Merlin listened to the grunts and shouts coming from the knights as they hacked away at each other, smirking down at the armour in his hands. Arthur was currently fighting Elyan and Leon both, keeping them at bay while wearing a blindfold. He could hear Leon's noises of frustration and Elyan's labored breathing from all the way on the edge of the field. Gwaine and Percival were sparring a short distance away, swinging maces at each other with deadly speed and accuracy, though they usually pulled their blows so as not to do any damage to each other. There were a couple of other knights on the far side of the field running through the drills Arthur had set them earlier that morning, but this side was occupied only by Arthur's most trusted knights, those of the Round Table.
Merlin glanced up at them occasionally, practiced hands completing their motions with or without his eyes on them, more out of habit of keeping an eye on Arthur than out of true concern. Call him overprotective, but having Arthur out of his sight for any length of time made him nervous. It had been very quiet as of late, there hadn't been an attack on the kingdom or her king for months, and the lack of opposition was putting Merlin on edge. Morgana never waited this long between assaults, not unless she was injured and regaining her strength. The last attack had been four months ago, and though Morgana had been caught in the earthquake Merlin had summoned, he did not believe for a second that she had allowed herself to be truly injured in it; she was too strong for that now. So what was she waiting for? What was she planning? He shook his head to rid himself of the worrisome thoughts and turned back to polishing Arthur's armour.
Gwaine came over shortly later and plopped down onto the bench next to him, sweaty hair flopping into his face. He took a swig from his water skin and grinned over at him, rotating his shoulder and grimacing.
"Perce got a lucky shot in," he grumbled. Merlin snorted.
"Right, lucky shot," he said. "Can't have anything to do with the fact that the man's stronger than a bear and deceptively quick when he wants to be."
"No, of course not. That's never stopped me from kicking his arse before."
"I think it just did, Gwaine."
"Merlin!" Arthur called from across the field, finally removing his blindfold once he had Leon and Elyan both flat on their backs. "Stop distracting my knights!"
"Oh, yes, Arthur, because it's absolutely my fault they all like me better than you!" he called back with a smirk.
"Get back to work, Merlin."
"As you wish, Sire, as you wish." Gwaine laughed and clapped him on the back before heaving himself off the bench and returning to the field. Arthur immediately tossed him a sword and the two settled into their stances, grinning predatorily at each other. Merlin watched them with a smile on his face. He really enjoyed seeing everyone so happy like this. It almost made him forget about the looming threat of Morgana. Almost.
He finished polishing Arthur's armour and set it aside, leaning back to watch the training at his leisure. The heat of the sun and the familiar sounds of fighting and laughing had nearly lulled him to sleep when he caught sight of an unfamiliar figuring crossing the field toward them. Immediately on alert, Merlin leapt to his feet as the approaching figure caught the attention of the knights and Arthur. To his surprise, the man—who appeared from his armour and white-and-purple tabard to be a foreign knight—did not approach Arthur. Instead, he walked straight up to Merlin himself.
"You are Merlin of Ealdor, manservant to King Arthur, yes?" the man asked casually, his tone oily and supercilious and his expression so dismissive Merlin was already insulted as well as thoroughly suspicious.
"Yes," he answered cautiously, his every muscle tensing. It was never a good thing when people knew him before he knew them. Tentatively, Merlin reached out with his magic, trying to get a sense of the man before him. He probed forward but could feel nothing unusual. The knight had no magic that Merlin could sense, nor did he seem to have any magical objects or talismans or weapons or anything of the sort on his person. "Do I know you?" he asked.
In lieu of a response, the knight unbuckled the gauntlet on his forearm and tossed it to the ground at Merlin's feet.
"I, Sir Carson, challenge you," he stated simply. Merlin gaped at him, thunderstruck.
"What?" Arthur cried. The knights had all gathered around them, staring openmouthed at the confrontation before them. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. Merlin furrowed his brow, staring at this stranger.
"Why do you challenge me, Sir Carson?" he asked in genuine confusion. The man possessed no magic. If he knew Merlin had magic, then he surely wouldn't have challenged him, knowing that he would lose if he did. If he didn't know about Merlin's magic, then how did he know of Merlin at all and what quarrel could he possibly have with him?
"My reasons are my own," the knight answered contemptuously, flicking his wrist as if it were of no importance at all. "Do you accept?" Merlin heard heavy footsteps behind him and knew that Arthur was on his way to intercept the challenge. Quickly, Merlin stooped down and took up the gauntlet before Arthur could snatch it from him.
"I accept your challenge, Sir Carson," he said firmly. He heard gasps behind him and Arthur let out a small cry of outrage. Sir Carson, for his part, looked mildly surprised and even a bit amused. He had obviously not expected Merlin to actually take him up on it. "What are your terms?"
"Single combat," Sir Carson told him, a small smirk playing about his full lips. "Noon tomorrow. To the death." The knights behind him drew in a collective gasp of horror and dismay. They seemed to be holding their breath. Merlin narrowed his eyes at the stranger, his mind racing. After a moment of contemplation, he nodded. Sir Carson's smirk widened and he nodded in return, then turned and walked calmly off the field. Merlin watched him leave for a moment until a heavy hand on his shoulder wrenched him around to face a very red in the face Arthur.
"What the hell are you thinking, Merlin?!" he demanded, his face displaying equal measures anger, worry and fear. Merlin was forced to take a step back so that his eyes weren't crossed trying to meet his master's furious gaze.
"The man obviously has a quarrel with me," he said calmly. "I see no reason not to meet him head on."
"You're not even a swordsman, Merlin!" Arthur shouted. "What on earth possessed you to take up his challenge?"
"The Knights' Code—"
"You're not a knight, Merlin!" Arthur all but bellowed, sounding a bit frantic at this point as he gestured wildly in his anger. "The Knights' Code doesn't apply to you, you were under no obligation to pick up his gauntlet. Nor are you required to go through with it. You have to withdraw, Merlin." Merlin glared at Arthur.
"Knights are not the only people with honor, Arthur. I will not renege on a duel such as this," he said coolly. He wasn't sure why he was so adamant to go through with it. He really wasn't the best swordsman, he knew that, and Sir Carson was most likely going to be much more skilled than he. Something, however, about this whole situation bothered him. There had to be more to it, something he wasn't seeing, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. And more than that, he did feel obligated to honor his agreement with the foreign knight. He may not have been a knight, but he had as much honor as the next man, and he would not besmirch it by backing out like a coward.
Seeing that Arthur was about to start shouting again, Merlin turned on his heel and strode away toward the castle. He needed time to think, and he knew he wouldn't get much. Arthur would no doubt be chasing after him in minutes, and he would have more people trying to talk sense into him as soon as word began to spread.
Word spread quickly. The news that Merlin—friendly, loveable, kind, clumsy, harmless Merlin—had been challenged to a duel to the death by a visiting knight for no apparent reason spread through the castle like wildfire and was all over the city by the time night fell. The universal reaction was shock and dismay. He was well known and well liked, but no one believed he would win the duel. All over the city people were talking in hushed whispers, lamenting it as if he had already lost. Merlin couldn't help but feel insulted.
Over the course of the day, no less than seven people had come to him to try and convince him to withdraw from the duel. Arthur had shown up several times, only to be thoroughly rebuffed each time. Gwen had come and cried into his shoulder, begging him tearfully to change his mind. Gwaine had shouted at him and he had shouted back and it had almost come to blows. Leon and Elyan tried to reason with him calmly, reminding him that he was not a trained fighter whereas Sir Carson obviously was, but Merlin was adamant. Gaius, obviously, told him he was an idiot and that he would either be killed or exposed, but Merlin ignored him. Percival, bless him, asked him simply if he was sure he really wanted to go through with it. When Merlin nodded, he just put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. Merlin felt a welling of affection for the quiet knight and thanked him for his support.
Arthur found him again that evening after dinner, and he had that bullheaded look of determination on his face that made Merlin groan before he had even crossed the room.
"Withdraw, Merlin," he said firmly.
"No, Arthur," he responded, just as firmly.
"You're not a fighter, Merlin, you can barely hold a sword the right way up," Arthur scoffed, but his disdain was a pale imitation of what it usually was, undercut by concern as it was. Merlin rolled his eyes and crossed his arms defensive, really fed up with being told how incompetent he was.
"You do realize I have spent the last eight years watching you train knights and fighting bandits by your side and being your training dummy, don't you?" he asked. " You don't think I've picked up a few things from all that? I've survived everything that's been thrown at us thus far, I have to be doing something right."
"Fighting bandits in the woods is one thing, Merlin, but mortal combat is a different thing entirely," he said, a pleading note to his voice now. "Single combat with a knight is like nothing else you've ever experienced. You're in over your head, Merlin, you have to realize that, surely."
"Arthur, you still view me as the gutsy peasant who led you on a chase through the market with a mace he didn't know how to use," Merlin said, smiling a bit at the memory of his second meeting with the then-Prince. "You have to realize that I've come a long way since then. I'm not nearly as useless as you always insist." Arthur drew himself up to his fullest height, chest puffing out, and Merlin knew what was coming and rolled his eyes before Arthur had even said it.
"As your King, Merlin, I order you to withdraw from this ridiculous duel," he commanded in his most regal and authoritative tone. Merlin scoffed.
"And since when have your orders ever stopped me before?" he pointed out, eyebrow raised. Arthur seemed to deflate. Realizing that none of the tacks he had tried so far had been effective in the slightest bit, he finally shelved his pride completely.
"Merlin, please," he said, his voice low and earnest and his eyes pleading as he stepped toward his servant. "If you won't withdraw for your own sake, then do it for mine. You're my best friend, Merlin, and I don't want to lose you. I don't know what I would do if I did." Merlin swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat and blinked quickly to rid himself of the gathering tears. Arthur looked so vulnerable in that moment, so open and scared and anxious and it broke his heart to know it was his fault. But this was a matter of pride now, and if there was anything Arthur should be able to understand it was pride.
"You know you've always been my best friend, Arthur," he said quietly, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. "But I have to do this."
"Why?" Arthur pressed, looking sincerely bewildered by his insistence. "What do you have to gain with this? You have nothing to prove, Merlin. Not to the knights, and certainly not to me."
"I have everything to prove," Merlin asserted. "To myself."
It was these words that made Arthur step back. He was taken back to a time when he himself had said those same words to a distressed Guinevere, back when he was a young prince jousting in disguise, desperate to show the world and himself that he was more than his title. It was that memory, the memory of the need to prove himself worthy, that made him look upon Merlin and take in his determination and his drive, and nod.
"Alright, Merlin," he sighed. "Just…be careful."
"I will." Arthur turned to leave but stopped at the door.
"Good luck, Merlin," he said simply.
"Thank you, Sire," he responded, a small smile on his face.
Then Arthur left, leaving Merlin alone for the first time all day. He sunk onto a bench and put his head in his hands, thinking. He needed to know why this was happening, why he had been singled out and challenged. This knight, Sir Carson, he had been wearing purple and white. Those were the colors of North Umbria, if he was not mistaken. He had never been to North Umbria, nor had he ever met anyone from that kingdom. He had absolutely no reason to have an enemy hailing from there, especially not someone without magic, especially not a knight without magic, and especially not a knight without magic who would know him by name and on sight. Merlin didn't exactly have a lot of enemies who didn't have magic. The only person he could think of who would want him dead but did not know he had magic was Morgana, and it was really a miracle she hadn't figured it out by now.
Could Morgana be behind this? Normally Morgana focused her attentions on Arthur and finishing him off to gain the throne she believed to be rightfully hers. But Morgana definitely wanted Merlin dead as well, for numerous reasons, none of which he could bring himself to blame her for. Maybe she had finally gotten sick of him interfering in her plans. She may not have figured out his magic, but she had certainly noticed that he had a nasty tendency of finding out her schemes and guessing solutions to them, and an even nastier tendency to slip out of deadly situations unscathed. Several times she had tried to kill him and he had managed to escape every time, not matter how dire his situation. Maybe she was finally acknowledging him as a threat, knowing she had to take him out of the way first if she wanted to get to Arthur. And this time, she would not be leaving him alone in the woods for him to find a way to wriggle out of her grasp. This time she would attack him through perfectly legitimate means in front of a crowd, knowing he would have a much harder time finding a way out of it.
And she was right. He wouldn't back out of a challenge like this, especially not when the alternative would undoubtedly be Arthur taking up the challenge in his stead. Merlin had always thrown himself in danger's path where Arthur was concerned, but this time the danger had come to him directly and he was determined to rise to the challenge. Everyone thought him so weak and helpless, but he wasn't. He never had been and didn't intend to be now. It was true that he had made great strides with a sword since first arriving in Camelot. He was decent enough now, perfectly capable of handling himself in an ambush if necessary, but he knew he was no great shakes at fighting, especially one on one and without the subtle use of magic. But there would be no magic in this duel, he was sure of that. Not only would be it incredibly stupid to try and use magic in an arena full of people watching his every move, but it also offended his honor in a way. This was not a fight of magic, it was a fight of steel. His opponent had no magic, and using it against him felt like attacking an unarmed opponent. No, he would not use magic to hinder his opponent.
But he had an idea.
Gaius entered then, bringing supper with him, and placed a plate of food before him on the table without a word. They ate in silence. Merlin knew Gaius was worried about him and half expected him to try and dissuade him again, but his guardian stayed silent, shooting him concerned and cautioning looks every few minutes. Merlin knew Gaius expected him to use magic in the fight and was worrying over his secret being revealed. He had half a mind to tell Gaius that he had no intention of using magic, but he thought that would only make Gaius worry even more, knowing that the lack of magic would drastically lower his chances of survival. So he kept his silence and let Gaius fret. He went to bed shortly after, bidding Gaius goodnight and turning in early in the hopes that he would fall asleep quickly.
Everyone let him sleep in late the next morning, knowing he would need to be well rested for the duel at noon. He awoke to find a sumptuous breakfast waiting for him, no doubt sent by Gwen from the kitchen palace. He ate it slowly, savoring it; he rarely got food from the kitchens and he wanted to make the most of it. Gaius was nowhere to be found, and he was a little disappointed but also a bit grateful. He wasn't really sure what to say to the old man he had come to love so very much in the last eight years.
Shortly before noon, a knock on the door revealed Gwen and Arthur. Gwen had a padded tunic and chainmail clutched tightly in her hands and she looked ready to cry, while Arthur was carrying a sword, a helmet, and some light pieces of armour, his face set. Merlin allowed them to get him ready, feeling a bit uncomfortable with the role reversal as Arthur fastened his armour on for him.
"I didn't get you full armour," Arthur told him, "because I know you're not used to fighting in it and it would probably be more of a hindrance than a help."
"Not to mention it's all too big on me and I'd look bloody ridiculous," Merlin pointed out. Arthur's lips tried to twitch up into a smile at that.
"And you're not a knight so you don't get a cape," he continued. "But I got you a decent sword, made by the royal smith instead of the one from the lower town. Gwen made the chainmail herself."
"Thanks, Gwen," Merlin said, turning to smile at her. She tried to smile back at him, she really did, but then her face crumpled and she threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder, crying again. He just wrapped his arms around her and let her cry, rubbing her hair soothingly. She pulled back after a moment and kissed him on the cheek before practically running from the room, trying to contain her sobs. He watched her go sadly before turning back to Arthur.
"Nervous?" he asked.
"Only a little," Merlin said honestly, hefting the sword in his hand to test its balance. Satisfied, he threaded it through the belt at his waist and faced Arthur fully. His friend put a hand on his shoulder, looking at him steadily, his face solemn.
"You're a brave and honorable man, Merlin," he said. "You may not be a knight in title, but you're a knight in spirit. I hope you know that."
"Thank you, Arthur," Merlin whispered, feeling inordinately touched by this simple statement. He always knew Arthur respected and cared for him, but he rarely said it, and never before had he said anything like that. It bolstered his courage and made him all the more determined to succeed. He would beat Sir Carson. He would. Arthur squeezed his shoulder and then turned to lead the way toward the arena.
It was packed with people. Practically everyone in the city had turned out to see this duel. Whether it was out of a morbid fascination or a show of support for Merlin, he wasn't sure. All the eyes were rather intimidating, he thought, as he stood in the entrance way, hesitating to go in. He needed to do something first. He stood in the shadows and closed his eyes, reaching outward with his magic. If this was Morgana's doing, surely she would need to be watching to see whether or not her plan succeeded. She would want to witness his death, he was sure of that. He sent his magic trailing out along the stands, feeling for magic, but she was not among the spectators. Then he felt a light touch against his magic, like fingers trailing in water, and he somehow knew that she was scrying him. She was in a cave somewhere watching him, making sure that he was killed in this duel. Satisfied that she was not in the immediate area, and therefore able to intervene if the battle was not going the way she had anticipated, Merlin stepped forward into the arena to tumultuous cheers.
His heart was racing as he moved to stand across from Sir Carson, who stood casually in the middle of the field. He was the picture of supreme indifference, currently picking at a spot on his highly polished armour and not paying Merlin one lick of attention. Merlin took the moment to study him. Sir Carson was taller than he by an inch or two and of a much heavier build. He would surely be stronger than him, there was no question about that, but he would also probably be slower. Merlin could really be very quick when he needed to be, and he could use that to his advantage. Sir Carson's heavy armour would limit his mobility and slow him down as well, whereas Merlin was much less encumbered. Merlin noticed that Sir Carson was leaning on his left leg, but he didn't know if that meant he was favoring it or if he just couldn't be concerned with standing tall. Either way, he would file it away in case it came in handy.
Arthur, stood in the King's box with Guinevere, got to his feet and raised his hand for silence. The audience granted it reluctantly, the noise dying down slowly until an oppressive silence fell over the arena. The King was dressed simply, not wearing his formal armour and red cape but a regular tunic and breeches, though his crown was atop his head. Guinevere as well was dressed less formally than was to be expected. Merlin suspected it was as a show of solidarity, an acknowledgement of his station and a way of showing that they were not looking down upon him because of his status. He didn't think it would translate to the hyped up onlookers, but he appreciated it nonetheless.
"The duel will be according to the Knights' Code," Arthur stated loudly, his voice carrying over the crowd. "To the death." He raised a hand and let it drop. A servant scurried forward to relieve Sir Carson of his purple cape, carrying it out of the arena. Another servant rushed out from the opposite side and presented Merlin with a shield, which he accepted gratefully. He and Merlin crossed their swords as was customary and then stood back, observing each other. A glance at Arthur showed the true worry on his face, but Merlin wasn't overly concerned. Arthur had never seen Merlin fight to his full potential. No one ever had. Merlin, thanking the distance the arena afforded him and the helm which somewhat shielded his eyes from view, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and released the hold on his magic.
He did not lash out with it, he did not perform any actual spells or anything of the sort, he simply allowed the magic to flow unhindered through his veins alongside his blood. With it came a flood of strength and he had to hold in a gasp as a veil was lifted off of senses he hadn't even realized had been dulled. His eyes were suddenly sharper, his ears keener, his sword lighter in his grip, his feet less heavy than usual, even his thoughts were moving quicker. With his magic surging out to fill him completely, he felt more aware of his body than he had in many years. But when he opened his eyes, he could feel them sparkling with magic. They were not flaring the bright molten gold they did when he actively used his magic, no, but he knew his irises would be sprinkled with flecks of gold. They glittered there constantly when his magic was loosed, just lightly speckling his usual blue with the evidence of his magic, not immediately evident, but noticeable enough at close range, and he thanked his helmet for hiding them from the view of those in the stands.
As a child, he had spent many long weeks working tirelessly to build walls around his magic, pressing it down and locking it away to keep it under control and force it out of his eyes. His magic, however, was a part of him and he could not be truly whole without it. By suppressing his magic, he became disconnected from his own body, not fully aware of himself or anything around him. This was the cause of his clumsiness and ungainly manner, this detachment from himself. Now, with his magic roaring through his body, he could feel every inch of himself and he felt surer and more confident than he ever had before. Now he was whole and complete, as he was always meant to be. And now he could fight to the fullest extent of his abilities. And he knew he didn't need magic to win this fight.
Gripping his sword tightly in his hand, Merlin slid into a ready stance, one he had seen the knights assume thousands of times over the past years. Eyeing Sir Carson as he did the same, Merlin spun his sword experimentally in his hand, much the same way Arthur often did. He heard a bark of appreciative laughter from the crowd on his right and knew Gwaine had caught the reference. He smirked and hefted his shield on his left arm, getting a feel for the more unfamiliar piece of equipment. Sir Carson raised his sword and Merlin readied his in response. Merlin toyed with the idea of taking the offensive, as surely Carson was expecting him to be weak and timid and inexperienced. It would throw the knight off balance, put him on the offensive and maybe give him an advantage. But no, it would give away too much. Merlin did not know Carson's fighting style but he knew that he had to be up to the standard of a knight. Carson, however, was vastly underestimating Merlin's abilities, and as long as he did so, Merlin had an advantage. He would hold back as long as he could, let Carson demonstrate his style and wear himself out on the offensive strike. Merlin would wait.
He didn't have to wait long. Sir Carson rushed forward, bringing his sword down hard but Merlin brought his own up to meet it, successfully deflecting the blow. Carson swung out again, at his left this time, but Merlin parried and danced out of his way. Carson continued pressing forward, but Merlin met him blow for blow. Carson was relying on his strength, pushing Merlin backwards and trying to force his shield from his grip, but he held on tightly and used his slighter build and speed to twist away from the direct force of the attacks. After a moment Carson fell back, appearing frustrated that his target was not nearly as defenseless as he had been told. Merlin took advantage of his moment of hesitation.
He leapt forward, launching into a series of quick, sharp blows that immediately had Carson on the defensive, too shocked by the sudden attack to do anything but try to keep himself from being injured. He blocked most of the attacks, but Merlin got a solid hit on his right forearm. It left a dent and Carson nearly dropped his sword from pain and surprise. Pressing his advantage, Merlin leapt toward him and landed a few heavy blows on the knight's shield, finally succeeding in knocking it from his grip and sending it flying across the field. As the knight watched it fly away in dismay, Merlin implemented a maneuver he had only ever witnessed; he clashed his sword against Sir Carson's and twirled it around, twisting the knight's wrist and wrenching the weapon from his hands. He heard a roar from the crowd, and an unmistakable cry from Gwaine as he recognized his own signature move, but he was still moving. As Carson gaped at him in astonishment, Merlin moved forward quickly. He stepped on the man's foot to prevent him from stumbling backward as he brought his right elbow up sharply into the man's chin, knocking his helmet off and sending him crashing onto the ground.
He could have won the duel right then and there, but there was something distasteful about the idea of killing an unarmed man when he was flat on his back on the ground. So, bowing to his sense of honor, Merlin took a few steps back, using the moment to gather his breath. He removed his helmet, panting and running his fingers through his damp hair, and glanced around at the crowd. Arthur was on the edge of his seat, eyes wide and mouth hanging open in a rather undignified display of shock. Gwen was on her feet, hands firmly clamped over her mouth in worry. Gwaine was pumping his fist in the air and cheering louder than anyone else in the stands. Gaius was looking concerned, suspicious, and proud all at once. He caught glimpses of other stunned and impressed faces throughout the crowd, but they were all cheering for him. He saw that Leon was nodding approvingly of his current actions, waiting as he was for Carson to get up.
The knight scrambled to his feet and spat blood out of his mouth as he snatched up his sword. He was angry now, and humiliated that a servant such as Merlin was actually beating him. With a roar, he flung himself forward and rained down a barrage of blows which forced Merlin backwards. He only had time to block and dodge and parry, but he waited for Carson's rage to make him reckless. Arthur's words, spoken to a young knight facing a wraith so many years ago, echoed in his head. All it takes to kill a man is one well-aimed blow. So Merlin waited and watched for his opening. A moment later, he found it.
Sir Carson was battering his shield, pushing him back further and further until he finally hit the shield so hard that it forced Merlin down on one knee. He raised his sword with both hands, intending to bring it down upon Merlin's head, but in doing so he left himself completely open. Putting all his strength behind his sword, Merlin thrust it upwards and into Sir Carson's stomach. He felt the sickening crunch of bone as it pierced through the back of his ribcage and emerged out of the other side. He pulled his sword free with a sharp tug and Carson slumped to the ground. There was a moment of stunned silence as the crowd realized what had just happened, then the audience burst into a storm of applause.
Merlin got to his feet, his hands and knees shaking with leftover adrenaline and creeping exhaustion. He knew he was being applauded, but he did not raise his eyes from Carson's body, afraid the golden flecks in his eyes would be spotted even from this distance. He did not, however, move to rein in his magic for fear that he would not have the strength left to stand if he did. So he kept his eyes on the body of the knight he had slain. He tossed his shield to the side and stabbed his word into the ground, having a bit of trouble comprehending that he had actually won. He had won. He had fought in single combat with a knight, to the death, and he had won.
And then suddenly Gwen was there, flinging her arms around his neck and nearly knocking him to the ground in her enthusiasm. She was crying again, but they were tears of relief and joy this time instead of sorrow and fear. He closed his eyes and hugged her tightly. With an internal sigh, he began to gradually pull his magic back to his core, locking it away again so she would not see it manifest in his eyes when she pulled back. As the magic leached from his limbs, they began to shake more persistently so that when Gwen did pull back, he swayed alarmingly where he stood. She immediately took hold of his elbow and led him from the arena.
"Come on, Merlin, let's get you to Gaius," she said, her voice still thick with tears but undeniably joyous.
"But I'm not injured," Merlin complained.
"I don't care, we're still having you looked over."
Gaius and Arthur met them in the entry passage. Arthur looked at him for a moment, his face unreadable, and held out his hand. Merlin grasped his forearm, smiling tiredly at him. Then Arthur's face broke out into a wide grin and he pulled Merlin into a tight hug, clapping him on the back. Merlin laughed at that but hugged him back anyway; it wasn't often he got a hug from Arthur, he might as well enjoy it while he could.
The four of them made their way back to Gaius' chambers, Gwen still holding tightly onto Merlin's arm for support and Arthur hovering rather closer than he usually did, probably hoping to catch him if he stumbled. To Merlin's relief, he made it all the way back to the physician's chambers without falling. Gaius ordered him out of all his layers and Merlin had to stand still while Gwen and Arthur removed all his armor and chainmail and everything before he could finally collapse onto a bench. Gaius immediately set to examining him, rubbing tinctures on his growing bruises and cleaning and bandaging a shallow cut he had received on his left upper arm. Arthur was still standing across from him, beaming.
"Where did that come from?" he exclaimed.
"Where did what come from?" Merlin asked, confused.
"All of that!" Arthur said, gesturing at him and the armour beside him on the table. "I've never seen you fight like that, Merlin, not in eight years!"
"Oh," Merlin said, smiling sheepishly. "I guess I work better with an audience." Arthur let out a bark of laughter, his relief obviously making him a little giddy.
"That was amazing, Merlin," Gwen said from his other side, placing a hand on his arm. "Really. You fought spectacularly." He flushed in embarrassment and smiled awkwardly; he wasn't used to getting this much attention. He wasn't entirely sure how to respond to all these compliments, seeing as he rarely got any at all. So he just ducked his head and let Gaius continue with his examination. He was saved from having to take more compliments from the royal couple when Gwaine came bursting through the door, all loudness and high spirits.
"Merlin!" he yelled, bounding down the room toward him. One glare from Gaius stopped him in his tracks, but it didn't remove the smile from his face. "That was brilliant, mate! Where've you been hiding those moves all this time?"
"I haven't been hiding them," Merlin protested. "I've just never really had a good reason to use them."
"What, putting Princess in his place isn't a good enough reason?"
"I highly doubt I could best Arthur," Merlin said, rolling his eyes.
"When'd you figure out my trick?" Gwaine inquired, crossing his arms. "I never taught you that!"
"I've seen you do it enough times, I just sort of figured it out," he admitted.
"Was that the first time you've done it?" Arthur asked, sounding suitably impressed.
"Yeah. I'm actually very surprised I pulled it off. I didn't really expect it to work."
"Well it did. Well done, my friend. Well done indeed," Gwaine said, reaching forward to clap Merlin on the shoulder only to be warded off by Gaius, who was in full physician mode and not to be trifled with. Merlin snickered at his friend's chastised expression and Gwaine made a face at him before turning to Arthur.
"Why isn't he a knight?" he demanded, jerking his head toward Merlin, who looked up at him incredulity.
"What?" he spluttered. "Me, a knight?"
"Why not?" Gwaine said, shrugging. "He sure fought like a knight out there! Not only was his swordsmanship up to par, he acted more honorably than most knights in the kingdom would have. He didn't press his advantage, he gave his opponent a chance to get back on his feet. If that isn't the sign of a true knight, I don't know what is." Merlin tried to interrupt but Gwaine ignored him and kept talking at Arthur. "And everyone knows Merlin's one of the bravest people around. He's looked nightmares in the face and laughed at them! He's ridden out against dragons, for god's sake! That's more than most of your knights can say. And there's isn't a kinder or more generous soul in the whole of Albion, we both know that, Arthur. I've always thought Merlin was the most noble of all of us, and now I find his swordplay can match it. If anyone deserves to be a knight, Merlin does."
There was a stunned silence after this little speech. Merlin was gaping openly at Gwaine, absolutely dumbfounded at what his friend had just said. And he was even more shocked to find that Arthur wasn't laughing it off or spluttering indignantly or anything like that, but looking at Merlin thoughtfully, as if he was actually considering it.
"Arthur!" Merlin cried in disbelief. "You can't really be thinking about knighting me."
"Why not, Merlin?" he asked. "Gwaine makes a good case for you. He has a fair few points. You've never been anything but honorable, and your skill with a sword really has improved a hundredfold. If you don't feel ready to take the test now, I'm sure a few weeks of training could have you up to scratch." Merlin stared at him too, just as flabbergasted. He had never in his wildest dreams ever expected to be offered a knighthood. It wasn't that he thought himself unworthy or anything, it had just honestly never occurred to him. He was Arthur's servant, that's what he'd always been and that's what he'd always expected to be. He quite liked his job and the opportunities it afforded him to be close to Arthur, always there to protect him at a moment's notice should the need arise.
"I've told you once before, Arthur," Merlin said softly. "I'm happy to be your servant, till the day I die. I still stand by that." It was Arthur's turn to stare at him now.
"You'd rather be a servant than a knight of Camelot?" he asked skeptically, Gwen and Gwaine both looking at him in surprise too. Gaius, on the other hand, was smiling gently, watching him proudly.
"It's what I've always been," he said. "I like my life, Arthur, just the way it is. I'm perfectly content to stay where I am. What would really change, anyway? I'd still go everywhere with you, I'd still ride out into battle, I'd just have to wear that bulky armour that really looks ridiculous on me and that bloody cape that gets in the way of everything."
"You wouldn't have to be at my beck and call anymore," Arthur pointed out. "You would be a knight of Camelot, and you would be afforded all the respect and status befitting that station. You would really rather stay a servant?"
"I already have the respect of everyone that matters to me. You did not inherit your father's disdain for the lower classes, and you don't treat a servant's word as less worthy than a knight's, so that's not an issue anymore. Status and class have never mattered to me, Arthur, you know that better than anyone, you great royal prat," he added with a teasing smirk. Arthur rolled his eyes but couldn't hold back a smile at the familiar insult. "Besides, I rather enjoy the anonymity afforded to me by my post. Everyone overlooks the servants. We fade into the background, people forget we're there. It's why servants always have the best court gossip. No one ever thinks we could more than what we appear to be. We're constantly underestimated, and that gives us the potential to be much more dangerous than any knight of Camelot. Tactically, the best way for me to protect you is to stay where I am."
Everyone looked surprised at this reasoning. It made sense, of course, but it was much more strategic than any of them expected Merlin to be. Arthur looked at him appraisingly, brow furrowed and arms crossed.
"You're just full of surprises today, aren't you, Merlin?" he said, sounding baffled.
"Gaius always says I'm a riddle wrapped up in a mystery," Merlin told him with a cheeky smile.
"Well, just remember that Princess was perfectly willing to make you a knight, Merlin," Gwaine broke in. "And I'm sure the offer will remain standing. You deserve it, my friend. You really do."
"Thanks, Gwaine," Merlin beamed up at him. Gwaine said something about a tavern and hurried from the room, leaving snorts of laughter and exasperation in his wake.
"Well…take tomorrow off, Merlin," Arthur said after an awkward lull in conversation. "You deserve a rest after that. And the offer does stand," he added before pulling his wife up with him and taking his leave, meaning Merlin was left to Gaius' interrogation. He was still bone tired and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but he knew he owed Gaius some sort of explanation. So when Gaius sat down across from him at their dinner table and gave him a look, he sighed and settled in for a long discussion.
"I didn't use magic, Gaius," he began. "I really didn't. Not really, at least." Merlin stopped, struggling to put into words what he had done and why. "My magic…is completely unlike anyone else's, I know that, so I don't know if you'll be able to understand what I'm about to tell you. But…my magic is a part of me. Normally I keep it bottled up inside me, hidden away so I don't lose control of it and do something instinctual like I did so often when I first came here. But holding it in like that sort of…splits me in two, in a way. It means I'm not balanced, it's what makes me so clumsy all the time. The lack of magic dulls my sense and slows my reflexes and stuff like that. So I just…let my magic go. I didn't use it, not against Sir Carson, not for anything outside myself. I just let my magic flow like it's meant to. I would be like that all the time if I didn't have to hide."
"Does it manifest itself physically?" Gaius asked, sounding fascinated by this new information. He always found everything about Merlin's magic fascinating. Merlin nodded and closed his eyes, relaxing his grip on the magic and letting it loose again. When he opened his eyes, Gaius let out a small noise of wonder, examining Merlin's newly dappled eyes. "It's beautiful. But I see why you need to keep it hidden. It is rather telling." Merlin pulled his magic back in with a heavy sigh, feeling the gold flecks fade as the world around him dimmed slightly.
"I can't do that every time I fight," he said. "It'd be noticed by someone. Especially if Arthur wanted to spar with me or something. It's just too close quarters to use with someone I don't intend to kill." At the mention of the duel, Gaius' expression became more serious.
"Do you have any idea why Sir Carson felt the need to challenge you?" he inquired.
"Morgana put him up to it, I'm certain," Merlin told him. Gaius looked shocked and horrified and Merlin rushed to explain. "I recognized his colors as North Umbrian, and Morgana was last rumored to be heading north. I think Morgana's finally figured out that she can't get to Arthur unless she takes me out of the equation. Not that she needed another reason to want me dead, this was just a reason to target me and me alone. And I think she's picked up on a pattern of mine: that if I'm left alone to die, I don't. So she wanted me singled out in front of witnesses. What better way than a duel to the death? She knows me well enough from when she was actually my friend to know I wouldn't turn my back on something like this, especially when we both know Arthur would have taken the challenge in my stead had I refused. And I probed around the arena with my magic beforehand and I could feel her watching. I'm almost certain she was scrying me, but she couldn't have seen me using magic because I didn't actually use any. But I bet she's furious now that I've thwarted yet another of her plans. She won't underestimate me again, I can guarantee that."
"She'll target you more directly now," Gaius said worriedly. "If only out of spite and anger. You need to be careful, Merlin."
"You know me, Gaius," Merlin said, smiling brightly. "I'm always careful."