Merlin had five minutes to find Arthur's true love, wrangle a kiss out of her, and save both the prince himself and the whole of Albion as they knew it.
Another day, another kingdom- and life-threatening disaster—Merlin was starting to think he should write a book.
He skidded around the weathered wood enclosure of the tourney yard, and he allotted himself two wracking coughs in the resultant cloud of dust before he raced up the rickety stairs to the ladies' box.
They were all murmuring concernedly, casting nervous glances at Olaf around silk fans and their own clasped hands, and he focused his speech on the most worried among their number.
"All of you," he panted, "who have ever been interested in Arthur—you've got to listen to me. He's in grave danger."
"I think we noticed," Lady Martha replied dryly, nodding towards the Arthur-shaped impressions in the tourney field's dust. Then, as Merlin opened his mouth, she took a shrewder look at him. "He's not usually like this at all. Is there something wrong with him?"
"Yes," Merlin wheezed. "Very wrong. Dreadfully wrong. Provided that he lives through the next round, he's going to marry Lady Vivian, and that means none of you will ever get to be with him. How wrong is that?"
"Wrong!" came the startled chorus, delicate hands fluttering everywhere.
"Right," Merlin said. "But you've got one last chance to convince him Vivian's a lousy choice. He's in his tent preparing. My suggestion is that all of you line up, go in one-by-one, and kiss him to see if he won't change his mind."
It was either a brilliant plan or an incredibly stupid one. He didn't think Arthur would mind too much either way, given the extremely impressive quantity of snogging he'd get out of the deal.
The unsettled women looked to Lady Martha, who stood and planted her hands on her hips.
"Don't much care if he changes his mind," she declared, grinning, "but I've always wondered what he tastes like."
With a rousing cheer that caught an extremely confused Uther's attention— how did he like being the one with no idea what the hell was going on?—the ladies flocked down the stairs and stampeded towards the tents, tittering all the way, leaving a colorful trail of dropped handkerchiefs and other favors in their wake.
Someone tugged on Merlin's sleeve, and he turned to find a wide-eyed Misa, the very nice servant girl who worked for the castle's head seamstress and had once added a bow to Merlin's red tunic without him noticing.
"Merlin," she whispered, "what's going on?"
Merlin jerked his thumb towards the escaping herd of ladies. "Last chance to kiss Arthur before he ends up with Vivian," he explained to the cluster of curious faces, "or dies. And/or dies."
Misa made a noise that could only be called a squeal and rocketed out of her seat after the court women, and the other serving girls precipitously followed suit. Merlin was left alone in a very empty section of tourney bleachers, and the two dozen nearest men, including the king, were staring at him as if he had spontaneously turned into a dragon.
Merlin glanced down at himself, just to be sure, and then mustered an innocent grin and a shrug. When everyone seemed to remember that this was Merlin, who was afflicted and inexplicable, they recommenced ignoring him, and he darted out of the tourney grounds, heart pounding, to enact Stage Two of his master plan.
Well, to enact Stage Two of his extremely dubious, not-even-remotely-foolproof plan, but at least it was a start.
Speaking of dragons, though, Merlin hated dragons. Merlin hated every dragon he'd ever met—which was only the one, but he was bad enough to prejudice Merlin against the whole race. If they all spoke in riddles and laughed at your strife, Uther had probably been right to try to wipe them out. Maybe one of them had promised him some obscure destiny and had followed up with a weird metaphor or five.
"Why, it is the greatest force of all," the dragon had proclaimed. At Merlin's blank look, he'd elaborated, "Love."
Merlin had always assumed it was brute force, since that tended to win out last time he checked.
"Love," he had repeated.
"You must find the person Arthur truly loves."
That was easy enough—mirrors weren't too hard to come by.
"And then what?" he had dared to ask.
"One kiss from her will break the enchantment, and he will desire Vivian no more."
Merlin had stared. "…seriously?"
"Have I ever before led you astray, young warlock?"
"Yeah, actually; let me make a list of the times, and I'll get back to you, if I can even carry it this far."
More uproarious laughter. Merlin wondered if all dragons were quite this sadistic.
"You should make haste, Merlin."
"Why, does he have to kiss her by midnight, too?"
Something stung, and it wasn't the cliché. Merlin had pushed the distraction impatiently aside—duly noting that the Dragon was just busting up laughing at this point, which wasn't any help—and then had turned on his heel and stormed up into the castle proper, grimly resolved. The obvious solution was to find Gwen, but something cold and ominous had been slithering in Merlin's chest, and he had long since learned to trust his instincts. Much as he appreciated Gwen, and much as Arthur seemed to pine for her, he didn't want to bank the prince's life and the kingdom's fate on a single, solitary kiss. That just sounded irresponsible, to tell the truth.
Thus it was that, careening up the stairs from the dungeons and waving off the guards' indignant shouts, he had cobbled together his plan: he would get as many eligible women as possible to kiss Arthur, raising the odds of encountering 'the person Arthur truly loved.' Even if none of his recruits was that person, having a long line would buy him more time to search for possibilities—and to convince Gwen that she hadn't been slighted after all, because this was all one big, messy, magical misunderstanding.
That seemed to be a trend around here.
Shaking himself out of the flashback, Merlin burst into Gwen's house, thoroughly disheveled by now, the countdown running in the back of his mind. No matter how many women were lined up outside Arthur's tent, at some point, the tournament officiators would order him back into the fight, and if Gwen hadn't gotten through yet, they were all royally fucked.
"Gwen," Merlin gasped out, "need… your help."
Gwen was gazing out the window. Her face was set, but her bottom lip was trembling. Merlin felt a wrenching wave of—something. Something that felt like sympathy, but that couldn't be right.
"What with, Merlin?" she asked softly.
"Matter," Merlin panted, "of life… and death. Please, Gwen. Haven't got… any choice…"
Gwen looked at him much more perceptively than he would have liked, and not just because he was flailing in her foyer, looking like he'd rolled in the tourney grounds' dust before coming here.
"Why do you always do this?" she asked. "Why do you always jump to everybody's rescue?"
This was the Gwen he remembered—and the Gwen who scared him just a little, because she knew something he didn't or something he didn't want her to.
"Somebody's got to," he answered truthfully. "Come on, Gwen—please. You're the only hope we have."
With warmth and dignity, she swallowed her ambivalence and rose to her feet to follow him. This, too, was the Gwen who had befriended him, awkwardness and all.
They scurried back to the tents, Gwen's emotions warring on her face more vigorously than Arthur and Olaf had fought. Gaius, his hands full of bandages and salves, was staring incredulously at the crowd of women outside Arthur's tent. The women, under Lady Martha's efficient command, were funneling through one at a time to emerge on the other side and start back for their seats, sighing contentedly as a rule.
Struggling to catch his breath, Merlin gave Gaius an imploring look, directing Gwen to the back of the line. "Just trust me," he said.
"The gods know I do," Gaius replied, eyeing the process taking place, "though even they can't figure out why."
Merlin bit his lip, watching the line stutter forward, new girls appearing from the tent, chattering with their cohorts, and then sauntering off, looking very pleased. "D'you think there's any chance Morgana is Arthur's true love?" he asked Gaius. "I didn't want to risk explaining to her, 'cause she's sitting right next to Vivian."
"Not a chance of that," Gaius answered. "What in the world is going on here, Merlin?"
Merlin ran a hand through his hair. The line was dwindling fast, and Lady Martha had stepped down from her tree-stump pedestal to step into the second-to-last spot, just in front of Gwen.
"It's complicated," he managed. "I'll be right back, Gaius; I've got to see if this works."
"What if it doesn't?" Gaius prompted skeptically.
Merlin considered. "Do you know anything about ritual suicide?"
Gaius shoved him into the tent.
Merlin stumbled to regain his balance, his eyes adjusting to the dimness inside the tent just as Lady Martha knocked the entrance flaps aside and strode purposefully up to Arthur, the previous young lady fleeing red-faced and giggling.
"You know," Lady Martha told a dazed but certainly not discontented prince, "you're not really my type."
"Why not?" Arthur managed faintly.
"Too young," Martha decided, though it definitely didn't stop her from burying both hands in his hair and drawing him in for an extremely enthusiastic kiss.
Gwen looked like she might throw up, and Merlin patted her arm encouragingly. Personally, he was enjoying the view—Lady Martha was pretty gorgeous, and Arthur was always easy on the eyes.
Martha pulled back, beaming. "You're not too bad, though," was the verdict, "for a kid."
Even magicked-up and overwhelmed, Arthur immediately opened his mouth to protest, but Lady Martha cut him off, patting him on the cheek and winking at Gwen.
"All yours," she said.
"Ah," Arthur remarked smugly, sighting the extremely intimidated serving girl. "Come to wish me good l—"
Merlin planted both hands on Gwen's back and pushed, sending her staggering straight into Arthur, who received her with the response he'd been practicing all this time.
There was a sudden stab of pain, so agonizing, urgent, and brief that it almost didn't register, like a cut from a knife so sharp that its edge was invisible. It must have been his body's automatic perception of strong magic being shattered—he was a creature of the old religion; how many enigmatic enemies had told him that? The breakage of such a forceful spell probably shook something close to his core.
Speaking of being shaken, just as Gwen and Arthur broke apart, gazing into one another's eyes, there was a commotion from outside, which immediately became a commotion inside. Gaius flung the tent flaps aside, barging in with the expression of a man whose curiosity had overcome his better judgment.
"They're calling for Arthur; did it w—"
In mid-syllable, Gaius slipped on an abandoned silk handkerchief, pitching forward to crash into Merlin, who stumbled forward himself, displacing Gwen in Arthur's arms.
Merlin's knee twinged, and he twitched, and the tiny motion closed the miniscule distance between Arthur's mouth and his.
Kissing Arthur was not exactly like the fleeting fantasies Merlin had guiltily sustained on bad days, when he needed something to cling to. In fact, kissing Arthur was nothing like the fantasies, because Arthur wasn't really kissing back, and he certainly wasn't running his fingers through Merlin's hair, and he had instead gone all tense and frozen, which was kind of insulting.
Then again, Merlin probably didn't compare particularly favorably to the long and diversified series of women Arthur had just tried out, and he probably especially didn't compare to Gwen.
He scrambled back and cleared his throat, swiping at his mouth with his sleeve. Arthur stared at him disbelievingly for a long moment, eyes wide and blue and unrevealing, and then his face contorted into rage.
"Merlin!" he growled through tightly-clenched teeth.
Merlin turned to Gaius.
"I guess something worked," he said.
Gaius's eyebrow hadn't been higher in a long, long time.
Arthur withdrew his swordpoint from its place against Olaf's chest, offering the king a hand up instead of a hole in the throat, and Merlin punched the air, overflowing with relief. Trying to reroute a little of the joy, he threw both arms around Gaius and hugged his mentor tightly, bouncing up and down.
Gaius chuckled. "Awfully affectionate today, aren't we, Merlin?"
Merlin went very pink. "That was your fault," he pointed out. "And it doesn't matter—Gwen saved Camelot! Arthur'll only be mad at me until he realizes he was about to die, and then he'll forget about everything but that."
Gaius clapped Merlin's shoulder, leading the way back to Arthur's tent, where Merlin would still be on armor-cleaning and Arthur-coddling duty despite the excitement.
It was an unfair world he was so fond of rescuing.
Gaius stayed, preparing a poultice for Arthur's broken rib, as Merlin gathered his supplies, picking a place to sit where a sunbeam would be at his back. Momentarily, the tent flaps parted, admitting Arthur, damp-haired but triumphant, though there was more than a hint of strain in his grin. He passed his broadsword to Merlin, who set it down and leapt out of his sunbeam spot to get to work peeling off armor.
"Shouldn't you be out celebrating, Sire?" Gaius asked, helping to tug the tabard and then the linen over Arthur's head.
Arthur grimaced and, free of the fabric, looked down at the mess of purpling bruises on his chest. "Couldn't ignore it anymore. What the hell happened?"
"Olaf broke your rib," Gaius dutifully reported, "when you were fighting with the quarterstaff."
Arthur wrinkled his nose. "Why don't I remember any of this?" he asked.
Merlin exchanged a glance with Gaius and then took a deep breath.
"You were enchanted," he said.
"Lady Vivian still is," Merlin went on. "It was—well, it doesn't matter who it was, because you're all right now. They were trying to start a war by getting you and Olaf to kill each other, and it almost worked, but we've stopped them by breaking the spell."
Merlin waited, inwardly cringing, for Arthur to demand how exactly they'd done that—and for Merlin to have to explain to an amnesiac prince that there had been a very long line of pursed-lipped women involved, somehow without mentioning the dragon-under-the-castle bit.
"Vivian's still enchanted?" Arthur inquired.
"I just—" Merlin began, then stopped. "Oh. Yeah, she's still infatuated with you."
Arthur's facial muscles twitched towards a combination of horror and dismay. "And I was—'infatuated'—with her?"
Merlin started grinning. It wasn't his fault; it was just that Arthur made fun of him all the time, and he finally had an opportunity for mostly-innocuous revenge—
"It's not funny, Merlin," Arthur gritted out.
"It's a little funny," Merlin chirped.
Arthur reached for his sword, and Merlin raised both hands, waving them peaceably.
"Not funny at all," he amended. "Might actually be the most tragic thing I've ever seen."
Gaius's cough sounded suspiciously similar to a sardonic laugh.
"Good," Arthur decided, folding his right arm across his collarbones to give Gaius better access to his injured rib. "You'll have to help me explain this tragedy to King Olaf."
"What?" Merlin wailed. "Why?"
"Because you remember what happened," Arthur responded, which Merlin reluctantly decided was fair enough.
He had a deep premonitory feeling that he was going to regret this.
Splint-bandaged and fully-clothed, Arthur watched Merlin shuffling around his bedroom, sweeping for no other reason than that Arthur had suggested it. The unnecessary task was clearly an excuse to keep Merlin around until Olaf could get away from his other engagements and pay Arthur a visit, which the prince had requested in a note that Merlin had delivered himself.
Merlin was pouting. It had been a long day, and haltingly explaining to a powerful king that his spoiled daughter was under a spell did not sound like a nice way to end it.
A hot meal would have been nice. Or a warm meal. Or a lukewarm meal and a soft bed. Or anything other than leaning on a broom handle in one of the corners of Arthur's gigantic room, admiring the intricacy of the dust formations.
Admittedly, this job might not have been so bad now if he'd done it more often, but there was also the factor that the dust formations were rather impressive. The one he was cataloguing now looked kind of like Arthur's profile.
Not that Merlin would have recognized Arthur's profile in a crowd of thousands, let alone a coagulation of dust, or anything.
"Merlin," Arthur drawled from where he was sitting at the table, slouching in his chair as much as possible without worsening his broken rib, "are you honestly too dense to figure out how to sweep a room, or do you just pretend to be in order to procrastinate?"
"I'm tired," Merlin informed him, flicking the broom's bristles and vindictively obliterating the Arthur-shaped dust bunny. "And now you want me to try to tell Olaf that Vivian's going to be even crazier than usual until her 'true love' plants one on her?"
Arthur colored a little. "Is that what—and Guinevere—"
Merlin smacked the flooring with the broom, generating a considerable cloud of dust, and sneezed violently.
"That's right," he managed, rubbing his nose. "Olaf's not going to be happy about it, and guess who's going to take the brunt of the blame for that?"
There was a brisk knock at the door.
Arthur was trying not to smirk. "Show-time, Merlin," he announced.
Merlin attempted to incinerate Arthur with his eyes without actually incinerating Arthur with his eyes, since he might be capable of it if he tried hard enough, and Gaius would be very, very mad.
Arthur jerked his head meaningfully, and Merlin tried anyway, setting the broom down and crossing behind Arthur's chair to go answer the door.
Olaf prowled in like he owned the place. While Merlin supposed he had a right to assert himself, given how awkwardly his last appearance in this room had gone, the man could at least have nodded acknowledgment of Merlin's gesture like Arthur usually did, so Merlin stuck his tongue out at the back of the king's crowned and fur-cradled head.
Arthur, who was sitting up a lot straighter now, seemed to be having considerable difficulties maintaining his Impassive But Respectful Face, and Merlin smiled smugly.
"Thank you for coming at such short notice," Arthur said, getting to his feet. He sat again, one hand jumping to his injured rib, only once Olaf had joined him at the table. "I'm afraid the news I have is unpleasant."
Olaf raised an eyebrow in a way that wouldn't faze anyone who had met Gaius. "Do tell."
Arthur glanced at Merlin, who shrugged permissively.
"Your daughter," Arthur said, and Olaf's shoulders tensed, "is enchanted."
Olaf's wariness segued into deep doubtfulness, and his eyebrow ranged towards Gaius-worthy territory.
"I believe the word you want is 'enchanting,'" he said.
"No," Merlin cut in impatiently, stepping forward and then hastily retreating as Olaf turned blazing eyes on him. "Er—no, my lord, that's not what he means."
"Thank you, Merlin," Arthur interjected, giving him the Just because I'd never follow through on my execution threats doesn't mean someone else won't slit your throat to shut you up look. He quickly returned his attention to Olaf. "I imagine you know my father's position on sorcery, sir?"
Olaf gave Arthur a conspiratorial grimace. "I imagine everyone in the world except the sorcerers knows that."
Arthur folded his hands on the table and leaned forward, his eyes intent. Merlin recovered the broom and tried to seem busy while watching closely.
"There was a sorcerer here at court," Arthur said, his voice low, his features fiercely ingenuous. "It's pointless to concern ourselves with which individual harbored the sorcerer, and I'm hoping to let it rest, as he's gone now, and my father would certainly destabilize the peace if he was aware of this deception. The important thing is that the Lady Vivian and I were targeted with a love spell in the hopes that our attempts to be together would start a feud—which is precisely what almost happened, as you know."
Olaf smiled faintly, and Merlin grudgingly decided that this fellow wasn't all bad.
"I thought your actions were a bit bizarre," he said. "I've never seen Vivian actually take to anyone before."
"The problem," Arthur went on bravely, "is that while my half of the spell has been broken, the Lady Vivian's has not."
Olaf paused. "How do we break it, then?" he asked.
Arthur looked to Merlin helplessly.
"If you'll give me leave, sir," he said to Olaf, tentatively moving closer, "I—"
"Who are you?" Olaf demanded.
"This is my manservant, Merlin," Arthur replied. "He is without contest the worst servant in the region, but he has a knack for getting in trouble and an even better knack for getting out of it. He also works for Gaius, our court physician, who is one of my father's oldest and most trusted friends. He has no sense whatsoever of social position, but if you can forgive his complete and utter lack of tact, I assure you that you can believe everything he says. He has never lied to me before."
Merlin was startled into silence for a moment. He hadn't thought Arthur actually noticed his loyalty, whether or not loyalty and honesty really coincided most of the time.
"Go on, then," Olaf urged.
Merlin twisted his hands around the broom handle. Explaining this without incriminating himself was like walking across a sucking tar pit that had three stepping stones over its entire length.
"Arthur found a lock of the Lady Vivian's hair under his pillow," he started slowly, "which I assume is the source of the enchantment. I gather that love spells tends to be extremely strong because love's power makes for really big magic."
Arthur was looking at him funny, and Merlin resisted the potent urge to make a face in response. He shifted his gaze back to Olaf, trying to exude reliability.
"Gaius and I do research sometimes," he invented. "It's easier to fight magic if you have some understanding of how it works. Anyway, we figured out that we had to use actual love to break the love spell, so I went and got…" Arthur's thoughtful uncertainty had blossomed into a venomous warning. "Well, his true love had to kiss him, so I brought her over, and that's when he snapped out of it—you may have noticed his perspective on the fight changed pretty dramatically between the mace and the sword bit."
"'The sword bit,'" Arthur repeated in a mutter.
Merlin frowned. He could have done with a little credit for fixing everything again.
Olaf was frowning, too, though not in light of this grievous injustice. "Boy," he said, "are you telling me I have to find my daughter's true love and let them at it?"
"Pretty much," Merlin replied.
Arthur cleared his throat. "We'll help you," he said.
Merlin's mouth fell open, the better to make way for an incredulous "We'll what?"
"The incident began here," Arthur said firmly, pointing at the less-dusty-than-usual floor for emphasis, "which makes it our responsibility. We'll see it through."
"You can't possibly expect me to go with you and try to find somebody Vivian truly loves," Merlin protested. "That's like trying to find a needle in a haystack when there isn't a needle in the first place."
"Please pardon my extraordinarily idiotic servant," Arthur remarked to Olaf. "He's always like this; Gaius can't figure out what's wrong with his brain, though not for lack of trying."
"There's nothing wrong with my brain!" Merlin cried.
Arthur smiled winningly at Olaf. "A moment?" he asked. At the king's nod—which closely followed a glance at Merlin that made him sympathize with afancs—Arthur heaved himself out of his chair, holding his rib, and flung an arm around Merlin's shoulders. Merlin was bewildered by the warmth of the gesture only until Arthur's grip tightened to the point of being painful, and the prince hauled him over to a still-dusty corner, displaying clenched teeth and fiery eyes.
"Merlin," he bit out slowly, "listen to me. I'm going to use small words, all right? Here we go: you are going to come and help me fix this, or I am going to make sure you never get a moment's rest again."
"That'd be a better threat if I got a moment's rest now," Merlin retorted. "Arthur, Vivian's famous for thinking herself too good for anyone. How exactly do you propose we go about finding her true love? How do you even measure true love?"
Arthur sighed. "We'll figure that out when we get there. You found—well, you fixed me; I'm sure that you, aided by someone with an advanced intellect—"
"—will manage to duplicate the miracle." Arthur eyed him. "If we don't, Olaf will be rightfully angry, and the peace treaty will be at stake. You don't want to be responsible for war in Camelot, do you, Merlin?"
Merlin huffed. "I'm not carrying your bags."
Merlin staggered under the weight of Arthur's bags.
"I think you should get a second servant sometime," he panted. "Then the two of us could mutiny."
Arthur led his horse further off the path, looking for a comfortable clearing. They'd started off a day after Olaf's departure, as Arthur had suggested they do—the less time they spent traipsing down the road alongside an enchanted Vivian, the better. It was a fine day, and the prince was in high spirits, if his willingness to taunt Merlin was any indication.
Actually, his willingness to taunt Merlin mostly just proved that Arthur was conscious.
"Didn't work so well with Cedric, as I recall."
"I recall that, too," Merlin noted. "Might've had something to do with the fact that you hired a thief."
"Details," Arthur said.
"Yeah, like the detail that he ended up possessed by Camelot's greatest evil sorcerer—that was my favorite bit."
"'Evil sorcerer' is redundant, Merlin."
"Speaking of redundancy," Merlin said, searching for his trailing horse's reins amongst all the luggage, "can't we just find someone to make a portrait of Vivian? She could fall in love with that."
Arthur snorted. "You must be the laziest servant alive."
"But I am alive," Merlin pointed out, "and so are you, which wouldn't be the case if I hadn't intervened."
"Letting it go to your head, Merlin?" Arthur inquired.
Before Merlin could argue, a palatable space had opened between the trees, its unimpeded breadth sufficient to accommodate them, and Arthur had ceased tramping and started to secure his horse.
"Well, Arthur," Merlin muttered under his breath, "my opinion, since you asked, is that this will make a good camp. Excellent choice. What a clever prince you are."
He made a point of dropping Arthur's baggage to the ground, pretending he didn't hear the clanging crash of mistreated armor, and stretched both arms luxuriously over his head.
"Stop dilly-dallying," Arthur reprimanded, gesturing towards the empty center of their camp. "Help me collect firewood. The sun's going down."
"Did you just say 'dilly-dallying'?" Merlin asked interestedly.
Arthur scowled at him. "What's your point?"
"I don't have one," Merlin said. "It just doesn't seem like the sort of word you'd use."
"Last time I checked," Arthur gritted out, "you were my servant, not my vocabulary tutor."
"Fiddle-faddle," Merlin replied cheerfully. "I can be both."
Arthur stormed out of the clearing muttering about semantics and homicide, so Merlin sauntered off in the other direction to look for kindling.
He was going to make sure Arthur regretted dragging him out on this ludicrous little venture. It wasn't like the prince wasn't more than capable of seeking out true loves all on his own—he could probably just stand up in the middle of Olaf's castle's courtyard and announce himself, and he'd have narrowed the search for Vivian's love down to the one or two people who didn't immediately pledge their undying adulation to him instead.
Merlin kicked a clump of pine needles, which scattered everywhere. It was all too easy to commit yourself to Arthur, even when he was being a stupid prat.
Especially when he was being a stupid prat.
Merlin clomped dutifully around the forest for a while, collecting brush that looked flammable. Arthur was right about one thing, which was that it was getting dark, though Merlin still glanced over his shoulder before using magic to make a few branches jump into the bundle in his arms.
Maybe Gaius was right, and he was getting kind of reckless these days. It wasn't his fault—or he hoped not. The dangers seemed to be redoubling, and his allies were few; he was everybody's gofer and everybody's scapegoat, and it wasn't that he was careless so much as that his back was inches from the wall. Magic was the only weapon Merlin had, and there was nothing he could do about the fact that any day now it might cut him open, too.
All right, so magicking firewood was a matter of laziness, but that was it.
Okay, maybe there were a lot of matters of laziness at work, and maybe there were times he could have talked his way out of the corner instead, but Arthur was increasingly prone to suspicious glances these days, and he didn't have much choice. Stifling the pulse of magic in his blood would be like telling a virtuoso to abandon his instrument because he'd be executed if anybody heard the sound.
A twig cracked violently under Merlin's heel, and he jumped, deciding he didn't like that analogy at all.
He cast another glance around, but there was no one watching that he could detect—no ominous shadows flitting through the trees, or at least none that were any more ominous than usual. He hefted his bundle of wood and decided he should start back for camp all the same, because Arthur would throw the usual hissy fit if everything wasn't perfectly in place. To be honest, Merlin was surprised the prince had sent him out for firewood at all, rather than telling him to sit around and polish Arthur's sword, since forest dwellers cared so much about the shininess of one's weapon.
Merlin kicked irritably at the undergrowth, then repented. In the grander scheme of things, he was the undergrowth.
Well, maybe he was more shrub-level than strictly undergrowth, but he had no desire to tread on lesser plants.
Merlin looked around him, paused, and realized with an unhappily familiar feeling that he had no idea where the camp was. Arthur was going to kill him before Merlin ever had a chance to drive his master insane, which was quite a pity, since Merlin had lots of plans for how to go about it.
He turned in a circle, squinting, hoping for a spark of new orange flame amongst the trees, a sign to betray Arthur's location before Merlin's doom was sealed. Surely there was something… He tried to think like the man who would have his hide if he remained hopelessly lost, which didn't sound like a bad start. He peeked over the edge of the wood piled in his arms, looking for the trail of his wandering footsteps, which he might be able to follow back. The forest, however, was dimming as the sunlight slipped away, and Merlin had trouble picking out his own criss-crossing prints.
He sighed, glanced around him one more time, and closed his eyes, quieting the murmurs of panic, guilt, annoyance, and concern. Slowly he spread his perception, letting all his senses but sight play over the darkening world around him, mining its sounds, its scents, its soft currents and the faint humidity of its molding leaves. The forest was old—was ancient, was venerable and undisplaced. These were things Merlin understood at a level so deep he couldn't have articulated them if somebody had wanted to hear. These were things that belonged to him, that were part of him; this was the world that had inspired his soul. He was rooted in it, appropriately enough, and it reciprocated his allegiance.
He let his eyelids rise, bright gold gleaming, and felt the gentle but detectable pull of his destination. Smiling faintly, offering his silent gratitude to the deep warmth of connection, he headed towards the whispering pinpoint of Arthur and the camp.
Of course the prince was not impressed, though Merlin supposed he couldn't have known the extent of Merlin's feat. Some people took a rudimentary sense of direction very much for granted.
"Another hour, and I would have given you up for lost," Arthur noted crisply, nudging a wayward branch into the fire with the toe of his boot. "I would have been a bit put out, you know."
"I love you, too," Merlin said.
Arthur froze with one foot raised to cross his legs at the ankles. Their eyes met, Arthur's wide, impossibly wide, and blue like the depths of a roiling sea—blue like thick fog in the moonlight; blue like pennants snapping in the wind.
Merlin had seen Arthur intimidated, had seen him resolved, had seen his will triumphing over dread. Merlin had never seen him scared.
Merlin swallowed hard. All the feeling had fled from his body, the better for the horror to resonate in every nerve. He was just starting to recover awareness—the bark of the firewood prickling at his arms, the cool breath of a tentative breeze pushing at the small of his back. His blood was pounding in his ears, and he forced himself to focus on the existence of a world outside the one laid bare in Arthur's eyes.
"Prat," Merlin blurted out.
Arthur's muscles tensed more, compensating for his impulse to relax.
"Idiot," he returned, and the air was breathable again.
Merlin deposited his load of firewood a bit further from Arthur's side than strictly necessary just in case. For once, Arthur might not interpret the gesture as an attempt to keep something important out of his immediate reach, which was an accusation Merlin always staunchly denied despite the fact that it was always completely true.
Merlin sat down on the other side of the modest, crackling fire, considering it for a long moment and sneaking looks at Arthur through his eyelashes. The prince may or may not have been trying to do the exact same thing from his position, which made Merlin's insides dance even more unsettlingly than Uther tended to do after far, far too much wine.
Merlin cleared his throat. "I'm hungry," he said, since he was, and it sounded safe.
"I suspect you have a hollow leg, Merlin," Arthur replied. "It would explain your incompatibility with ordinary balance."
Merlin smiled to himself, because Arthur calling him clumsy was ground that wouldn't fall away when he least expected.
"If I feed you," Arthur continued faux-idly, "will you shut up?"
Merlin made a point of thinking it over. "The odds are pretty good, yeah."
Arthur rolled his eyes and went for the bags. "You know how fond I am of gambling."
Merlin figured that, given the number of times he'd bet his life on one of the prince's crazy ventures, Arthur could just suck it up.
The night had fully settled, and the fire was low, orange embers winking slowly and obliquely in the deepening dark. Merlin shifted onto his side, tugging at the blanket, and made a futile effort to snuggle with his pack, which was so lumpy that he wondered if he'd brought potatoes without realizing it.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"If you snore, I'll kill you."
"I do not."
"I tuck you in. You snore."
"You have never 'tucked me in' in your life, and I do not snore."
"It's not your fault," Merlin assured him through a yawn. "It's probably just all that hot air in your head escaping as you sleep."
"I'm killing you first thing tomorrow."
"Shouldn't execute anyone on an empty stomach."
"I'm killing you second thing tomorrow, right after breakfast."
"Shut up, Merlin."
There was a pause.
Some particularly noisy packing on Arthur's part dragged Merlin blearily out of his dreams the next morning. The prince had what Merlin privately called the King Thing—an air of bone-deep weariness from the weight of his responsibilities. Arthur entertained heavy thoughts some days, and Merlin could see them pushing on his shoulders and his spine.
"You snored," Merlin announced, clambering to his feet.
"I did no such thing," Arthur retorted.
"Yes, you did," Merlin informed him, rummaging for something edible. "Don't try to deny it; you can't very well have heard yourself."
"I'll have someone else disprove your slander when we reach Valden," Arthur decided.
Merlin glanced over, biting his lip on a grin. "Who exactly are you going to get to do that?"
"Vivian," Arthur answered.
Merlin gave that a moment to sink in. "You're going to let Vivian watch you while you're asleep—with the state she's in?"
Arthur grimaced. "For once in your life," he said, "you have a point, Merlin. So it's a good thing I won't need any witnesses, because I don't snore in the first place."
"You don't have to get defensive," Merlin replied, turning up an apple and sampling it. "It's kind of cute."
Arthur stared at him in horror.
Merlin blinked as innocently as he could, but the grin was slowly winning out. "Like a kitten," he said.
Arthur looked vaguely ill.
"I'm having Olaf execute you the second we arrive," he said.
Merlin was completely unnerved by the ease of their journey.
Arguably, it might have been a good sign for coming trials that they met no bandits, no brigands, no monstrous beasts, and no sorcerers hell-bent on Camelot's destruction, but it seemed to Merlin that if the traveling went so well, the other shoe would have to fall during the next stage of their mission.
He kept his theory to himself—much as he wanted to speculate on the many ways in which Vivian, intentionally or unintentionally, might sabotage their plans—because Arthur was in the mood for clopping along on his horse, looking like something from a fairy tale, rather than for pessimistic conversation.
Really, the things Merlin did on Arthur's behalf were unbelievable. He certainly didn't keep his mouth shut for anybody else.
He was almost bursting with held-in hypotheses by the time they crossed Olaf's borders, approaching his castle and the potential for massive failure which it contained. They were escorted over the last few miles by some of Olaf's liveried knights, and people stared unabashedly as they passed. Merlin tried to keep his head down; he wasn't anything worth staring at.
At least not yet.
An icy apprehension seized his chest, an image striking him that made his blood sing cold—they'd stare if he got caught. They'd stare as the knights marched him across the yard, pushed him to his knees, and held his head down over dried blood and old death. His hands would be tied; the rope would cut into his wrists; someone would plant a firm hand between his shoulder blades, stilling his hopeless struggling as the axe blade flashed, arcing upward in preparation. He'd meet Arthur's vast and lucid eyes, and he wouldn't invoke a thousand favors and their thousand repercussions.
Why did the sorcerers never fight? There was nothing left to lose.
Merlin suppressed a sigh and watched his horse's ears flick idly. His horse didn't care who was monitoring them or why.
Merlin decided he should probably halt this train of thought now before he found himself aspiring to be a horse.
He was going to blame all of the psychological damage of this trip on Arthur.
When they reached the castle gates, Merlin noticed a man waiting off to the side of the road—a dark-haired man wearing a long coat like the one Arthur had, but gray instead of brown. He had his hands folded behind his back, and his bright blue eyes were extremely amused.
As Merlin had begun to suspect, his and Arthur's entourage stopped here, letting a farmer's wagon creak and rumble past them. Before anyone had a chance to ask, the man flashed a radiant grin.
"Welcome to Valden," he told them, and he had a funny way of hitting all the consonants and flattening the vowels. "You must be Arthur." Merlin managed to refrain from smirking contentedly at the familiarity of the address. "Pleasure to meet you, sir. I'm Harper, the captain of the guard."
"I'm Arthur," the prince confirmed, dismounting and then drawing himself to his full height, his posture even more disturbingly upright than usual. He offered the captain a hand, then used it to gesture back. "This is my servant, Merlin."
The captain grinned as Merlin hastily and ungracefully scrambled down from his horse. "Hello, Merlin. Pleasure is all mine, believe me." He addressed the pair of them next, which made Merlin happier than he would have liked to admit. "Well, friends, the reason I'm here is that you'd probably make something of a stir heading straight into town. The king and I discussed this whole project when he arrived yesterday. We've got a room set up, and Collette will take excellent care of you—and keep you out of sight, so that the Lady Vivian doesn't suspect a thing."
Arthur looked vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of deliberate deception, but he nodded decisively. "I trust King Olaf has told you the extent of the situation. We'll try to resolve the issue as efficiently as we can." He gave Merlin a warning glance. "And as subtly as possible."
Merlin successfully resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He could be subtle—he could be very subtle when he was in rooms without obstacles, when he wasn't required to generate insinuating conversation or to drop understated hints. He could be very subtle if he wasn't moving, talking, or breathing too loud.
He didn't understand why people couldn't just say what they meant in the first place. When Merlin thought Arthur was being a total clotpoll, he said so, and the import of the statement was clear.
The import was that Merlin was going to suffer at Arthur's hands in lots of small and creative ways, but at least he'd gotten the point across.
"Wonderful," the captain declared. "Follow me…"
He led them through the portcullis, Merlin staggering under the burden of the bags again, as Captain Harper's quiet, sharp-eyed subordinate had taken their horses, vowing that they'd be well-attended. The captain seemed to catch a glimpse of Merlin trailing, and he very gradually slowed his step.
Merlin kind of liked this guy.
The captain guided them through slightly dusty, disused halls—the ones the servants favored, Merlin inferred from experience—where they wouldn't have much chance of being seen. Merlin wondered whether Arthur was familiar with the corresponding corridors back home; if the prince might track those lesser-used passageways sometimes. That was subtlety—to see, to hear, to move, to ghost about behind the scenes, to reappear when needed.
Admittedly, Merlin hadn't yet exactly mastered the less-used-hall strategy, though, thinking about it, it might diminish his Collisions with Important People tally considerably.
In the meantime, Harper stopped by an unremarkable door, unlocked it, and deposited them in a modest but comfortable room, ceding Arthur the key.
"Guards do rounds in the hall just there," the captain explained, pointing, "so feel free to send one after me if there's anything you need. Collette will be by soon to see to dinner and anything else. And despite all the secrecy, as far as King Olaf is concerned, the run of the castle's yours—do what you have to do." He smiled, warmly. "Thank you for being here."
Arthur, apparently detecting a kindred spirit by Harper's straight spine and dignified cordiality (or at least by the sword at his side), returned the gesture, setting his hands on his hips.
"Thank you for seeing us so well restored," he replied.
"Shit!" Merlin squeaked, stumbling into the bedframe as his effort to find a place to set the bags turned into an exercise in tumbling to the floor.
"Oh!" the captain cried, darting over immediately to start excavating Merlin from the pile of luggage. When Harper had set everything safely on the mattress, he offered Merlin a hand up. Taking it, Merlin discovered that the captain's hand was warm, firm, and calloused, crossed with little scars, his grip sure, his worry genuine. "Are you all right?" he prompted. "Bit of a nasty fall."
Merlin felt his face heating up as the impressive hands flicked over him briskly but gently, brushing off his clothes. "I'm fine," he promised. "I'm used to falling by now."
"He has a talent for putting his heels in his head's place," Arthur contributed, arms folded across his chest, looking rather impatient with the way that Harper's attention rested on someone else.
Harper clapped Merlin's shoulder and winked at Arthur. "It's quite a servant that'll take a fall for you," he commented. "If we're all in one piece, though, I'd better leave you to your work and get back to mine. Good luck, Merlin; Sire."
Arthur smiled the captain out, then turned to Merlin with an antagonized expression.
Merlin shifted his weight uncertainly. "What?"
"Do you thrive on the attention?" Arthur inquired. "I can think of a few items on the agenda more important than flirting with knights."
"I—y—flirting?" Merlin sputtered. "Arthur, I fell over."
If falling was flirting, Merlin probably would have been a lot more popular in Camelot.
"Unpack the bags," Arthur bid him, "and then we'll see the castle."
Merlin's cheeks must have been red enough to make his neckerchief jealous. "I wasn't flirting, Sire."
Arthur gave him an imperious look. "We don't have time to argue, Merlin."
Merlin wrenched Arthur's personal bag open, directing his black look at its contents instead of at its owner. "I can argue and unpack at once."
Arthur snatched the bag away. "This precisely why you're such a miserable servant."
Merlin tried to grab it back, catching the strap and tugging when Arthur held fast. "I wouldn't be miserable if you treated me well."
Arthur coughed up a laugh, dry and staccato. "Most men I know would have whipped you daily until you ran off, so they could justify killing you."
Merlin hauled on the bag, fighting for traction on the floor. "I didn't say 'treat me well for a servant,'" he retorted. "I said 'treat me well.' If you think you're so special, Arthur—" He dug in his heels. "—prove it. Just because you were swaddled in velvet doesn't make you any better a man. Royal blood running through your heart doesn't make it any richer. What people owe you is nothing more than what you give them first."
Arthur's face was so dark and so cold that Merlin's flaring resolution quavered.
Then Arthur let go of the bag, and Merlin's momentum slammed him straight into the armoire by the bed.
"If you want to serve me," Arthur said quietly, his gaze on the floor, "then do it. You have overstepped your bounds a thousand times, and I have forgiven you. If that doesn't speak to my heart's quality, I don't know what will."
"You told me I had to come with you," Merlin ground out, rubbing at a new bruise at the back of his head. "What's wrong with you today?"
Arthur's jaw clenched, and he turned his back, elegant muscles jerking strangely as he sat on the edge of the bed. "Just unpack."
Merlin took a deep breath, then another, cooling the anger's flame, and gathered himself to his feet. He set the bag down on the bed and started sorting through, sneaking glances at Arthur, who remained unreadable.
"We'll figure something out," Merlin ventured, looking for signs of softening. "We always do."
Arthur graced him with a withering look. "Obviously," he responded, "given that the choices are 'figure something out' or 'crawl back to Camelot permanently shamed.'"
Arthur got so melodramatic when he was upset.
Merlin folded a few tunics and put them neatly in the armoire. Arthur might notice his uncharacteristic meticulousness later and appreciate the gesture in retrospect.
"It shouldn't be all that difficult to observe Vivian," he pointed out. "She's not exactly a recluse. We'll just need a safe vantage point, and then we can start making guesses and testing them out."
Arthur said nothing. Merlin let the silence sit for a moment in case the prince was deep in thought, then concluded that Arthur never weighed his words for more than ten seconds at a stretch, which meant his moodiness was tied to something else. Merlin shelved another article of clothing, shut the armoire, and went to go perch beside Arthur on the bed, quite prepared to wait it out.
Arthur glanced at him. "What?" he demanded.
"Nothing," Merlin said blithely.
Arthur scowled and looked at the wall for a minute before his patience with the boy sitting calmly and contentedly at his side wore thin again.
"What is it?" he repeated.
"Nothing," Merlin replied again. "Just waiting for you to tell me what's actually wrong."
Arthur bared his teeth. "Nothing is wrong, Merlin, except your insolence."
"All sorts of things are," Merlin reminded him peaceably, "and I'm just going to sit here until you tell me which one's bothering you now."
Arthur stewed for a few seconds more, tapping his foot on the floor. Merlin swung his legs and admired the ceiling, which had rather nice vaulting, to tell the truth.
"If you must know," Arthur muttered at last, "it's all a bit overwhelming."
Merlin tried not to find this sudden vulnerability strange. "What's 'it'?"
Arthur rubbed his face. "All this—all the true love business. It just makes everything sound completely foreordained—done with. Like my future's laid out, and there's nothing I can do. I hate that. I hate the idea that I'm not in control of what's ahead. Things are mad enough for us already, aren't they? Doesn't it just seem like a trap to have destiny already set?"
Merlin managed a faint smile. "I don't think it'd be too bad if your destiny involved somebody you wanted to spend the rest of your life chasing after."
Arthur frowned at him. "That's not what I mean. Chasing sounds all right; chasing I can do. It's the… just—doesn't 'true love' sound sedentary? You find your true love, and you settle down, and you create true-lovechildren, and that's the end of it. That's what your life amounts to."
"Arthur," Merlin said, poking the prince's shoulder for emphasis, "you are going to be Albion's greatest king. That's your destiny. That's inevitable. The rest is just stuff to pass the time."
Arthur snorted. "True love, the famous time-killer."
Merlin grinned. "Well, how do you know? Ever been in true love before?"
Arthur picked at a thread on his tunic hem. "How do I know it's true love now?"
"You kissed her," Merlin insisted, "in the tent. Gwen. She broke the spell. It's plain as day."
"I kissed a lot of people in the tent," Arthur muttered back.
Merlin paused. "You remember that?"
"It's been coming back in bits and pieces," Arthur said. He made a face. "Lady Martha, Merlin? She might've taken the opportunity to poison me for general arrogance."
"No," Merlin mused. "Martha's smarter than that; she'd get someone else to do it unwittingly so that she could be elsewhere with a perfect alibi."
Arthur grimaced. "Can we talk about something other than how my own courtiers would go about assassinating me?"
Merlin grinned. "But don't you want to hear about what Morgana would do?"
"She'd stab me in my sleep," Arthur rejoined crisply, "and blame it on a nightmare. Are you quite done, Merlin?"
"I hope you are," a bright voice volunteered from the doorway. Turning, Merlin discovered a girl about their age, a bit on the short side, possessed of dark hair and warm brown eyes. There was an air of such sweetness about her that she seemed prettier than she probably actually was.
"I've brought you dinner," the girl went on, hefting the broad tray in her hands for emphasis. "I'm sorry I'm late; there's been some trouble…"
"You must be Collette," Merlin said, at the same moment as Arthur cut in, "What kind of trouble?"
Merlin gave Arthur a look meant to convey We can interrogate her about the latest disaster after we've been properly introduced, but the prince ignored him.
"That's right," Collette confirmed, smiling a little shyly. "And it's just that King Alined's sent word that his servant has run away, and anyone who catches him will get a reward. People are excited, since it's pretty likely he'd come here—we're closest to the route King Alined was taking, anyway, and King Olaf's dispatched a small contingent of knights to look for him. I guess we can't be too careful; it'd be terrible to offend Alined right after we've finally established peace."
Merlin grabbed Arthur's arm. "Trickler," he realized. "That's Alined's servant—the sorcerer."
Arthur stared at him, appalled. "Thank you for revealing everything about our presence here to the hired help," he said.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "I'm hired help. Besides, Collette probably knows the castle better than anyone—don't you?"
Collette set the tray down on a low table and straightened one of the goblets, smiling at him uncertainly. "Not better than anyone, but I've got a bit of a way with the shortcuts, if that's what you mean."
"That's exactly what I mean," Merlin said. "Do you think you can help us?"
Collette scrubbed at a place on the table with a corner of her apron. "Help with what?" she asked curiously. "What are you trying to do?"
"Disenchant the Lady Vivian," Merlin declared, and Arthur sighed feelingly.
"Remind me," the prince noted, "that if I have a secret, it'll be safer to shout it in the square than to share it with you."
"You do have a secret," Merlin responded. "It involves true love and tents, and I haven't told anyone, except Gaius, who doesn't count, because he was right there, and I tell him everything."
Collette twirled a section of her hair around her finger, processing the news. "Milady has been acting a bit unusual," she said. "What sort of enchantment do you mean? What should we do?"
"All we ask of you," Arthur broke in, standing up to pace the room, "is that you help us navigate the castle without being seen. We need to watch what Vivian's up to and get a better sense of her regular behavior before we do anything rash." He punctuated the final word with a glance at Merlin, who pretended not to understand.
"I can do that," Collette decided, smiling more. "I serve the Lady a great deal, so I tend to know what her plans are for the day. I'm meant to go attend to her now, actually, so if you like, I can report back to you with what I find out." Her eyes lit up. "This is like being a spy."
"You are a spy," Merlin informed her, grinning back. "A spy for good, so that Lady Vivian will be all right again."
"Let us know if you learn anything," Arthur followed up. "The sooner we can get this taken care of, the better, as far as I'm concerned."
Collette nodded enthusiastically. "Enjoy your dinner, sirs," she said, and with a last grin and a curtsey, she was out the door and gone.
"'Sirs,'" Merlin noted. "Plural."
Arthur snickered, uncovering the first dish. "Maybe we shouldn't trust anyone who thinks you could be a lord."
"At least she didn't say you weren't a prat," Merlin replied.