Caradoc had pulled Arthur aside the day before and had told him the boys were getting restless. Caradoc was a good man, and he was well worth listening to when he chose to speak so openly about the mood of the rest of the Knights of Camelot—Uther's knights in name, Arthur's men to shape. Caradoc had helpfully made some suggestions—a night of wenching in the town or a day of hunting in the forest—and had left it up to Arthur to choose. Arthur had been afraid that he was giving the wrong answer, but he had picked the hunting option, and that had led him to his current problem.
"Merlin, you lazy sod," he called from the bedchamber, "Where the hell are my hunting leathers?"
"It would help, Sire, in answering your question, if I knew what hunting leathers were," was the answer from the outer chamber.
"How can you bloody well not know that?" Arthur muttered and tossed aside yet another bit of brightly coloured frippery; the leather so thin you could tear it with a casual lean against a stone wall.
"Probably because I've never been hunting," Merlin said from right behind him.
"Well, fine then," Arthur said, and hoped his little jerk of startlement had gone unnoticed, "muddy the waters with actual facts."
"It's a flaw in my character, Sire."
"It is. Now—hunting leathers. Mine are red–"
"Of course they are."
"But not for the reason you think. They're red because a few of the boys like to shoot first and then check to see if it was a deer they were aiming at or not. They're heavy though, not this court flummery." Arthur tossed aside another bit of soft doe hide, dyed a bright green, that he had no idea why or how he'd acquired.
"Oh, I've seen those," Merlin said and smiled happily.
Arthur just let the smile wash over him while he waited for Merlin to go get them. Merlin wasn't moving. "So... You planning on fetching them?"
"Oh, I can't remember where I saw them, just that I did."
Arthur sighed and tried to remember why he liked having Merlin as a manservant. He looked over at the source of his exasperation and remembered; Merlin was still smiling. "Care to have a poke 'round?" Arthur said.
"Right, right, yes." Merlin began opening cupboards and chests and shifting things around until, in the fullness of time and after a few pointed remarks about the size of Arthur's wardrobe and a musing comparison with the Lady Morgana's collection of gowns, he pulled out the heavy leather breeches and long split riding coat that were a bright enough red to keep even the dimmest knight from mistaking Arthur for something with hooves.
"You'll need to change as well," Arthur said.
"Why would I do that? I'm not going." Merlin stared at him. "I'm going? Why am I going?"
"Because I'm telling you to, springs to mind. Now go on, put on something with some colour in it. You don't want the flower of Camelot's youth filling you full of holes, do you?"
Merlin loped off grumbling and complaining and smiling, so Arthur figured he wasn't too unhappy to take a day out in the well tended woods beyond the town gates.
They met up in the stables, and the usual fussing and carrying on ensued, where one or the other of the knights would send his manservant off to acquire just the right sort of snack for the ride or wine to fill a skin, until Arthur gave in to frustration, boosted Merlin up onto the back of the most placid gelding ever to grace the royal stables, swung up onto his own stallion and started off through the town and out into the forest, leaving the others to catch up as they saw fit. Merlin barely had a word to say, as not falling off the horse took most of his attention, and they shared a pleasant half-hour in near silence before Geheris and Dinadan caught up, and Arthur joined their enthusiastic boasts about hunts past while Merlin grew quieter still.
By the time the whole party was strung out in a line on the trail Arthur had chosen for its narrowness as well as its suitability for a beginning rider, the sun was halfway to its zenith, and the best time for hunting was behind them. A widening of the path gave Arthur the opportunity to pull his horse to the side and let the others pass. He motioned for Merlin to join him, and when Caradoc came into view, Arthur waved him over too. "I like this spot well enough for a stand," Arthur said. "Pick a couple of men, we'll spread out, and you can take the rest of them up the path a ways before you leave the trail to push."
"There's a clearing and a stream a few miles ahead. We can tether the horses and push back to you. Likely take us an hour or so to get there and get this lot sorted out enough to start back." Caradoc nodded at Bediver, straggling at the end of the line still, with a manservant behind him leading a pack horse laden with essentials like a lute and a folding stool.
Caradoc rode off, and Merlin watched him go thoughtfully. "You know I don't know what any of that meant, don't you?" he said.
"I just saved you from a very long walk through some woods, that's all you need to know." Arthur slid to the ground, tied his horse securely and batted Merlin's hands away and retied the gelding. "I also just saved you from a long walk home. What kind of a knot do you call that?" Arthur could hear the sounds of men crashing through the undergrowth. Whoever Caradoc had chosen to leave behind sounded like woodsmen as novice as Merlin. Arthur just hoped they could shoot straight. "Come on, Merlin, let's get in position," he said and led the way into the woods at trail-side.
"Position, right. What position is that, then?"
"You'll be good at it. It involves standing around doing not much of anything."
"Excellent, Sire. It's nice to be able to use one's skills to their fullest."
Arthur grabbed Merlin by the shirt front and hauled him into a niche between two close-growing trees. He pushed Merlin up against the bark, keeping his fist in the blue cloth of Merlin's homespun. "The other part of the job," Arthur said, leaning in close enough to fluff the hair over Merlin's ear with his breath, "is to be very, very quiet."
Merlin nodded earnestly, and Arthur let go of his shirt. He leaned casually against the other tree, crossbow in hand, bolts at the ready, and kept his eyes off Merlin and on the mottled green and brown depths of the forest. His breathing slowed, and he found the place inside where he did not need a thought in his head, and the stillness took him over. The birdsong grew louder, the sounds of small creatures moving about more obvious, and the day warmed slowly into the afternoon.
The sound of a body moving rapidly through the brush was loud in the quiet of the forest. Arthur had the bolt ready, the bow up, and he watched and listened, and yes, it was a deer not a man, and the bolt flew and split the hairs on the animal's head before it crashed away out of sight. Other sounds of movement came from further away and then closer as the nearest knight of the group that had pushed through came into sight. "Wake up, Merlin," Arthur said and then turned and flicked the ear of his servant, who had discovered a new skill—the ability to sleep standing up.
"What, are we there yet?" Merlin said as he woke, and Arthur just shook his head and turned to hail the nearest of his men.
"We got one, back a ways. Flushed right out nearly under Caradoc's feet, and you know he would never miss," the Knight said. "I think I heard Erec call out that he got one as well."
"Excellent," Arthur said. "We'll see that Erec does a proper job of the field dressing and—Merlin, you go on ahead up the trail. The rest of the men will be wandering back that way soon and looking for food and drink."
"Sire," Merlin said and yawned once, spectacularly in fact, and stumbled through the brush to the trail.
Erec had shot a good sized buck, and the field dressing and hauling through the brush took no time with the half-dozen strong men who had stayed behind to haul on the ropes. They dragged the deer up the path, and Arthur rode along behind, laughing and joking with his knights, even dropping down out of the saddle to take a short turn at the hauling.
When they were nearly to the clearing, Arthur saw Merlin riding back down the trail, face tight with anger, and not his usual sunny self at all. Arthur waved his fellows on ahead and reined in to meet his man.
"Sire," Merlin started, when the last of the knights had disappeared around a bend in the path, "they're your men I know that, and they are the best of the best, but the things they were saying–"
"Merlin," Arthur said sharply but quietly. He reached out to try to cover Merlin's mouth with his hand.
"No, Merlin. You may not tell me what they said. Do you hear me? You may not, I will not allow it."
"Sire?" Merlin said and tilted his head consideringly.
Arthur smiled and sighed a little too. He called Merlin a fool, and Merlin disparaged his own character in return, but he knew that the man wasn't stupid, not truly. "I test each and every one of them, Merlin. Well, you know that. They must be the best of the best with a sword. They must have good hearts and be faithful to the kingdom and sure of their honour, and I test them for all of that. They test me back, Merlin, only they do it more than once—they never stop."
"They were saying those things, rude things, to see if I would tell you."
"No, Merlin, to see if I would listen," Arthur said. "One of them will choose the same turn of phrase to disparage one or another of his brothers, and he will be watching me to see if I react to the words."
Merlin looked surprised, perhaps disapproving, and Arthur sighed again. Not stupid, no, but he was sometimes naïve. "They need to know they can trust me, trust me to let them be their own men as much as they are courtiers. I'm happy to give it to them, because they are good men."
"Come now, Merlin, did you think pricking my ego was your job alone?"
Merlin grinned finally, and Arthur's mood settled, and they rode to the clearing in easy companionship again.
Once in the clearing, Arthur reminded himself to join in the boisterous arguments and outrageous boasting, but his heart wasn't in it. Erec was reliving his earlier success with a great deal more capering about than the deed could have ever involved, and Arthur heard himself first laughing along and then saying, "You know I would swear I grazed the one I shot at. I'm nearly certain I saw a blood trail leading off deeper into the woods."
"Wolf'll get it," Caradoc said.
"Perhaps, though these woods are pretty well cleared of bigger beasts."
"True, Sire," Caradoc said and looked straight at Arthur. "The men were considering a detour to the tavern in town on the way back."
Arthur flicked his gaze over to Merlin, who certainly hadn't seen this mythical blood trail, but Merlin was doing a good job of seeming not to listen. "I think it might be worth the effort to follow the trail for a bit. See if the animal is down but not dead."
"Sire, some of the men can stay with you," Caradoc said and then grinned at the muted groans this idea produced.
"No, no, lads. A trip to the tavern is what you want, then a trip to the tavern is what you shall have. Tell them to see me for the cost of your ale, but anything else you decide to pay for is all on your own heads."
The men gathered up their gear, loaded up the two deer onto pack beasts and put the assorted servants in charge of them, and with more name-calling and laughter than stable boys on feast day, set off down the trail.
Merlin stayed silently leaning against his saddle until their voices had all but disappeared. "Blood trail, Sire?"
"Yes, and I'm following it right over here to the nice soft ground." Arthur dumped his own saddle down to use as a backrest and sat in a comfortable sprawl. "Hand over that wineskin you've got oh so subtly hidden in your shirt." Merlin smirked and fished it out and handed it over. "God, this is foul," Arthur said after he'd swallowed a mouthful. "Tastes like leather."
"I don't think that leather is exactly what that's made from, Sire."
"Yes, well, can't a man have some illusions?"
"A man can, Sire." Merlin said, "Even without a sorcerer to cast them."
Arthur took the hit because he deserved it. He'd been a fool over Sophia even before he'd been under her spell. He just didn't want to talk about it right now, or ever again. "We can camp out, spend the night. I mean, the boys won't be back until morning, so no one will miss us," he said.
"Afternoon at the earliest," Merlin said. "I brought some extra food."
"Maybe you're catching on to this servant thing after all."
"I assure you, Sire, that my motives were purely selfish."
"Is it possible you might quit calling me that until tomorrow morning?" Arthur said, and winced at the wistful tone of his voice.
"Arthur, then," Merlin said. "Until tomorrow morning."
"You said something about food?"
"Yes, Arthur. Food, Arthur. Right away, Arthur." Merlin grinned and danced away from Arthur's reaching arm and went to dig out the carefully hidden pack of bread and meat.
They ate the food and finished the wine and watched the stars staking their claim to the sky. The sounds of the river seemed louder as evening turned to night, and Arthur let his head drop back onto the poor substitute for a pillow a saddle made. "I wonder what it would be like to sail away down the river? Let the current take you."
"You never stop thinking about where you've come from," Merlin answered quietly. "It's hard, sometimes, to remember to look at where you're going when your mind's on where you've been."
"Easy to forget where you are with your mind on the future," Arthur countered.
"And where are you then, Arthur?"
"Here with you, Merlin. Should have thought that was obvious."
"I think that will be as true in the future as it is now."
"Yeah, maybe," Arthur said, and he ignored the Sire he could hear plain as day and wondered if Merlin's words were true or just the kind of illusion a prince was allowed to have.