As concerned as he was for his transformed manservant, Arthur knew better than to keep Merlin with him all day long. He didn't fancy Merlin listing over to snore in his ear during a council meeting or worse toppling off his shoulder. Really, Merlin was a useless bird. Arthur would have sworn birds could comfortably and securely sleep on a perch without danger of falling off said perch.
It had taken them ages to find a safe, secure, and shred proof surface for Merlin to rest on at night. The cushion they finally settled on was perhaps a lot harder than any decent cushion should be but once Arthur pounded a deep enough depression in its centre, Merlin could comfortably settle his feet into it and rest without worry of falling over on his side or beak. Whatever it was that Merlin tried to convey with his chirruping for the fuss Arthur paid over his sleeping arrangements, Arthur thought he managed to be firm that a falcon should not sleep on its back, sprawled over a bed with wings askew and extended, whether or not this was apparently how human-Merlin slept.
However, Arthur could hardly carry Merlin's 'bed' with him to meetings just because he wanted his falc—manservant nearby and in attendance. It was at times like that when Arthur really missed having human-Merlin around. At least then, Merlin could keep busy serving Arthur snacks and drinks to stay awake. So Arthur would reluctantly leave Merlin with either Morgana or his Knights when he was attending to his long neglected duties as the crowned prince. Unfortunately, Arthur was also finding himself once again unaccountably jealous of the time others would spend with his Merlin when he couldn't have him.
Arthur really didn't mind very much when Merlin spent time with his Knights. This was usually appreciated by the men too since it often meant there'd be an audience of ladies who'd turn up to keep Merlin company while the men trained and showed off for them. The Knights and ladies had very readily taken to having Merlin as a vehicle for flirting and Arthur didn't interfere since he could see that Merlin was having a great deal of fun too as a go-between. And most importantly, they would always ask Arthur's permission before making a request of Merlin that might require significant effort from him. (Unstated in the asking of course was also the promise that his falc—manservant wouldn't be injured if they had him flying for them. Even after all these months, the little falcon's landings were still utter rubbish making Arthur wonder if it was possible to ever get Merlin over his often paralysing fear of heights.)
In truth, it was also quite entertaining to watch the Knights or the Court Ladies with Merlin, especially when they were describing their love to him. To make himself understood, Merlin often used his wings like hands and employed his whole skinny falcon body in a way that made him astoundingly understandable to the humans talking to him; short, tall, skinny, fat, coy, shy, fierce, proud... Merlin had a very extensive range of expressions and impressions. The ladies were very appreciative and amused with Merlin's entertaining and often exaggerated pantomime of their various suitors. It certainly set a few of the Knights thinking and ribbing each other too when they noticed Merlin's performance as he portrayed each them. At the least, he got Sir Elyan more conscious about using a handkerchief and to stop picking his nose in public.
According to a naughtily giggling Morgana, the tiny falcon even had a sly gesture with the Knights which apparently had all of the men giving him a mass double take the first time he used it. Arthur wasn't quite sure he believed a bird had the muscles or dexterity necessary in its wings to make a gesture of cupping a pair of exaggeratingly large breasts.
Unfortunately, leaving the little falcon with his Knights always meant his Merlin would end the day in Lancelot's company. And this often led to Arthur not being able to find either of them later in the afternoon since Gaius regularly conscripted them to gallivant in the forest outside the castle to harvest herbs for him.
When Merlin was human, Arthur never begrudged him the time away from his side for this duty. And really, he knew he hadn't any place to object to the kind assistance Lancelot offered Gaius while Merlin was so handicapped. But Arthur didn't like the feeling he got in the pit of his stomach when he looked out of his window on these evenings to see Lancelot returning to the castle and 'chatting' so amicably with his Merlin on his shoulder. Arthur would admit to himself then that in all these months he still never really got over the fact Merlin had been friends with the commoner-Knight first.
On the other hand, when he left Merlin with Morgana, it felt seemingly worse since it meant his falcon could very often be found riding on her maid servant's shoulder or in the crook of her arm as Guinevere moved around the castle to complete her chores. And this would remind Arthur of the many rumours which abounded in the castle regarding their closeness, and as a courting couple.
Inadvertently, these kinds of days would have Merlin returned to a rather grumpy and short tempered Prince. And since Merlin couldn't speak and attempt to banter Arthur out of his bad mood, he'd go quiet instead which would make Arthur feel even worse and guilty for his bad humour. On those nights when they'd settle in to sleep, Arthur would find himself staring at his little Merlin on his cushion by the fireplace and really think about how much he missed human-Merlin.
After three months of struggle (though thankfully with the infinite patience and assistance of Arthur, his Knights, and the Court ladies) Merlin finally had enough of his flying and landing problems. As annoyed and upset as he was with the Dragon, the beast was the only sentient flying creature he knew and Merlin desperately needed guidance.
However, Merlin hadn't visited or spoken to the dragon since he stormed out of the cave to try and save his mother and later Gaius, so he wasn't exactly sure of the reception he'd receive if he suddenly appeared again. In any case, Merlin knew enough not to approach empty handed. So late one night after he was sure Arthur was fast asleep and wouldn't miss him, Merlin sneaked away to visit the Dragon.
He made a detour to the kitchens first to pilfer a brace of left over roast geese from the last feast, nimbly slipped past the bored guards and hopped down the stairs into the dragon's lair with his stash of food. As he neared the entrance to the cave, Merlin carefully warmed the cooked birds. And having smelt the approaching meal, the dragon was already settled on his rocky perch when Merlin sent a bird flying out of the cave mouth straight into its jaws.
After the fourth and last bird was crunched up and swallowed, the dragon finally deigned to speak. "Very well, young Warlock, we'll hold a truce. What did you want to ask?"
Merlin let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding for the relief that the dragon was willing to accept his olive brunch. They had their differences, But Merlin realised that they still had a common goal in seeing Arthur eventually crowned and guided to be a better King than his father.
If the Dragon was still upset with Merlin, he didn't show it when Merlin stepped onto the ledge. In all honesty, it wasn't able to display even a smidgen of bad temper at the sight of him. It had never occurred to Merlin that the Dragon didn't know how the Gods of the Old Religion had punished him. And he would probably have enjoyed the sight of the dragon rendered completely speechless if the great lizard hadn't practically collapsed on its side to roar with laughter over his unfortunate situation.
"How—how small you are for such a great destiny' I—I recall saying—saying to you when we first met." Merlin steamed with annoyance as he could observe the Dragon desperately trying to be solemn and serious and failing to. "And now—now you've—you've returned even—even *smaller*."
In hind sight, Merlin supposed he shouldn't have started hopping up and down on the ledge and screeching at the Dragon, because it took a very long time for the laughing lizard to get himself under control to speak to him. It also made Merlin think quite sourly that the Dragon had far too many teeth. Eventually though, the Dragon finally managed to calm down to listen to the transformed sorcerer, so Merlin chirruped his question timidly, thankful that the Dragon could still understand him despite his complete change of specie.
"Yes, young warlock. I can still see that your destiny is still entwined with Arthur. Though perhaps—perhaps your part in it isn't— isn't as *large* anymore."
Merlin glared at the grinning dragon. Still, an amused dragon was better than an angry lizard. So since it was obviously in a good mood, Merlin made his request of this only flying creature he knew.
It took a while, but Lancelot eventually understood his birdie-friend's request to procure him a block of wood. A task which was not too difficult given the entire forest they could roam in when gathering Gaius' herbs.
Once back in Merlin's old room at Gaius' quarters, the newly minted Knight watched with fascination and awe as his friend worked his magic on the block of wood. The falcon's brown eyes had glowed molten while gold shards of light carefully burned and carved into the wood, causing a fantastic creature to slowly take form. Lancelot stared at the finished wooden carving. And while he couldn't have known it, Merlin had really out done himself in this exquisite arm-length replica of the dragon under the castle.
"Do I want to know?" Lancelot asked cautiously. Merlin shook his head at his friend before looking quite pleadingly up at him. Willing the man to trust him and not ask too many questions.
Lancelot let out a sigh. "Oookaay—I suppose you're offering me the opportunity to claim plausible deniability?" Merlin bobbed his head with an encouraging chirrup, and turned away for a moment to use his wings to brush stray wood chips off his work of art.
Lancelot gave him a suspicious look. "This won't be for something the Prince would get angry about, would it?" The Merlin rolled its eyes as it raised a wing to wave it pointedly at the wood chips that was scattered around the bed, then gave Lancelot a hurt and affronted look.
A snort of laughter escaped the Knight's lips before he could control it as he took in the evidence of Merlin's recent use of magic. "Point taken.
"You are going to tell the Prince eventually, right? About the magic, I mean?"
The Merlin hopped up and down on the bed while it flapped its wings and screeched at him, before folding its wings again and giving him a troubled expression. Lancelot was hard pushed not to burst out laughing at his little friend's antics. Others who watched how the Merlin communicated with Arthur and his Knights were often astounded by the ease and understanding among them. While Merlin couldn't speak in words, it was still rather obvious he was saying something to the effect of: "Of course I'll eventually tell him. If you've not noticed, I'm in a sort of difficult state at a moment which makes it impossible to carry out a conversation," and "I hope he understands and accepts me."
"He'll be okay about you, Merlin." Lancelot reached over to boldly scratch the little falcon on the head the way he'd seen Arthur do it.
Merlin chirruped timidly at him, accepting the touch but not moving into it the way he'd respond to Arthur. Lancelot just grinned and chalked this up as one more point he and the Knights were secretly tallying up for their betting pool on their bewildered prince and his oblivious manservant; the pool for when the two would finally declare their love for each other was growing into a tidy little sum.
The Knights swore him to secrecy about the list when he joined their ranks. And they claimed that it was growing without pause even after Merlin was turned into a falcon. Having been at court for just slightly over a month now, Lancelot readily believed them.
The next time Lancelot brought Merlin out to the forest to harvest herbs for Gaius they hid the wooden carving and a book of herbs in their basket. So while Lancelot flipped through the book and attempted to find the herbs for Gaius on his own, Merlin was left high up on the branch of a tree with only his wooden carving for company; or so Lancelot had thought.
Once Lancelot had moved out of sight, Merlin focussed all his attention on his replica of the Dragon. For the past few months, Merlin had quite comfortably used his magic around court in a way he'd never have dared to had he been human. Stopping time wasn't much good to him in helping him learn to land. But it had been excellent when Merlin used it against Arthur's would-be-assassin during the last tournament. No one had commented on the little falcon's speed and skill in catching the dagger, nor did anyone question his quick, darting attacks upon the sorcerer which prevented him from using magic.
Drawing and breathing life into wood, however, was going to be a challenge. Still, despite what Gaius had said to protect him, Merlin really did have his own as well as Nimueh's power coursing through his tiny body.
'Power over life and death…' Nimueh had spoken to him about it as if it was something grand and gifted by the Gods of the Old Religion. Months wiser and provided more time to reflect on his powers, Merlin had come to realise he already long had this power in his hands. A telling demonstration of this was his success in turning a stone dog into living breathing flesh and blood and later returning it to stone. That day, he had created life and taken it away again. But because of all the excitement over Valiant and the snakes in his shield, Merlin had never even stopped to consider the implications of what he had accomplished.
This bit of magic expanded on the wooden replica of the Dragon, however, was significantly different. And since he wasn't creating life but drawing the conscious soul and existence of another into his creation, the spell was thankfully easier to cast and control. Plus, animating and transforming wood to flesh was much easier than manipulating stubborn stone.
The miniature dragon let out a full body shudder before it carefully extended its wings and limbs to examine itself. "Nicely done, young Merlin. I could actually believe I'm still in my own body. You have me accurately duplicated right down to the last scale.
"But why so small?"
The Merlin chirruped at the Dragon with an annoyed note making it chuckle at him in understanding. "Oh, very well. I suppose it is prudent to stay small and hope to be mistaken for a bird."
Merlin bobbed his head at the Dragon agreeably. "All right then, young warlock. As agreed for the gift of these brief moments of freedom, we begin your first *real* flying lesson."
On this first day that Gaius finally allowed Arthur to go out on a hunt with his knights, Arthur had to admit to being very disappointed with his falcon. He had rather hoped that he could have trained and taught Merlin how to hunt and catch prey by then, but with the little falcon still being rubbish at landings when he had to fly at any significant height, Arthur hadn't dared risk the tiny bird. (And really, how ever much he tried to feed and stuff the little bird with good cuts of meat during meals, Arthur couldn't understand why Merlin was still so small and scrawny. Granted that for such a tiny bird, Merlin was still rather strong and pretty sturdy; Arthur and his Knights could believe it with the way he could knock them off their feet during the many failed flying and landing lessons they'd conduct without injury to himself.)
At the least, the falcon made less noise on a hunt than human-Merlin, and he quite happily sat on the travel packs of the pack horse to follow the hunting party. Much to the Knights' and Arthur's amusement, they learned that if they gave Merlin the reins, he could also easily steer the pack horse to follow them at a distance, even if it did take the animal a little while to get use to being guided by its reins without a human nearby.
Finally out on a hunt again and freed of the castle, Arthur was probably quite a bit more eager than he cared to admit. While he'd taken up his princely duties in the castle a couple of weeks earlier, Gaius still hadn't allowed him to return to his physical activities of training the knights and hunting. So Arthur had been going completely stir-crazy and impatient to get out. However, he probably should have been a little more prudent and more willing to listen to his knights.
"Er—Sire? Perhaps we had better move further down to cross the river." Sir Leon called out cautiously as he saw the Prince approach the wooden log that joined the two banks.
"Nonsense, we have a ready bridge here." Arthur waved to the log as he started to walk across.
"Sire!" Lancelot called out hastily. "I believe Sir Leon was just expressing caution. I had used this bridge myself over a month back, and I didn't think it was very sound then. In the intervening time…"
Merlin also called out to him worriedly as he reined in the pack horse near the bridge. The horse refused to even approach.
"You've become a bunch of old women." Arthur called back as he swiftly moved to the centre of the bridge and stamped a foot on it. "See? It's perfectl—"
The Knights and falcon cried out in alarm as the log gave way under Arthur without even the decency of releasing a loud crack. Before Arthur realised what was happening he was sucked down by the swift flowing river, and the shouts and cries of his knights sounded very far away from him.
Merlin, however… Arthur wondered why he could hear his Merlin screeching so clearly when he was still underwater and struggling to reach the surface. He felt more than heard a huge disturbance slightly behind him and suddenly Arthur felt claws clutching his collar and shortly his head broke the surface.
"Me—Mer—Merlin?" Arthur coughed as he tried to clear his lungs while his falcon flapped furiously in the attempt to keep his head above the water. Merlin screeched back, and it took Arthur a moment to regain his senses to realise that the falcon was desperately trying to drag him towards the river bank where his Knights were shouting to them and running alongside to keep pace with their position.
It was a terrifying ten minutes as both Arthur and his bird seeming sank under the waters a couple of times in the struggle to reach the river bank, but Merlin determinedly flapped and pulled and eventually dragged his Prince within reach of the rope that his Knights repeatedly tossed out to them. With hands firmly clutching the rope which helped him kick his legs in the right direction and also reeled him in, and a falcon at his back lending its assistance, Arthur finally came close enough to the river bank for his knights to grab him by the arms and pull him out.
Back on shore, Arthur was quickly stripped of his wet clothes, wrapped up in the cloaks of his knights and seated on a log while one of them started a fire nearby to get him warm again. "Merlin?" His falcon was his first thought as Arthur realised he'd lost track of the little bird when he had been stripped of his jacket.
"He's right here, Sire. He's okay." Lancelot brought the shivering bird to him wrapped up in another cloak.
Panting a little from fright and his exertions, Arthur patted dry the tiny falcon and sat him on the log beside him. "Thank you, Merlin. But are you really, okay?"
The tiny falcon shook off the cloak to look up at his prince and chirruped at him insistently. Arthur couldn't help but laugh at the tiny bird's rather clear expression. "I'm all right, Merlin. Really, stop being such a girl about the whole thing."
The Merlin stared intently at Arthur for a moment before giving him a decisive nod and a last chirrup, and then darted in to swat Arthur upside the head with a wing. More shocked than hurt, Arthur stared at his Merlin. "Hey! What was that for?"
The falcon started hopping up and down on the log and screeching at him. Around him, the Knights could barely keep a straight face at the antics of the tiny bird. While Arthur momentarily couldn't help having his head follow the up and down movement of his falcon.
Realising what he was doing, Arthur shook his head and peered down at the little bird. "Merlin, you do know l really don't understand what it is you're screaming at me about?"
A guffaw from Sir Leon brought Arthur's attention to him. "Well, Sire." The man was very carefully polite and diplomatic with his words. "Earlier, we were talking about not trusting that bridge. Perhaps, he's just expressing his anger for the scare you just gave all of us." The Merlin shook its feathers out and gave Sir Leon a sharp nod and a chirp as if in agreement.
"Well—?" Arthur squirmed guiltily in the warm cloaks as he looked up at his Knights who were valiantly trying to keep a straight face. "We wouldn't have known for sure if I hadn't tried it—"
It happened so fast, Arthur at first wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it, but he could have sworn he saw a flash of blue at the Merlin's mouth. "Did—did you just stick out your tongue at me?"
The Merlin turned around and pointedly showed Arthur his back and wiggled his tail feathers at him. "Now see here, Merlin! Bird or not you're not supposed to be disrespectful to me!" Arthur stared at his falcon in outrage. The falcon just looked over a shoulder to give Arthur an evil eye and went back to turning its nose—beak away from him.
That was the last straw for the Knights of Camelot. No one would ever admit to having started it, but before another minute passed all the Knights were slapping their knees and laughing loud enough to have the sound boom through the forest. (In effect, completely destroying any hope of a decent hunt after this; which Arthur would later swear was Merlin's fault again, and that even as a falcon his manservant was still mucking up his hunt. But that's a debate for another time.)
Arthur huffed in mock exasperation at his Knights, but he was sorry and embarrassed for the fright he gave them and could appreciate the humour of the current situation. However, while he knew his Knights would forgive him, he still had a very angry falcon to make amends to. Fortunately, the Prince had a trick or two he had learnt about his Merlin since his transformation.
Arthur wiggled an arm free of the cloaks and reached over to stroke a finger over Merlin's head to gently scratch him in a way he knew he'd get his little falcon humming in appreciation. Lancelot bit his lip as he exchange looks with the other knights while they watched Merlin's tensed little body practically melt under the Prince's caresses and begin pushing against his hand.
"Okay, I'll admit I was—a little over eager. Is that good enough?" Arthur asked as the falcon turned around to face him again. It let out a little huff, but bobbed its head before staring up at his Prince.
"And—that really was *impressive*, Merlin" Arthur told him with a touch of astonishment. "Now that I think about it, you took to the air and dived into the waters to catch me by my jacket's collar." Looking towards Lancelot, Arthur felt something twist in his stomach as he set eyes on his newest Knight. "Did *you* teach him how to do that?"
"What? Me?" Lancelot shook his hands in front of him in denial. "No, not at all, I mean—'yes' either Guinevere or I would bring Merlin out to the woods nearly every day, but we always left him up a tree while we'd look for Gaius' herbs or Morgana's flowers."
The knot in Arthur's stomach eased as he looked at his falcon again. "So you've just been practicing on your own?"
The Merlin shifted from foot to foot in a manner Arthur would have called shy and embarrassed if it was done by a human child. "I thought we were being supportive?" Merlin bobbed his head and extended a wing to tap Arthur's arm as he chirruped at him.
"Well, maybe he just wanted to practise in private… somewhere where there isn't an audience." Lancelot suggest to Arthur as they all looked at the tiny falcon. "You know— it could just be performance anxiety?"
The falcon's jaw dropped as it turned to gape at Lancelot. And the dark haired Knight realised then what he had just said. Again, no one quite knew who started it, but Arthur and his fellow Knights were very quickly roaring with laughter while it looked like the Merlin was about to hyperventilate.
"Er—Merlin? You know I didn't mean 'that', don't you?" Lancelot started backing away nervously. "Not that I'm trying to suggest anything. And—anyway it's not as if you're looking to engage in *that* kind of activity any time soon when you're in this state, right?"
The Merlin screeched as he launched himself off the log at the fleeing man.
Uther sighed as he pointed his horse and attending Knights towards the sound of laughter again. He knew Arthur was out hunting, but he thought his son and Knights knew better than to make a lot of noise and chase away all the game in the area. (And he could also have sworn that Arthur's hunting party was leagues away where they weren't in danger of crossing paths.)
When he came upon his son's party though, Uther wasn't sure of what to think as he and his Knights found themselves watching a scene where a tiny falcon was screeching and diving at a hapless Knight (the new one, Lancelot wasn't it?) and swatting him over the head with his wings as the man cried out his apologies. While a little distance away, Arthur and his knights were sitting or standing around a fire and roaring with laughter.
Uther opened his mouth to call down to his son and his party, but thought better of it. He didn't think he was *that* curious to find out what had just happened. Still… Uther turned to look at the Knights attending him and found that a few of them were practically turning purple while the others were trying valiantly to softly cough in their gloves.
Uther sighed. "All right, let's ride a bit further away so Arthur and his party won't hear us then you can go right ahead."
The King smiled indulgently at his Knights as they surrounded him with laughter during the ride back to Camelot. When he thought of it, it was quite true that his son's falc—manservant had created quite a challenge in Court for the Knights and the guards to maintain their dignity in not giggling and laughing out loud at his antics. As King though, Uther quite proudly asserted his superiority over everyone else with his self control. He'd laugh when he was back in the privacy of his Chambers.
If the King appeared to be spurring his horse a little bit faster than usual, his attending Knights were polite enough not to mention it.
Thanks for reading.