A/N: Popular demand wasoverwhelmingfor me to continue this story. Almost every single review expressed disappointment that I didn't carry through to Arthur's reactions to the fight, so I finally caved and wrote out Arthur's POV for the rest of the story. I realize now that Arthur has a lot of thoughts, so…..this companion piece is now four thousand words longer than the piece for which it is a companion. Oh well. Enjoy!
The next morning, Gwen managed to dig out an old shirt of mail she had made herself several years ago, back when she was nothing more than a blacksmith's daughter. She fussed over it for most of the morning, checking it repeatedly and making absolutely sure it was spotless and every link was strong. Arthur pulled one of his own padded tunics, an older one he had never bothered to get rid of when it became too small for him, and dusted it off. He sent for a quality sword from the armoury and went down to the inventory to look through the spare armour parts for things that would fit Merlin, discarding anything bulky that would weigh him down too much and throw off his rather delicate balance. When he had as much as he thought Merlin would be comfortable wearing, he returned to his chambers to find Gwen polishing the sword he had sent for, gnawing on her lower lip with her brow furrowed in slightly manic concentration.
"I ordered for a nice breakfast to be sent down for him," she said, trying to keep her voice light, and if her polishing was more forceful than it really needed to be, he didn't comment on it. Instead he placed the armour on the table and took the sword gently from her hands. He pulled her up and looked her in the eye for a moment, then kissed her softly, wrapping his arms around her waist and just holding her tightly. They stayed that way for a while, drawing comfort from each other, until Arthur caught sight of the hot late morning sunshine streaming through the window.
"Come on," he said reluctantly. "It's getting late." He released his wife and gathered the armour up in his arms again, and the sword. Gwen nodded and draped the chainmail and tunic over her arm.
The walk to Merlin's chambers seemed both too short and infinitely longer than it usually was. Gwen was practically radiating restless energy, desperate to do something, but Arthur felt a little numb. Now that he had reconciled himself with his own impotence in the situation, acknowledged that he couldn't, and shouldn't, stop Merlin from fighting, there was little left but resignation. It still felt a little like walking to the gallows, though.
Merlin was just finishing his breakfast when they reached his and Gaius' chambers. Gwen rushed forward and immediately set about getting Merlin into the tunic and mail, bustling around him a bit frenetically. If Merlin noticed her anxiety, he didn't see fit to mention it. Instead, he stood still until Arthur came forward to fix his armour into place, at which point he shifted a little awkwardly. Had the situation been different, Arthur might have laughed at his discomfiture, but he couldn't bring himself to now. It brought back memories of Ealdor, when Merlin had been young and scared and too distracted to buckle his own vambraces properly. Seven years ago, Arthur realized with a small jolt in his stomach.
"I didn't get you full armour," he said gruffly to distract himself, "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 muttered. Arthur got very close to smiling then; trust Merlin to be flippant at a time like this.
"And you're not a knight so you don't get a cape," he added with a little frown that Merlin couldn't see since Arthur was behind him, tightening the straps on his pauldron. "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." Merlin turned to smile at Gwen, who was hanging back and watching the two of them with tears in her eyes.
"Thanks, Gwen," Merlin said. She made a truly valiant effort to return his smile, but the tears welled up in spite of it and she hugged Merlin fiercely instead. Arthur saw Merlin's face fall, but he held her tightly and tried to soothe her as best he could. She kissed him on the cheek and fled, leaving Merlin staring despondently after her.
"Nervous?" Arthur asked. He was certainly beginning to feel some nerves himself; seeing Merlin like this, outfitted for combat and without his omnipresent cheery grin was an unsettling reminder of what was about to come, of the danger he would soon be in. But Merlin just picked up his sword from the table and juggled it slightly in hand to get the feel of it.
"Only a little," he said, nodding to himself. He threaded the sword through his belt and turned to face him. He looked ready, calm and determined, and Arthur felt an upwelling of respect and admiration for his friend. He gripped Merlin's shoulder, swallowing around a lump in his throat.
"You're a brave and honorable man, Merlin," he said earnestly. "You may not be a knight in title, but you're a knight in spirit. I hope you know that." And he meant every word. He knew that he often treated Merlin badly, but right now, before he went out to fight for his life, he needed Merlin to know just how much he respected him. Merlin seemed to understand, his face softening.
"Thank you, Arthur," he said simply, his voice soft and his eyes a bit brighter than usual. Then he straightened his back a bit, lifted his chin, a look of defiant determination sliding into place that looked a bit more at home on his face than had the grave resignation that had been there a moment before. Arthur gave his shoulder a squeeze, nodded to him once more, and led the way out of the chamber.
They walked in silence; no more words needed to be said between them, not when they knew each other so well. Merlin fell in beside Arthur, half a step behind. Arthur wondered when he had started doing that instead of keeping pace with him; in the beginning, Merlin had always made a point to walk directly alongside Arthur whenever he could get away with it, just to show that he wouldn't allow Arthur's title to dictate his every move. But now Arthur realized that this had been their norm for a long time now, with Merlin walking just a bit behind. It was close enough that it would have been considered insolent for any other servant, but from Merlin, it was more than he would do for anyone else.
Arthur left Merlin at the entrance to the arena without a word, not trusting himself to speak, instead squeezing his shoulder one last time and heading around to the Royal box. Guinevere was already seated there, her posture stiff but her face dry. She wore her crown, and she had Arthur's in her lap; she had obviously gone back to their chambers after leaving Merlin, to calm down and to fetch their crowns. Neither of them was dressed as formally as was to be expected for viewing single combat, but Gwen had said she couldn't bear to dress like a queen for this, not when she and Merlin had been servants together for so many years. Arthur, too, couldn't stand to dress splendidly just to watch his best friend fight for his life; it seemed tactless. But he donned his crown anyway and took his seat alongside his queen, waiting for Merlin to emerge.
He took the time to study Sir Carson, thoughts whirring. The man was stood casually, looking utterly bored by the proceedings. He didn't seem eager to fight Merlin, he didn't even look the slightest bit interested. Arthur couldn't make heads or tails of it. If Carson had nothing invested in this fight, then why challenge Merlin at all? What was the point? Even more strange, how had the Northumbrian knight known Merlin in the first place? It was obvious that Merlin hadn't been acquainted with Sir Carson, his confusion had been plain when the challenge was issued, but Carson had recognized Merlin, called him by name, and had even known Merlin's hometown. Ealdor wasn't exactly a well-known village, tiny as it was, so how had Carson known Merlin hailed from it?
Arthur was snapped from his considerations by Merlin's entrance. He strode out across the arena to stand opposite Sir Carson as the crowded stands erupted with cheers. Arthur wasn't sure how to feel about the turnout for the duel, torn between being touched that so many people cared enough about Merlin to show their support and being disgusted that so many wanted to witness his possible death. Merlin didn't react to the crowd, though. He was studying his opponent, looking him up and down. Arthur hoped Merlin saw all the same things he did: the bulkier armour, which would slow him down, the stocky build, which implied a tendency to rely strength alone, the lopsided stance, which left him off balance, the arrogant carelessness, which would leave openings for him to exploit. He could only hope that Merlin really had been paying attention all those years of watching the knights train.
Arthur got to his feet and raised his hand, waiting for the rowdy crowd to quiet. When it did, the silence was heavy with anticipation, but Arthur just felt vaguely sick. He hated to have to do this, to be the one to preside over his own friend's duel to the death. If Merlin died in this battle, Arthur would live knowing it was he who had given the signal. Fighting down the slight nausea, he cleared his throat and said, "The duel will be according to the Knights' code." He could give Merlin that much honor, at least, knight or no. "To the death." He raised his hand high, hoping no one would notice the slight tremor, and, after a second's hesitation, brought it down again.
He sat down, his heart in his throat in a way it very rarely was. The only other times he could remember feeling like this were when Morgana had fallen down the stairs and cracked her skull, when they thought she was going to die, and when Guinevere had been accused of enchanting him and was slated to burn as a witch. He couldn't deny that he was impressed with Merlin's fortitude. He took the shield he was offered and crossed swords with his opponent, then slid into a ready stance. It had taken Arthur weeks to beat that form into Merlin's head when he had first been assigned to him, weeks of one-on-one training sessions. Arthur realized they hadn't had a session like that in years, and he could only hope his oversight wasn't going to get Merlin killed.
Merlin swung the sword around in a circle with a flick of his wrist and Arthur let out a little huff. Gwaine's bark of laughter and Guinevere's pained sort of noise assured him that they, too, had recognized it for what it was—a subtle mockery of him. Merlin shifted his stance, then settled, waiting patiently for Carson to strike. The first ring of steel on steel made Gwen jump and clutch at Arthur hand, but Merlin had deflected the blow successfully. Arthur had to fight the urge to look away, to avert his eyes so as not to have to witness this battle, but he refused to be so cowardly. Instead he held his breath, waiting for a cry of pain, or the sound of sword cleaving flesh, but it didn't come.
Arthur was astonished to see that Merlin was quite holding his own. He blocked or redirected each of Sir Carson's blows, displaying an agility and fleetness of foot that quite belied his usual klutziness. Gwen let out a little gasp when the tip of Carson's sword caught him across the arm, but it was superficial and didn't slow him down at all. Merlin wasn't stopping each attack, not having the strength necessary to maintain such a strategy, but was knocking Carson's sword to one side or the other, side-stepping and allowing Carson's own force to carry him forward and throw him off balance. It was a good tactic, one which Arthur was proud of him for adopting. It was certainly throwing off his opponent, who fell back to reevaluate his own strategy.
Merlin didn't give him time regroup. He took advantage of Carson's indecision and sprang forward to deliver a barrage of attacks, raining them down on his shield with more strength than Arthur had thought he possessed. Carson stumbled, taken aback by the sudden aggression of someone he had surely expected to be frightened and inexperienced. He regained his footing quickly but was forced to remain on the defensive, working hard to keep Merlin's blows from connecting. He took a hard hit across his right forearm, which drew cries of surprise and intrigue from the astounded spectators, and nearly dropped his sword in pain. A few more blows and Merlin had managed to knock Sir Carson's shield form his grip, sending it flying across the arena.
Then Merlin did something that made Arthur's mouth fall open in what was probably unflattering disbelief. He clashed his sword against his opponent's and twisted it from his hand, leaving Sir Carson unarmed and unprotected, then brought his elbow up under the man's chin and knocking him to the ground. The crowd screamed and Gwen jumped to her feet, hands clamped over his mouth, while Arthur gaped in astonishment. That was Gwaine's signature maneuver, one he had never been willing to teach the other knights. Percival and Elyan had both tried to emulate the tricky move, but neither could quite get the hang of it. Leon had never tried to learn it, since it didn't fit with his more polished and technical style. Even Arthur hadn't tried to appropriate the technique. When the hell had Merlin picked it up?
Merlin had moved back and pulled off his helm and was looking around the arena, taking the opportunity to breathe freely for a moment. Arthur realized his mouth was still hanging open, but he was too stunned to think about closing it. He thought he saw a smirk on Merlin's face, though, when his friend caught sight of him. That snapped him out of his shock and he sat back a little, clenching and unclenching his hands restlessly as Sir Carson clambered to his feet, spitting out blood and looking furious. Merlin gestured with his sword for Carson to arm himself again and the knight retrieved his sword from where it had fallen. As honorable as it had been for Merlin to give his opponent a chance to regain his footing, the look on Carson's face made Arthur wonder if that choice would be the death of him.
Carson launched himself at Merlin, holding his sword with both hands and putting all his strength behind every blow. Arthur held his breath, his heart beating frantically as Merlin was forced backwards by the constant bombardment of his shield. Merlin dug in his heels and stood his ground as best he could, having no choice but to wait for an opening. Gwen was leaning over the edge of the box, looking absolutely terrified. Arthur was on the edge of his seat, his knuckles white from gripping the arms of his chair, but he launched himself to his feet when Merlin was finally forced down to one knee. Gwen latched onto Arthur's arm as Carson raised his sword to deliver the killing blow.
Arthur almost couldn't believe it when he saw the tip of Merlin's sword force its way through Sir Carson's back. The roar of the crowd was deafening as they cheered what Arthur had yet to process. Even as the knight slumped to the ground, leavening Merlin still standing tall, Arthur couldn't quite understand. He just stood, frozen and staring, at Merlin's slightly trembling form. It wasn't until Guinevere appeared on the field and threw her arms around Merlin's neck in a very un-queenly display of relief, nearly knocking him over, that Arthur finally comprehended that fact that Merlin had won. His best friend was still alive.
That thought wrenched a laugh from him, a slightly hysterical and completely giddy laugh. He felt light-headed with relief as he all but ran from the royal box to the arena's entrance to meet them. Gaius was already there, looking a bit faint but beaming with pride and relief as well. When Merlin came into view, supported by Gwen, Arthur just looked at him for a moment, drinking in the sight of a tired but smiling, triumphant, aliveMerlin. Unable to form coherent words, he held out his arm and Merlin took it. Arthur had another flashback to Ealdor and the contrast between that Merlin and the one before him now broke his composure. He hugged Merlin tightly, which made the other man laugh as he returned the embrace. Even when he drew back, Arthur couldn't stop smiling.
Gwen continued to hold onto Merlin's arm on the way back to his chambers since he looked tired enough to fall down. Arthur was hovering, he knew he was, and he knew Merlin probably didn't appreciate it, but he couldn't help it. Merlin won. The thought kept repeating itself in Arthur's mind, bouncing around and keeping the grin fixed firmly on his face all the way to the physician's chambers, where Gaius ordered Merlin out of all his armour for a proper examination. As the rush of adrenaline faded completely, Merlin was getting his legs back under him, so he stood on his own for Arthur and Gwen to unfasten and remove his armour and padded tunic without swaying.
"Where did that come from?" Arthur demanded as Gaius pushed Merlin onto a bench and began poking and prodding him, mixing up a tincture to assuage bruising.
"Where did what come from?" Merlin asked, his frown of confusion interrupted by a wince as Gaius tied a bandage tightly around the shallow cut on his upper arm.
"All of that!" Arthur exclaimed eloquently, waving a hand at Merlin and the armour and the sword, too agitated to make himself more clear. "I've never seen you fight like that, Merlin, not in eight years!"
"Oh," Merlin said with a self-effacing smile. "I guess I work better with an audience." Arthur huffed out a laugh again, unable to do anything else in the face of this revelation. Honestly, he still felt dizzy in the absence of the fear and despair that had plagued since the challenge had been issued. Guinevere saved him from having to formulate any sort of response.
"That was amazing, Merlin," she gushed, squeezing his arm—the uninjured one, since Gaius wouldn't let her get anywhere near the other one—and smiling as much as Arthur. "Really. You fought spectacularly." Arthur was amused to see Merlin turn bright red, flustered by the praise. He did smile at her, though, before looking down again.
"Merlin!" The door was thrown open to reveal a joyous Gwaine, who hurdled across the room toward them, practically radiating energy and excitement. He very wisely stopped short of flinging himself on Merlin, bowing to the pressure of Gaius eyebrow. He settled for all but yelling, "That was brilliant, mate! Where've you been hiding those moves all this time?"
"I haven't been hiding them," Merlin objected. "I've just never really had a good reason to use them." Arthur frowned a bit at that; they had been in plenty of battles, they fought for their lives on a regular basis, and he had never seen Merlin fight the way he obviously could. Had he been holding back? He opened his mouth to ask why, but Gwaine's next comment derailed his train of thought.
"What, putting Princess in his place isn't a good enough reason?"
"Oi!" Arthur spluttered indignantly, glaring at his knight, and then at his wife when she smothered a laugh behind her hand.
"I highly doubt I could best Arthur," Merlin said graciously, rolling his eyes at Gwaine's obvious exaggeration. Arthur smirked in satisfaction; at least someone here was sensible.
"When'd you figure out my trick?" Gwaine asked, crossing his arms and looking a little petulant. "I never taught you that!"
"I've seen you do it enough times, I just sort of figured it out," Merlin said, shrugging as much as he could with Gaius rubbing tincture into his left shoulder.
"Was that the first time you've done it?" Arthur asked, finding it a little hard to believe. He had watched Elyan and Percival practice for hours trying to get the hang of that. If Merlin could really manage it in the heat of battle without any training, then he really was being underutilized.
"Yeah. I'm actually very surprised I pulled it off. I didn't really expect it to work," he confessed, laughing slightly.
"Well it did. Well done, my friend. Well done indeed," Gwaine said heartily. He moved to clap Merlin on the shoulder, but Gaius raised his formidable eyebrow again, threatening him with a jar of ointment. Gwaine backed off with his hands raised defensively, looking appropriately reprimanded, shooting a disgruntled look at Merlin when he laughed.
"Why isn't he a knight?" Gwaine demanded suddenly, looking at Arthur and jerking his head toward Merlin, who looked up sharply.
"What?" he stuttered, looking thoroughly taken aback. "Me, a knight?"
"Why not?" Gwaine asked with a shrug. "He sure fought like a knight out there! Not only was his swordsmanship up to par, but 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.
"And everyone knows Merlin's one of the bravest people around," he continued, completely ignoring Merlin's flustered attempts to interject and speaking directly to Arthur. "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 isn't a kinder or more generous soul in the whole of Albion, we both know that, Arthur. I've always though 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."
They all stared at him for a moment, a little surprised at the vehemence of it. Arthur felt like he should scoff and call him ridiculous, but he couldn't exactly deny that all of what Gwaine said was true. All of Merlin's actions spoke of nobility befitting a knight, even in single combat. His honorable move in the ring had been risky, but he hadn't been willing to kill a man who was flat on his back, even when plenty of people would have. Arthur had to respect him for that. And Merlin had faced true horrors in their time together and hadn't flinched. He had ridden out alongside him to face the Great Dragon, unarmed and certain they were all going to die, when most of the kingdom was cowering in fear. He had stood by his side against the dorocha, even when it was obvious that he was terrified, and offered to give his own life to close the veil so Arthur wouldn't have to. That was true courage.
"Arthur! You can't really be thinking of knighting me," Merlin exclaimed, looking flabbergasted. Arthur shrugged.
"Why not, Merlin?" he asked honestly. "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, glancing around to see that all of them were watching him, waiting for a response. After a moment or two of contemplation, he turned back to Arthur, his expression hard to read.
"I've told you once before, Arthur," he said, his tone as indecipherable as his face. "I'm happy to be your servant, till the day I die. I still stand by that." Arthur was struck again by the sincerity of that statement, as shocking in its devotion now as it had been seven years ago when Merlin had first told him that. That Merlin was perfectly willing to dedicate his entire life to him, to Arthur, was staggering. He wasn't sure he deserved loyalty such as that.
"You'd rather be a servant than a knight of Camelot?" he asked incredulously, his skepticism echoed on the faces of his Queen and knight, though Gaius didn't look at all surprised by Merlin's decision.
"It's what I've always been," Merlin said simply. "I like my life, Arthur, just the way it is. I'm perfectly content to stay where I am. What would really change anyway?" he asked with a wry smile. "I'd still go everywhere with you, I'd still follow you into battle, I'd just have to wear that bulky armour that really does look 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 said, trying to tamp down the slight sadness that rose in him at the thought of Merlin not being around all the time or waking him up in the morning with those annoying sayings or muttering under his breath all during council meetings, of having another servant, a bland thing who called him 'sire' and didn't talk back. He felt a little silly and very sentimental for thinking it, but he would miss having Merlin constantly at his side. But then he remembered the reason for which Merlin had done this, to prove himself, to feel like he was worthy. He couldn't let his own dependence stop him from offering Merlin a chance at being something more than he was. "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," Merlin pointed out. "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." Arthur rolled his eyes and tried very hard not to smile at that, but couldn't help it.
"Besides, I rather enjoy the anonymity afforded to me by my post," he continued, his tone sly. "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 be 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 speaking, the best way for me to protect you is to stay where I am." Arthur stared at him, too impressed with his argument to take offence at the implication that he needed protecting. He crossed his arms and leveled his servant with an evaluating look.
"You're just full of surprises today, aren't you, Merlin?" he asked.
"Gaius always says I'm a riddle wrapped up in a mystery," Merlin said matter-of-factly.
"Well, just remember that Princess was perfectly willing to make you a knight, Merlin. And I'm sure the offer will remain standing," Gwaine said with a look at Arthur. "You deserve it, my friend. You really do."
"Thanks, Gwaine," Merlin said with a huge grin.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go celebrate your continued existence with ale." Gwaine gave a sweeping bow and bounded out of the room as they all rolled their eyes and laughed at his incorrigibleness. The quiet he left behind was a bit awkward, the subject of Merlin's potential knighthood hanging between them.
"Well…" Arthur said eventually, pushing himself off the table. "Take tomorrow off, Merlin. You deserve a rest after that. And the offer does stand," he said firmly before extending a hand to Guinevere. She took it and they both headed for the door, leaving Merlin in Gaius' cossetting.
Even as they got ready for bed, Arthur found himself still smiling, the relief of Merlin's victory flooding through him at random intervals. Better than that, even, was the change he could see in Merlin. He had looked so happy when he walked out of the arena. Even though he had been shaking with exertion, leaning heavily on Gwen to stay standing, he had still looked so triumphant, so proud. He had needed to prove that he was as capable as the rest of them, and he had. And Arthur hoped he would never doubt himself again, because Arthur certainly wouldn't.