ever seen it go before.
"You turned yourself into a cat?"
"Wanted an easy life for a change."
"If that really is you, Merlin, I should inform you that I have absolutely no idea what you're saying."
The sorcerer sighed, sat up and looked over at his desk. Moments later a piece of paper and quill were floating gracefully towards the bed.
"Right, now I know it's you. What are you up to, Merlin?" Gaius asked, sitting on the edge of the bed to read what the quill was now writing.
I'm happy like this for the moment.
"You can't stay in that form?"
Why not? I still have my magic. I can still keep an eye on things.
"How can you be sure that your current form isn't effecting your knowledge and your personality?" As usual, Gaius was being annoyingly perceptive. Merlin had no idea how he could answer that question without admitting that his mentor was probably right.
Just another day or two, Gaius, I promise.
"Do you even know for certain that you can change back?" Gaius pushed. "You know how you are with that ageing spell?" The warlock chose not to reply that time, simply putting his head back down and closing his eyes. "Merlin! Have you even tried?"
The physician stayed there for several long moments before getting up with a huge sigh and moving back into the main room. Merlin continued to doze, not falling fully asleep, as Gaius' words repeated themselves over and over and he debated what he should now do for the best.
"Gaius!" The brief, loud knock followed by Arthur's familiar voice was enough to have Merlin abruptly pulled out of his daydream.
"I've just received news that Guinevere's party has been attacked," the king informed the physician. "They're on their way back here now with casualties, apparently."
"What sort? How many?"
"I'm afraid I don't know. The message was very brief, but I thought I should warn you to make preparations."
"Of course, Sire. Thank you."
"Gaius, do you have any idea when Merlin will be back?" Arthur's voice became suddenly softer, with a hint of desperation behind it that only those that knew him well would be able to detect.
The physician raised his voice very deliberately and spoke with sudden emphasis. "I imagine it would be very helpful to have him close by you right now, wouldn't it, Sire?"
Next door, Merlin raised his eyes at the old man's lack of subtly. As if he couldn't hear perfectly well from here even in human form.
As the King left, Gaius returned to Merlin's room and simply stood at the door looking at him; arms folded and eyebrow raised.
"Alright, alright," Merlin meowed, "I get the message, loud and clear. End of holiday." The magic book had already found its way out from under the floorboards again, opening up in front of Merlin on the relevant page. He leant over it and double checked the spell before hearing Gaius' hearty chuckle and looking up, confused.
"I'm just finding watching a cat read a book with such intense concentration rather amusing," Gaius admitted.
"Well, now you're about to watch a cat cast a spell." Merlin replied. "Hopefully."
"Merlin, hollyhock," Gaius called out.
He was now dashing around the physician's chambers on two legs, trying to quickly reacquaint himself with the sensation.
"One dram?" he asked.
"And dianthus, two drams." Well, it seemed as if his memory was still intact after his unusual experience, at least.
"Three grains," the physician confirmed.
At least this was all a good distraction, although real fear was now bubbling inside of him; fear for the health of Leon and Percival, and especially for Gwen who was now missing. Merlin blinked back tears as he remembered her smile as she'd stroked him and and told him she'd have a name for him when she returned. He would be no longer be any use to his friend as a cat though. She would now need his help as a human sorcerer – even if she could never know exactly how much.
When Gwen returned from the Dark Tower she didn't ask about the cat. In fact, they'd all been so shaken by the experience and everything that had followed, not one person appeared to miss the small, dark, furry creature who had so abruptly waltzed into their lives.
Of course, no-one knew that the queen was under Morgana's control at that time, and even when Merlin did start to suspect something was wrong, it took him quite some time to both prove it and present the evidence to the king. Merlin had other things on his mind as well, although the occasional sight, sound or smell would suddenly, vividly remind him of how it had felt to be feline for those blissful couple of days.
There was no time for such luxuries now though, he had an enchanted friend to bring back to the light and eventually, using all the power at his disposal, Merlin finally managed to cure her.
"Where is he?" It was the first question the fully recovered queen asked as she walked through the door of the royal chambers, her gaze first roaming to the bed and then to the stool by the fire.
"Who?" Arthur asked, confused, as Merlin now entered behind them, quickly checking that the royal couple had everything they needed after their arduous trip to the Cauldron of Arianrhod.
"Freo," Gwen replied, her eyes suddenly tear-filled as she looked around the room again. "The cat. I hoped he would be here when I got home."
"You thought of a name for him," Arthur said, smiling at her affectionately. "Why Freo? Does it have a meaning?"
Gwen nodded but didn't answer, simply sitting sadly on the edge of the bed and gazing wistfully at the fire.
"Free," Merlin replied in her stead, his voice cracking with emotion as he walked past Arthur on his way out the door. "Freo means 'to be free'.
A/N: Yes, I'm aware that there this ending is open enough that it could be continued but, at the moment I have other stories to focus on and this seems like a good place to 'stop'.
However, I do have plans for 'Freo' to return in a future fic that's currently in the early planning stages. In fact I pretty much tailored this chapter in order to ensure that it fits.
Anyway, I know how much you guys have been looking forward to this chapter and I am sorry for the delay but, as you know, I always keep my publishing promises! :D