Author's Note: My first foray into the Merlin fandom. You seem like a pleasant bunch of people and I'm eager to join the Merlin love.
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin. If I did it would never end.
The Manservant's Secret.
There's something wrong with Merlin.
Over the last few days he's been distant. For many people, this would be easy to ignore, but combined with the hollow look in his eyes, it becomes something I can't dismiss.
"Gwaine, there's nothing strange about Merlin except that, well... He's Merlin."
Is it treason to roll my eyes at the king?
"Okay. So there's always been something about Merlin that's different," I say, not to offend His Royal Obtuseness. "But the last few days, it's been... I don't know." And I don't.
Arthur shrugs it off and I turn to leave his chambers in no better a mood than I arrived.
"Gwaine," the golden haired king calls me back.
He replaces his quill in the ink pot, and starts to put the papers on his desk into a pile. This action somehow defies the laws of the universe and makes the surface look even messier.
He looks across the desk with a level stare which reminds me of how great a king he makes to this land. That doesn't mean he's not borderline useless with relating one on one to people.
"I know you are simply concerned, and I appreciate your kindness. I know Merlin would too. But I think I would know if there was anything wrong. I spend most of my time with him. Anyway, he's rubbish at keeping secrets."
Percival is with Leon at the training grounds. As I approach, Percival knocks Leon to the ground and pins him with his shield. Leon yields and Percival offers his hand to yank him up off his back. Leon notices my presence before Percival does and calls across to me.
"Morning, Gwaine. Come to practice?"
Percival turns to smile at me. "You can take over from Leon and partner with me. I'm getting bored of beating him and he must be tired of lying on the grass by now," he says with a sly smile. Leon laughs and punches him lightly on the arm. Percival, giant that he is, does not even sway with the blow.
"Nah, I'm off to patrol the lower town in a few minutes. I just wanted to ask you something before I go off."
Percival sits down on the bench at the side of the training ground, and rests his sword on his knee. Leon puts one foot on the seat by Percival and, still slightly breathless, asks, "Go on then. What is it?"
Percival is examining his blade but looks up at my next words.
"Have either of you noticed something strange about Merlin?"
Leon's brow wrinkles and Percival frowns. He looks like he's thinking hard. I hold myself back from asking if it's painful.
Leon shakes his head. "Not really, mate. Nothing out of the ordinary."
"He's been so..." I wave my hands around, trying to think of the right word. Sad, quiet, guarded. None of them are quite right. "Secretive," I say lamely, settling on the only one I can think of which is close to what I mean.
Percival laughs. "I think you'll find that's kind of how Merlin is. I mean, yes, he comes across loud and confident but I've always got the impression he holds his cards close to his chest."
Leon shakes his head. "I don't think Merlin even has cards. He's an open book."
I look at Leon closely. "You've known him longer than I have. Are you sure you don't think he's different recently?"
"I don't know what to tell you. As far as I'm concerned, if Merlin was worried about something he'd tell someone. Have you spoken to Arthur?"
I nod. "He's not worried."
"Gaius, then?" Percival says, turning his gaze back to his blade, inspecting the metal closely. Leon leans down to tighten the lace on his worn-in boots. I feel like smacking my head on the nearest wall.
Next stop, Gaius. Why wasn't he my first destination? Maybe there's something in the water in Camelot which makes people slower to do the obvious...
Unfortunately, I wasn't lying to Leon and Percival and I am due for patrol in the lower town. The tedious task is made even longer by my eagerness to run to the court physician's rooms.
The other knight on patrol with me, Aspen, is quite new and there's no point in questioning him about my friend. I'm not sure they've ever exchanged more than two words. He's usually friendly enough and seems bothered by my abrupt and impatient mood. I'll apologise to him when I'm less on edge. Right now there's nothing I want more than to finish this and leave.
I run off the moment patrol ends, leaving Aspen confused in the armoury. I make it up two floors and across to the other side of the castle in record time. Without knocking, I barge through the door and look around wildly.
Merlin is sitting at the table and his head shoots up at my noisy entrance. With one fluid movement, he slams a book on the table in front of him closed and stands, one hand resting on the cover, obscuring the title.
"Gwaine? Is something wrong with Arthur? One of the knights?" His bright blue eyes grow wide with concern and I curse myself for my thoughtless entrance.
"Didn't mean to startle you," I say with a grin. "Everyone's fine, don't get your underskirt in a twist." I regret the words the moment they leave my mouth. I don't want to make him more guarded.
Merlin retreats back to that place inside where it seems it is impossible for anyone to follow. He sits back down on the bench, moving the book in front of him to lie on the bench next to him, out of sight, so he can make more room to rest his elbows on the table.
"Gaius around?" I break the silence before it can stretch into awkward territory. Merlin shakes his head.
"Disease outbreak in one of the outlying villages, he should be back tomorrow. Anything I can help with?" His eyes run over my exposed skin, I guess for any injuries or wounds. He visibly tries to suppress a grimace when he sees none.
I can't help myself. "I suppose. I have this nasty rash on my... Lower back, if you know what I mean." It's hard not to smile.
Merlin closes his eyes briefly in what I can only assume is horror and he stands up reluctantly. "We have ointment for rashes. If I could just... Have a look?" He says, now looking a little faint. He steps around the table and I can no longer stop myself from grinning. He freezes, surprised at my lack of embarrassment.
"I'm joking, mate. Don't worry."
Merlin nods, no trace of a smile and returns to his seat. See? This is what I'm talking about. A few weeks ago there would be a cheeky comeback, a roll of the eyes, an exchange of friendly insults. Now he just seems vacant.
He settles himself back on his seat and looks up at me.
I feel the cheerful expression on my face dissolve like sugar in water. "You okay, mate?"
"I'm fine," he replies automatically. His face is frighteningly devoid of emotion.
I shake my head and ease myself onto the seat opposite him. "See, I don't think you are. You've been different the last couple of weeks."
The space between his eyes crinkles in confusion but the eyes themselves look wary. "Have I?"
"Yes," I say firmly. "You have."
"I don't know!" I exclaim, a little frustrated. "Distant, quieter."
Merlin shrugs. "I don't think so."
"You have," I insist. "Look, I told you once, Merlin, that you were the best friend I ever had and I stand by that. I want you to know that I'm here and you can talk to me. Seriously now, no judgement, if there's anything at all..." I trail into silence, hoping. Merlin's face relaxes and he looks touched.
"I appreciate it, Gwaine, I really do. I'm sorry if I worried you, but there's nothing wrong." He lets out a little laugh, a tiny, self deprecating chuckle with absolutely no humour behind it at all. "If I've been a little quieter, maybe I'm homesick or something. It's been a while since I was back in Ealdor. Look, if it will make you feel better, I'll talk to Arthur about getting some time off and go home for a few days. It's about time I was due a break anyway. Seriously, you guys have no idea how hard I work. You'd be lost without me." He smiles, a small glimmer of amusement sneaking back into his eyes but he blinks and it's gone.
I make him promise talk to Arthur and we move on to other topics. I wish I was convinced but its clear that if I want to find the truth, Merlin is either unwilling or unable to share it.
If I was someone else, maybe I'd let it go. But I'm not someone else.
It just so happens that I am on sentry duty at the gate the night of my conversation with Merlin.
Most nights I am standing still for hours and nothing happens. And I mean nothing.
Morgana has not been sighted for months, a fact which worries more than it reassures. I like to know where my enemies are. With the witch mysteriously missing for the time being, the attack count on the city has fallen drastically and in the last couple of weeks the only suspicious thing I've seen is two teenage boys whispering and eyeing up a blonde in the town square. Turns out one of them fancied her and was trying to persuade his mate to ask her to some gathering or other.
Around one in the morning I have fallen into a kind of waking dream. The attractive bar maid in the tavern is plying me with free ale and smiling in that way. I am so absorbed in the pleasant image that its a moment before I recognise the creaking sound that reaches my ears for what it is. Not Adrianna sitting next to me in the old bench, but a hooded figure exiting through a rusty gate further down the perimeter wall.
I stand up straight, my eyes straining through the darkness to see. That gate is always locked, which is why we do not need to guard it. The only key is kept by the king. I narrow my eyes at the figure who breaks away from the shadow cast by the wall and moves towards the forest.
I cannot see his face and I open my mouth to tell him to halt when something stops me. The way he moves, the turn of his head as he looks around him, it's familiar to me. It hits me almost immediately and my mind is made up a second after that.
I hurriedly tell Aspen, dozing against the opposite wall, that I am going to patrol the perimeter wall and slip away after the mysterious silhouette with the familiar gait.
Despite the late hour and the poor light, he does not stumble once but, so transfixed am I upon not losing sight of him, I myself have a couple of near misses.
In the dark, the trees seem closer together, crowding on on all sides until they form a solid wall of black in all directions. Thankfully, the soft grass underfoot makes my steps almost inaudible and, as Merlin himself does not seem to be taking any great lengths to muffle his steps, the small noises I am making do not draw his attention.
Where could he be going at this time? I tell myself that the reason for my stalki- following him is to make sure that he does not come to harm alone in the woods at night. Even as I think it, I know the reason is less to do with me being protective and more to do with me being nosy.
Twice he pauses and looks around, apparently getting his bearings and I dodge behind trees to stay out of sight. He determines his direction and begins walking again with sure steps, never tripping over unearthed tree roots or logs. I wonder if this can be the same Merlin whose clumsiness while hunting has scared off many a doe or rabbit.
We walk through the woods for perhaps twenty minutes, through the tall trees, winding along a path that only Merlin knows, one which he follows at a steady pace as if he has done it a thousand times before.
When he breaks the tree line I hang back, remaining under the cover of the shadows of the forest, peering out at him wordlessly.
He comes to a stop at the edge of a lake, removing his cloak and dropping it to the wet grass at his side. The waves lick at the toes of his boots as he simply stands motionless, looking out over the glassy surface which reflects the moon and but no stars on this cloudy night. There has been a fire close by recently. I can smell the smoke in the air, borne into my nostrils by the night air.
It is almost silent. The wind rustles through the leaves and brushes against me and I am thankful for the warm lining of my cloak. Merlin, although without his jacket, does not seem to feel the cold. The wind combs through his long ebony hair, caressing it with chilly fingers but he does not even shiver.
He is waiting.
I glance around, scanning the edge of the lake for a moving shadow, a quivering bush, anything. There is nothing.
A deep sigh emerges from the depths of Merlin's chest. It sounds tortured, as if it pains him to breathe and I am about to emerge from my hiding place, surveillance be damned, to help my friend. I am a second away from stepping out of the shadow when she appears.
Rising out of the centre of the lake with a graceful ease she raises her dark head and her eyes fix on Merlin. He catches sight of her and sways forward on the spot. For a moment I think he might dive head first into the lake to join her.
She steps closer, somehow not causing even a ripple on the surface.
Her face bears a soft smile and kindness and warmth shines through, dispelling the chill in the air. Her skin is pale, white in the moonlight and she is slight, thin to the point of being able to see her collarbone above her red dress. Her hair is dark and tangled, falling midway down her back. The lake water comes just above her ankles so I cannot see her feet but she seems to walk on an invisible platform just below the surface. She does not stop moving towards him, as if pulled towards him by a magnetic force.
"Hello," Merlin whispers when she comes to a stop in front of him, inches away. His hand trembles by his side and starts to rise, to reach out to her. He stops himself just before making contact.
She stares at him, drinking in his face. He seems content to just stand in her presence and from the looks of it, he is breathing much more easily now, his chest expanding and deflating with deep breaths. I find myself matching my breaths with his and on one of these deep breaths, I catch the curious scent of strawberries in the air, despite it not being the season.
"It's been a while," he says after a few moments. "I'm sorry. I tried to get time, I really did."
"It only matters that you're here now." Her voice echoes around the clearing, at once clear as a bell and fading like mist on a winter's morning.
"I had to come. Today of all days. I've missed you." This last whispered confession sounds like it is ripped from his throat and a wave of despair swells and fills the air, both suffocating and agonisingly hollow.
The girl's smile fades and, although I can't be sure because she is covered head to toe in a sheen of lake water, it looks like a tear leaks down her face.
"Me too. I've missed you too," she says, so quietly that I can only be sure of the words because I watch her lips forming each syllable.
Tears fill Merlin's eyes. This time there's no mistaking the sight.
"You know, I think I could search the world and, even if I had an eternity to do it, I'd never find anyone I'd love as much as I love you," he bursts out, his voice shaking with emotion.
I am taken aback at the sincerity, the truth ringing in every word. How did I not know about this girl? Every line, every muscle and fibre of his body appears to be screaming out, broadcasting just how important she is. And I, who claims that he is my best friend, did not know this vital truth about him. I can't pretend it doesn't hurt.
Merlin tilts his head slightly to the side and stares hard at the brunette. It looks as if he were trying to commit her to memory, this pale little thing with painfully thin arms and dripping hair.
I look at her, trying to see what he sees. She's pretty, I guess, but the most striking thing about her is her eyes which are fixed on Merlin's face. They are deep blue and wide, framed by thick lashes. But this isn't why they capture the attention. No, the thing that stands out is the expression, the emotion in those eyes.
She looks like he is the most wonderful thing she has ever laid eyes on.
"I love you," she says. "More every day. I've been watching. I'm so proud of you, my brave, lovely Merlin." I can't place her accent but there's a peculiar inflection on his name. She infuses it with enough affection to send a stab of pain into my chest. I don't know what's going on but I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be invading their privacy like this.
I leave them to it, turning and slipping away through the trees, stepping carefully over twigs and leaves so as to be silent.
I won't push it. Maybe one day my friend will feel able to talk about her, the mysterious girl in the lake. And on that day I'll listen to their story and be glad to be a part of it.