The one thing about being a hunter that was utterly beyond Gwaine's capacity for understanding and, at times, ability to comply was the requirement of rising before dawn. Lord Godwyn's poor housekeeper, Mrs. Wights, had had the unfortunate duty of waking Gwaine at said ungodly hour for nigh on a month now, and was perhaps the person most sorry to find that the task was not becoming any less difficult.
Today had been no different. Gwaine arrived for training in Lord Godwyn's courtyard a full hour late, still fastening his trousers and with a sizeable piece of buttered bread gripped between his teeth. Lord Godwyn did not say anything. He didn't have to. The steely promise of certain recompense in his gaze told Gwaine everything he needed to know. Gwaine did up his breeches quickly and crammed the rest of the bread down his gullet, forthwith. He shuffled in line next to Elyan, who flashed him a quick, amused grin, and Lancelot, who only sighed at him fondly.
There were a grand total of four others boys, not including Gwaine himself, who were apprenticing with Lord Godwyn. Gwaine had discovered, in his time with the man, that Lord Godwyn was known far and wide for giving freely of his time and tutelage for the benefit of promising youths (without connections or family in the field) who were looking to become hunters.
Sometimes, Gwaine thought that some of the other boys resented his inclusion in their numbers, and he really couldn't blame them. After all, he perpetually slept in, he half-arsed his way through most of the exercises, and he had not done a bit of magic in all his time among them. Yet Lord Godwyn kept offering him second and third and fourth chances, never turning his back on Gwaine, no matter what he did. Gwaine kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the catch, for anything that might explain why Lord Godwyn would not just give up on him. But, against all reasoning, the man just kept believing in him.
"Now that you've all warmed-up," Lord Godwyn began, cutting a severe glance at a very obviously unprepared Gwaine. "And proven yourselves adequate with both sword and mace. We will move on to the next branch of study in your training. Target practice."
Gwaine grinned wickedly as Lord Godwyn turned, casually lifted one hand and levitated six targets which had previously been lying on the ground clear across the courtyard.
"What are you smiling about?" Elyan whispered.
"Archery's my forte," explained Gwaine. "Where are the bows and arrows? I'm ready to show you all how it's done."
One of the other boys began to laugh. A black-haired boy whose name was Rodrick or Roland or...definitely something that began with an 'R'. "The dud-lover from Outerton thinks we're going to use bows and arrows!" Gwaine heard the boy say to his friend, for whom Gwaine did not even have a first initial.
Gwaine's jaw tightened.
Lancelot sent him a sympathetic look. "We're meant to be sharpening our aim with magic," the boy explained quietly.
Elyan rested a hand upon Gwaine's shoulder briefly. "Don't listen to Royce. He's a prat. And anyway you'll do fine. If you're good with archery, this should be nothing."
Gwaine nodded as Lord Godwyn faced them again, targeting them each with looks tailor-made to make them feel guilty before they had even done anything. "Magic is the inherent energy in all things. Nothing living is ever truly without it. Though, only some are gifted with the ability to harness it and use their wills to shape its purpose," he explained. "That being said, I don't have to tell any of you just how dangerous magic can be. Aim true." With that, he swiftly whipped around and a swirling jet of smoky white light flew from the tips of his fingers to collide, dead center, with one of the targets. The other boys gave whoops and various other noises of admiration and awe. Gwaine just gulped and tried to hide the sudden tremors in his hands. "Pick a target and show me what you've got," Lord Godwyn commanded.
The boys lined up. Gwaine chose the target furthest away from their instructor's critical eye. As the other boys began to effortlessly blast singeing bolts of light at their targets, Gwaine was sweating and trembling in his struggle to produce even a spark from his fingers. A shadow fell over him, and he looked around to see the steady, serious face of Lord Godwyn. "Walk with me," the man said. So, Gwaine followed as his teacher led him away from the others, beyond the half wall that partitioned the courtyard from the small garden adjacent. Lord Godwyn's face and voice were grave when next he spoke. "You are having difficulty with your magic."
"Wielding magic requires strength of will, and strength of will requires focus. What do you believe is impairing your focus?"
Gwaine's mind flashes to the darkness of the forest; to a massive, barrelling creature with an unnaturally glowing light in its chest; to his mother screaming for him to run and keep running... He shakes his head. "I don't know."
"Well, you managed to perform magic before. When you destroyed your dungeon cell. What were you thinking then?"
Gwaine shrugged. "I wasn't thinking of anything. I just knew I had to help Merlin. He's my friend and he needed my help."
Lord Godwyn nodded and scratched his beard. "Gwaine, you ARE aware that to be a hunter, you must be in full command of your powers?"
Gwaine's heart clenched. "Yessir, I understand," he said. "I'm sorry to have disappointed you. I appreciate all that you have done for me. I'll go collect my things." He started to leave, but Lord Godwyn stopped him with a firm hand upon his shoulder.
"First of all," the man said. "Whether you live to be a hunter, a chamberlain, or a chimney sweep, you will always have a home here. That is my oath to you." Not knowing what to say to that, Gwaine just gaped. "Secondly," Lord Godwyn went on. "If I gave up on you as easily as you give up on yourself, we wouldn't be standing here right now. Now, my assignment to you is to find an anchor...a focusing tool with which to harness your magic. Some people use mantras, others find their focus with meditation, and still others think of something which they feel strongly about, such as you did when you wanted to help your friend. Find your anchor and you will be able to command your magic with ease."
"Yessir," Gwaine hurried to say. "I won't let you down."
"I know you won't," Lord Godwyn replied, clapping Gwaine upon the shoulder once more before heading back to the other boys. Gwaine stayed standing in the garden for a moment, still in something of a shock. He had never dreamed that anyone might show him such kindness. He resolved, then and there, to do everything in his power to justify Lord Godwyn's belief in him, whatever to took.
A sharp snap sounded to Gwaine's left and he immediately tensed all over. If growing up beyond the walls of Caerleon had taught him anything, it was to keep his senses sharp at all times and always be wary of out of place noises. He spun in the direction of the sound and caught just the barest glimpse of motion as someone, or something, darted behind the garden's large oak tree.
Gwaine glanced back to where Lord Godwyn had resumed instructing the other boys, debating whether or not to raise the alarm for something that might be nothing more innocuous than a stray bunny rabbit. Deciding against adding "coward" to Royce's list of viable insults, Gwaine went to investigate for himself what the noise and movement could have been. He was just edging silently around the oak when a hand shot out and yanked him around the tree by his shirt sleeve. He was on point of hollering a protest when he finally saw his captor. Then, he could only laugh.
"Be quiet! My father will hear you!" Lady Elena shushed him urgently. Her long, blonde hair was pulled back from her face and kept out of the way by a thick plaid, and she was wearing a pair of men's slacks and a tunic.
"What are you doing?" Gwaine giggled. "What are you wearing?"
"I'm here to train. Just like you," she huffed indignantly. "And you can't tell my father!"
Gwaine held up his hands in surrender. "Calm yourself! Your secret's safe with me." He laughed again. "A girl training to be a hunter. You don't see that every day!"
Elena hit him in the arm. Hard. She showed no signs of remorse as he yelped and rubbed the sore spot. "I've as much right as any boy, thank you very much!"
"If that's true, why are you hiding over here? Why not just tell Lord Godwyn you want to train with the rest of us?"
She crossed her arms. "He'd never understand. Besides....girls aren't allowed."
"You've got yourself a predicament, there," he mentioned with a grin.
"So have you," Elena shot back defensively. "I heard you and my father just now. You don't have an anchor."
"What would you know about it?"
Elena extended her open right hand, palm up, and a bright rose-colored light appeared at its center. "More than you," she informed him rather smugly.
Gwaine's smile only became wider. "It appears we've got ourselves a bargain in the works."
"What kind of bargain?" Elena asked, closing her hand into a fist to put out the light.
"You help me with my anchor, I help you with your training."
Finally, Elena's mouth curled into an impish grin. "You've got yourself a deal."
Later, after class had ended, all the other boys had gone on their merry ways elsewhere, and Lord Godwyn had left for his duties at the castle; Gwaine had patiently recounted for Elena everything Lord Godwyn had taught that day. She was actually a pretty fair hand with her weaponry, though she did not manage to best Gwaine in any of their matches. Magic was what she truly excelled in. She blasted a hole clear through one of the practice targets on only her second try. Now, she was effortlessly levitating five stones at once to test her endurance. Gwaine had yet to manage even one.
"The thing you must remember about magic, is that you're the one in control, not it," Elena was explaining to him. "If you forget that, you lose your power over it."
"So, what's your anchor, anyway?" Gwaine asked, feeling frustrated and on edge.
"It's my mother," Elena answered without hesitation.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked," Gwaine said, recalling a story Mrs. Wights had told him about Lord Godwyn's wife being taken by a winter chill some years past.
"No, it's all right. She died when I was very young. I don't have many memories of her, but the one thing I think I do remember is her sitting under the oak, singing. That's what I think about when I use magic. Her voice. Your anchor must be something that both grounds you and drives your will."
Gwaine remembered the feeling of helplessness he had felt in his dungeon cell, and the determination never to be helpless again that had driven him to send out a blast of pure magic which had blown a hole in the castle's wall. One of the stones in front of him quivered; then went still.
"There," Elena smiled with approval. "You're getting it."
"My lady," the soft, timid voice of Elena's maidservant, Dindraine, sounded from just a few steps away. Gwaine continued to be unnerved by the ghost-like silence of the girl. Dindraine stood on the garden path near where he and Elena sat in the grass, her small fingers twisting around the ends of her long, straight, fiery-red hair. "It's midday. My brother is here to collect me."
"Oh!" Elena said, scrambling to her feet. "I didn't realize the time. My father will be home shortly."
"Shall I remain and help you prepare for the midday meal?" asked Dindraine, who was notably unsurprised by seeing her lady in men's attire.
"No, you go on home. I'll manage," Elena allowed, already moving away in the direction of the house. "Gwaine, will you be joining us?"
Standing himself, with much less urgency, Gwaine stretched. "Nah, I promised to join Merlin and his family today. Will you tell Lord Godwyn for me?"
Elena called out her consent even as she rushed away, pulling her hair out of its strict plaid.
"So, you knew about this?" Gwaine questioned Dindraine, gesturing vaguely at Elena's retreating back as he and the small, redhead walked back through the courtyard and down to the street where her brother, Percival, would be waiting.
"Lady Elena has always been...somewhat headstrong," Dindraine said with equanimity.
"Headstrong's one thing," Gwaine retorted. "That girl's on a mission."
Well before they arrived at the front entrance of Lord Godwyn's courtyard, Gwaine could see Dindraine's brother. Percival couldn't look less like his little sister. He was taller than any boy of a similar age that Gwaine had ever met, and his light brown hair, so unlike Dindraine's fiery-red tresses, was shorn close to his scalp. The boy did possess something of Dindraine, however. Despite his epic porportions, Percival was generally soft-spoken and mild of manner. He nodded when he saw Gwaine and murmured a friendly 'Good day.' Gwaine returned the greeting and struck up a companionable discourse with Percival (complete with occasional input from Dindraine) as the three of them headed for Lower Town where both their destinations would lead them.
As all they had was one another, having lost both their parents years ago, Percival and Dindraine lodged at the ancient, gloomy boarding house downtown and partook of the midday meal served there by the old mistress himself. Gwaine had never witnessed a more doting brother than Percival. The boy did everything for Dindraine; including, according to Lancelot, give up his ambitions of becoming a hunter so that his sister would not be alone. For that, he had Gwaine's eternal respect. For putting up with Kay everyday for a living, he had Gwaine's eternal sympathy.
"So, what'd Sir Poncey-Pants have you doing this morning?" Gwaine asked presently.
"Kay and Arthur both had Merlin and me mucking out the stables. We're only half done. The rest is for the afternoon," Percival reported. "It's dirty work, no two ways about it. Though, Merlin prefers it to the other things those two could have him doing."
"They're still picking on him?" Gwaine asked, feeling his fists curl.
"Arthur's getting better about it," Percival shrugged. "But Kay won't let it go. Merlin's the only boy our age left whose magic hasn't manifested. Even Leon's manservant, little Gareth, had his Fest Day a week ago. And the fact that everyone knows about that trick Merlin pulled on Kay with the firestones doesn't help either. It'd be better for Merlin if his Fest Day came sooner rather than later."
Gwaine's lips tightened and he felt the faintest crackles of power ignite in the center of his clenched fists. Surprised, he opened his hands to check for any telltale traces of light, but found nothing there.
"Look, The Challenge is on again," Dindraine spoke up as they came to the main square.
Gwaine looked around and saw that the square was done up like there was about to be a festival. There were bright, red pedants with golden Pendragon seals strewn over every surface the eye could see and in the very center of everything was a large stone with a sword struck through its middle. The hilt, of unnaturally gleaming silver, stood straight up in the air like a shining beacon to lure spectators. For not the first time since he had arrived in Caerleon, Gwaine felt a mite out of his depth. "What's The Challenge?"
"It's a feat of strength," supplied Percival. "Open to all comers. Even kids like us. As long as we've had our Fest Days, that is."
"What, someone has to pull the sword from the stone?" Gwaine guessed.
Both Percival and Dindraine laughed. "No, the boulder is just a stand to display the sword," Percival explained. "The feat is to remove the stone from the sword's hilt."
As they approached the sword, Gwaine could now see that there was a brillant black stone set into the end of the hilt.
"Ah," he said. He knew where this was going. "With magic, I'm guessing?"
Percival looked confused. "As opposed to...?"
"Nevermind," said Gwaine.
"The Challenge has been a tradition since Stalhart The Shrewd forged the sword and the stone," Dindraine said. "He was High Advisor to the king. He wanted his sucessors to be worthy of the position so he charmed the stone and the sword so that only those with immense magical strength could separate them and put them back together."
"Most think it's an old wive's tale, now, though," said Percival as they walked on through the square and down toward Lower Town.
"The last man who was able to pull the stone from the sword, turned out to be a dud all along. The position of High Advisor hasn't been filled since. Some think he must have had help, but most think the sword and the stone lost their magic. Still..."
"Well, no one's been able to perform the feat again, and it's been thirteen years since the king's High Advisor was banished to Outerton for being a dud."
"Banished?" Gwaine frowned. "Who was the man?"
Percival and Dindraine shared a look. It was little Dindraine who finally answered. "The man's name was Balinor. He was Merlin's father."
Gwaine was mostly silent the rest of the way down to Lower Town. He said his goodbyes to Percival and Dindraine at the door of the old boarding house and continued on his way to Merlin's house, thereafter. The place was bustling with activity when he finally arrived; front door propped open and the noise of many gathered persons to point the way to the kitchen, where everyone had congregated. It seemed people had come from far and wide to descend upon the tiny cottage that day.
Lancelot was there, with his foster sister, Freya, and her mother, Nineve. They had brought a big, round wheel of cheese. Gwen and Elyan were in attendance with their father, Tom. Their contribution to the meal was a trio of fresh, golden breadloaves. And a third family, too, an elderly husband and wife whom Gwaine knew little of, were there for the midday meal. They had brought a bag of ripe apples to share. Gwaine suddenly felt rather foolish and disrespectful for showing up empty-handed. Merlin spotted him standing awkwardly in the entryway of the kitchen before he could dart away to use some of the pocket money he had been given by Lord Godwyn to purchase what small addition to the meal he could. The younger lad had a wide grin on his face as he came to Gwaine and clapped a hand upon his shoulder. "You're here!"
"Still sharp as ever, I see," he joked. "Though, you didn't tell me this was a party. I would have brought something."
"You didn't need to bring anything," Merlin assured him, leading him away from the revelry in the kitchen. Once they had reached the front room again, Merlin continued speaking, with a much more sober aspect than before. He seemed almost sad now that none of the gathered merrymakers could see them. "It's not exactly a party. Today's sort of a....difficult day for my family. For my mom, especially. Gwaine... My father.... He was sent away on this day. Before I was even born. Banished by the king.....for being a dud."
"So...all of these people..."
Merlin glanced back, eyes downcast, as a particularly boisterous swell in the sounds of gaiety emanated from his family's kitchen. "They were the ones who rallied around my family on that day. And every year since, they've all gathered here at midday to take my mother's mind of it. To give her something else to think about. Especially since..."
"That Challenge thing?" Gwaine guessed, physically feeling his already dismal respect for the king lower even more.
Merlin nodded. "The king starts it every year on this day. It lasts a week, but for my mom today in particular is..."
"You should have told me all this. I could ha--"
"There was nothing you could do. It is what it is," Merlin said, meeting his eyes again finally. "Actually, there is one thing."
"Smile. I don't want my mother seeing sad faces today."
"Of course." Gwaine forced the merriest grin he could muster. "This good?"
"It's a bit dodgy, to be honest," critiqued Merlin. "You might wanna work on that."
"You might wanna work on your own," Gwaine shot back. "Cause, if that's your smile, I don't want to see you frown."
"I was holding back. I didn't want to outshine you too obviously."
Gwaine's mouth twitched into a genuine smile which Merlin mirrored. "Come on," he said, throwing an arm around Merlin's shoulders as they headed back to the party.
For days on end, all Gwaine seemed hear about was the ridiculous Challenge. Apparently, the prize, a position as High Advisor to the king, was something to be sought after. Townsfolk of every profession and station were lining up every day for their shot at the stone. Gwaine heard tales of people using every kind of charm, spell, potion, and incantation there was to get that stone to budge. All of the young hunters, including Lancelot and Elyan, had tested their mettle against it. Gwaine had actually felt vindicated when Royce went home in disgrace, and disappointed for his friends' sakes when Elyan and Lancelot failed to best the stone. Elena had dragged Gwaine down to the square, in the dead of night, to try every spell she knew on the thing, to no effect. Even the skeptical Percival had tried his hand at it and ended up stone-less! It seemed that all of Caerleon had gone stone crazy!
Gwaine was contemplating this worrying turn of events on his way down to Merlin's house one afternoon, four days into the stone craze, when he was met with the sight of a rowdy mob of young people surrounding the stone in the sword in the stone. Curious to see the latest hilarious attempt on stone, Gwaine edged his way into the crowd to get a better look.
What he saw made his blood boil. Prince Arthur and his cohorts, Kay and Leon, stood at the center of the mob of kids. Arthur and Leon were standing by, not helping but also not stopping Kay as the loathsome boy shoved Merlin closer and closer to the sword display. "Go on, dud!" Kay was snarling. "Make your dud daddy proud and remove the stone!"
"No!" Merlin was protesting. There were tears in his eyes and he was struggling to get away from both the display and Kay.
Gwaine felt a fire ignite in his clenched fists. He pushed through the crowd, shoving kids out of his way until he reached the clearing in the circle of people. Once there, he didn't think, just barreled into Kay with all his strength. The larger lad, having been taken unawares, fell to the ground and took Gwaine with him. Now the mob was chanting excitedly for a fight. A fight Gwaine was more than obliged to give them. He swung at Kay, landing punch after punch and receiving a few blows as well. Kay kicked him off, finally, and scrambled to his feet. Gwaine was quick to follow and had his fists raised for another round when Kay shot a dark crimson bolt of magic from his fingertips which landed square in the center of Gwaine's chest. Pain radiated out from the place where the magic had hit, crippling Gwaine so much so that he sank to his knees.
"Gwaine!" Merlin yelled. "What did you do to him?!"
Kay did not answer, only cast another similar spell and then another only Gwaine doubled over in agony.
Merlin threw himself between Gwaine and Kay. "Stop it! Leave him alone!"
"Not until you fetch that stone for me, dud!"
"Kay, come on," Arthur said finally. "You've had your fun."
"The guards will be here soon," Leon mentioned warily.
Kay remained as stubborn as ever. "I'm not leaving until the dud gets me that stone."
"Fine!" Merlin shouted. As everyone looked on, he marched up to the sword display with a purpose. Pulling the ancient sword from its stand, Merlin dragged the thing back to Kay, scraping the long, blunt blade along the cobblestones unpleasantly as he went. "Here," he hollered and shoved the sword handle into Kay's hand. "Are you happy?"
Kay said nothing. No one did. The sword's hilt had an empty hole on its end where the shining black stone used to be. The stone itself had come loose and fallen to the ground during Merlin's angry journey from the sword's stand to Kay. It sit gleaming away about halfway between the two points.
Merlin glanced around at all of the astonished faces surrounding him. "What?" he asked in bewilderment.
The grown-ups had been arguing in the king's council chamber for quite some time. Far longer than they had argued when deciding Gwaine's fate. Merlin's mother and uncle had been called in, as well as Lord Godwyn, Sir Ector, and a few other High Lords of prominence. Not in twenty years had the stone been removed from the sword. And never had it been removed by a child!
Once again, Gwaine and Merlin found themselves sitting together in the hall outside the council chamber. Only this time it was Merlin's fate that was in the balance, and not one but two pompous lordlings were pacing around in front of them.
"I'll probably have to get a new manservant!" Arthur was grousing, tone making it absolutely clear that he placed the blame for this state of affairs squarely on Kay's shoulders.
"You can't seriously think that they're going to make the dud your father's High Advisor!" Kay retorted. "That would be ridiculous!"
"It's tradition!" Arthur argued back for the umpteenth time. "Ridiculous though it may be, my father can hardly ignore it!"
"Oh, please! The Challenge has been for show ever since the fiasco with the dud's father and you know it! No one will expect your father to take it seriously. The very idea is ludicrous. A child, and a dud one to boot, the High Advisor to the king!"
"Well, obviously he's not a dud, or he wouldn't have been able to remove the stone," Arthur pointed out.
Merlin was starting to look very pale. He had the eerily gleaming black stone clutched in one hand and he had been alternately training his vacant stare on the stone and floor at their feet for as long as they'd been sitting there.
"You all right?"
"I just need some air," Merlin said at last, hopping to his feet and almost running for the doors that led out onto the castle's west gallery. Gwaine got up and followed him, ignoring the 'Where are you two going?' that Arthur called out.
When Gwaine caught up with Merlin, the boy had travelled down the gallery a ways and stopped near the middle to lean heavily against the stone balustrades, breathing like he had recently run a marathon. "Gwaine," he whispered as if he had only a little air left in him to say what he needed to say. "I didn't use magic to separate the stone from the sword. I don't have magic yet! And I don't know if I ever will! The stone just came loose. I don't know how!"
"Alright, alright," Gwaine soothed, placing both hands on Merlin's shoulders where they met his neck. "It's okay. It's gonna okay."
"No, it's not. The king will want proof. He'll want me to use magic so he knows I'm not like my father. He'll..." Merlin's voice trailed off and, for the second time that day, tears came to his eyes.
Gwaine remembered the fire in his hands when he'd seen Kay bullying Merlin earlier.
Your anchor must be something that both grounds you and drives your will, Elena had said.
I wasn't thinking of anything. I just knew I had to help Merlin, he recalled telling Lord Godwyn.
Gwaine made a quick decision. "He'll have proof," he assured Merlin.
"What do you mean?"
"Just... Don't worry about anything. I'll be with you every step of the way. I promise."
Another thirty minutes passed before the king summoned the boys into the council chambers. All assembled looked just about argued out. Hunith and Gaius seemed especially worn down where they sat at the table across from a grave Lord Godwyn and livid Sir Ector. Arthur and Kay walked in and promptly took seats at the long council table like they had already gained the titles they would grow up to have. Merlin and Gwaine, on the other hand, were not so quick to assume they were welcome at the king's table. They stood awkwardly side-by-side at one end of the table, at the other end of which sat the king himself.
An air of amusement drifted past the man's severe features. "Is this one forever going to be at the center of the action, Godwyn?" he asked, eying Gwaine.
"Not if I have anything to say about it, your majesty," Lord Godwyn replied, spearing Gwaine with his steely gaze.
Gwaine just shifted his feet, trying to look innocent.
"Well," the king went on, switching his stare to Merlin. "You have caused quite the uproar. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Merlin swallowed nervously and he eyes darted around to all the faces watching him. "Um...I didn't mean to cause any trouble. I'm sorry...for that."
"I have consulted the court historian, Lord Geoffrey of Monmouth, on this matter. He has found that, as the reigning monarch of Caerleon, I am legally obligated to bestow the office of High Advisor on you."
Arthur and Kay could not contain their feelings. Kay looked about as affronted as he could openly be without the risk of seeming to question the king's intelligence. And Arthur looked ready to faint. "Father, you can't be serious!"
"With," King Uther continued, shooting a silencing glare at his son. "One condition. The same condition which applies for every high office in my kingdom. You must have magic. Normally, I would have considered your besting of The Challenge as proof enough, but...well, you of all people know the rest. I must be assured that you didn't have help removing the stone from the sword."
"H-How..." Merlin cleared his throat. "How may I assure you, your majesty?"
The king shook a hand in the air regally. "Any little charm will do. I'm sure you'll think of something."
Merlin glanced around. "Right...now?"
King Uther's gaze became testy. "Do you have another obligation which requires your attendance at present?"
"No," Merlin rushed to say. "Of course, right now is fine."
Gwaine hid his hands behind his back as he let his eyes rove from the king to Arthur to Kay and finally back to Merlin. He thought about what could happen to Merlin if he did not do something to help him right now. He imagined having the power to help Merlin. And then, he very suddenly did. He felt the fire ignite in the palms of his hands and this time it did not go away. Thinking about what Lord Godwyn had taught the class about magic being simple energy which one could shape to whatever purpose their will decided for it, Gwaine clapped a burning hand upon Merlin's shoulder, feeling his magic flow from him to Merlin through the contact. "You can do it," he whispered to Merlin who had turned to look at him with surprise and awe. "Aim it at Kay."
Gwaine stepped back to give Merlin the floor. Merlin looked back at Gwaine with nothing but pure, honest trust in his eyes before raising his hand and letting loose with the bolt of emerald green energy Gwaine had given him. Kay, not expecting that Merlin could ever be capable of such a thing, did not raise his arms to defend himself from the spell in time enough. The green light collided with him point blank and his ears immediately began to grow and grow, bigger and bigger, wider and wider, until they were large and droopy and twice the size of his head. Silence reigned for all of five seconds before Prince Arthur, of all people, broke it by throwing his head back and letting out a loud guffaw. Merlin and Gwaine joined their laughter with the prince's shortly thereafter. Gwaine thought he even saw Hunith and Gaius stifling chuckles of their own. An outraged Sir Ector jumped out of his chair and went to his son; who, forgetting all his ever-vaunted lordliness, had attempted to bodily lunge himself at Merlin only to find his balance out of sorts due to the sheer size of his ears.
King Uther, though Gwaine was sure he saw the man's lips twitch tellingly, did not share in the sounds of amusement. Nor, however, did he share in the outrage. With a few good coughs, he brought the noise level down and at least the semblance of order settled on the proceedings once more. "As juvenile as that display was," he said. Everyone waited anxiously as the king paused for what had to be either pure dramatic effect or pure sadism. "It will suffice."
At least half the occupants on the room, let out huge sighs of relief. Hunith got up and came over to draw Merlin in for a hug. And even Lord Godwyn almost smiled.
"This does not mean that you will assume the post of High Advisor immediately, however," King Uther felt the need to stipulate. "You are, after all, still a child. You will cease your duties as my son's manservant and begin daily studies here at the castle instead. Our own Lord Geoffrey has agreed to assist you in learning everything you will need to know to assume the post of High Advisor when you come of age."
"But Lord Geoffrey is our teacher," Arthur protested for himself and Kay alike.
"Yes, the boy will be joining you in your studies," replied the king. "You should get to know he as more than just your servant now. He will, after all, be your High Advisor one day."
Arthur and Merlin exchanged not altogether pleasant yet not altogether unpleasant looks with one another.
"Great," they said in unison.
The celebration which followed at Merlin's house not hours later made The Challenge Day festivities pale by comparison. People whom Gwaine was sure even Merlin had never met before showed up to commerate the rather unheard of occasion. Long into the night, lines of well-wishers were still making their way in and out of the small cottage. After all of Merlin's true friends had come and gone and the wee hours were drawing near, Hunith and Gaius both agreed that the only way Merlin would get any sleep that night would be if went home with Gwaine and seeked a place to lie his head at Lord Godwyn's abode. And so it was that in the small hours of morning, Merlin and Gwaine could be seen strolling toward Upper Town together, heads bent close as they quietly exchanged thoughts about their strange day.
"I don't know how you did it," Merlin said, as he had been saying in every spare, unobserved moment he could since Gwaine had lent him a bit of power earlier. "I've never felt anything like it. It was like...."
"Fire," Gwaine supplied just as Merlin said the same. They grinned at one another.
"You saved my life today, Gwaine," Merlin told him. "I'll never forget this. Not as long as I live."
Gwaine shrugged. "It's what friends are for. Mister High Advisor, sir."
"Oh, don't you start. I had enough of that from the dozens of strangers who won't leave my house."
"It's a good thing you have my house to escape to," Gwaine said with a flourishing gesture to the house in question as Lord Godwyn's manor came within sight.
Merlin smiled. "You called it your house."
Gwaine let a small grin show itself. "Yeah, I guess I did."
"That's good," Merlin said. "I'm happy that you have a place to call home now."
"An aimless vagabond no longer," sighed Gwaine mock-dramatically.
It wasn't until he and Merlin entered the courtyard, that Gwaine saw Lord Godwyn sitting upon the stone bench near his front door. He imagined how long the man must have been waiting up for him there, and felt suddenly very guilty.
Lord Godwyn greeted them with nods as they reached the house. "Congratulations again on your new appointment," the man said to Merlin in particular. "I've no doubt that you deserve it."
"Thank you, sir," Merlin flushed with embarrassment.
"You go on ahead," Gwaine instructed his friend. He could tell just by the look on the man's face that Lord Godwyn had a few things to say to him.
Sure enough, the moment Merlin disappeared through the front door, Lord Godwyn began. "I saw what you did for him today." Gwaine opened his mouth to deny his involvement in the day's proceedings, but was stopped by the knowing look on Lord Godwyn's face. "While everyone else had their eyes on Merlin, I had my eye on you. You used Merlin as a conduit for your magic. You lied to his majesty the king."
Gwaine's gaze dropped to the ground. "I am truly sorry that I keep disappointing you, but I couldn't let anything bad happen to Merlin today. He's a good person, whether he ever comes into his magic or not!"
"I know that," Lord Godwyn agreed calmly.
"Merlin is as good a lad as I've ever met, and he does not deserve to be persecuted for something beyond his ability to change. And neither did his father before him."
"But...if you feel that way, why..."
"Remain in the king's service?" Lord Godwyn guessed.
Gwaine merely nodded.
"Because I believe a time will come when these things will change for the better. The change has already begun, in fact. You saw to that today. Far from being disappointed in you, I'm actually quite proud. Don't ever apologize for doing what you believe in your heart to be the right thing."
Gwaine squinted against the prickle of tears in his eyes. "Thank you, sir," he said.
"That does not mean that there will not be consequences for your actions today. You've set events in motion that have the potential to place Merlin in some very dangerous situations. Since you are the one who made it so, the responsibility falls to you to keep him safe in the times to come." Lord Godwyn was nothing but grave solemnity as he went on. "This has only just begun."