Arthur was starring out of the window, pondering what his father had just said to him, when Merlin burst into his room, obviously out of breath, as though he’d run a long way.
Arthur turned around. ‘Merlin, what do I have to do to remind you about knocking?’
He was half tempted to make sure that Merlin walked in on something embarrassing the next time he came to Arthur’s room, just to see him stammering an apology. The only thing that really stopped him was the knowledge that Merlin still wouldn’t remember to knock, so it seemed like a lot of effort for nothing.
Merlin frowned. ‘W...w...what..?’
Arthur rolled his eyes. ‘Forget it; I think I’m just going to resign myself to you bursting into my room at all times of the day. Now, what has you bursting into my room this time?’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘Didn’t know, what?’ He wasn’t having the best of days, and if Merlin could stop being cryptic, that would be great.
‘That they were going to drug you.’
Arthur leaned back against the wall, bending a knee and crossed his arms. ‘Oh. That.’
‘Yes, that. I didn’t know, Arthur, I swear.’ For some reason it seemed important to Merlin that Arthur believe him.
‘I didn’t think you did know, but I am curious about something.’
Merlin looked at him warily. ‘Oh?’
‘What would you have done if you had known? Would you have stopped them? Would you have told me?’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘Would you have helped them?’ Truth be told, that had been tormenting Arthur since he’d woken up in his room. Had Merlin known about it? Arthur didn’t think so; Merlin didn’t have a deceitful bone in his body.
A wealth of emotions flitted across Merlin’s face, most of them too fast for Arthur to read and catalogue. What he did catch was mostly regret and guilt. ‘I would never have helped them drug you, Arthur. You have to know that.’
Arthur wanted to believe him, but, now, he wasn’t so sure he could. ‘You didn’t want me to fight,’ he said quietly. ‘You came in here begging me to forfeit. And now you want me to believe that you’d help me defy my father and Gaius when you thought I’d be going to my death?’
‘I still wouldn’t have drugged you.’ Merlin seemed quite adamant about it. Merlin was confusing at the best of time, but he had been even more perplexing than usual over the last few days.
Arthur, though, wanted some answers. ‘Why? You thought I couldn’t win. You said as much. You didn’t think I was good enough to beat him.’
And that stung. Merlin may have started out as a mere servant but Arthur had thought they were more than just master and servant now. He didn’t know when or how it had happened, although he suspected it might have started after they first met and Arthur hadn’t been able to get the boy who had said ‘no’ to a prince, out of his head. Merlin challenged him and made him think about things that he had never considered before. He never seemed to care that Arthur was a prince, only whether he was a good person, a good man, and Merlin treated Arthur like a normal person. For Merlin to think that he couldn’t beat a knight, no matter how good they were, hurt him more than he would have thought possible.
‘That’s not true,’ protested Merlin. ‘I think you’re the best fighter Camelot has.’
‘But still not good enough to beat a mere knight?’ He didn’t try to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
‘Of course you can beat a mere knight. I think you can kill anything that’s beatable, anything that’s mortal.’ He clamped a hand over his mouth, looking horrified. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any way you could forget what I just said?’ he asked from between his fingers.
Arthur stood up straight and fixed Merlin with his best penetrating gaze. ‘What do you mean ‘anything that’s mortal’?’
‘I’ll take that as a no, then,’ muttered Merlin, looking dejectedly at the floor. ‘Gaius is going to kill me.’
‘Merlin, stop babbling and tell me what you’re talking about.’ Why was it that when something vaguely strange happened around Camelot, Merlin always seemed to know about it and remarkably be in the thick of it as well?
‘The knight, it, umm...well, it wasn’t mortal.’ Merlin stared helplessly at Arthur. Arthur suspected that Merlin was waiting for him to explode and rant.
‘If it wasn’t mortal, what was it?’ Arthur demanded. ‘And, just as importantly, what did it want?’
Merlin cocked his head, frowning slightly. ‘You’re taking the news that the Black Knight wasn’t human really very well.’
‘What did you think I’d do?’ To be honest, Arthur was rather impressed with his restraint as well.
‘Well, after telling me I’m an idiot, I was kind of expecting you to call me mad, maybe put me in the stocks. You know, something more...you.’
‘I’ve had a strange day. I might do that later.’
‘I can hardly wait,’ muttered Merlin.
‘And hey, I’ve never put you in the stocks.’ He’d threatened it. Several times, but he’d never actually done it. The bitching afterwards would be more than he could cope with. Merlin had never struck him as the sort who would take that kind of indignity and not complain about it afterwards.
‘What about my second day? I was in the stocks then.’
‘I had you thrown into the dungeons,’ he reminded Merlin. ‘It was my father who commuted it down to the stocks.’ He’d been really very angry about that.
‘Oh, that makes me feel so much better,’ said Merlin sarcastically. ‘You threw me in the dungeons.’
Arthur rolled his eyes. ‘Stop changing the subject, Merlin. At this rate I’ll die of old age before you tell me anything interesting.’
Merlin spluttered for a moment before sighing in defeat. ‘You’re going to keep going on about it until I tell you, aren’t you?’
‘Fine. The Black Knight was a wraith, raised from the dead to exact its revenge.’
Arthur, for his part, stood there and stared at Merlin for a moment, trying to get his head around what Merlin had just said. Of all the vague ideas he’d had, a wraith hadn’t even been in the top one hundred. ‘Seriously?’
Merlin nodded, looking apprehensive.
‘So, who was he? ‘And I assume he wanted revenge on my father for something?’ He was asking mostly rhetorical questions, but the way Merlin’s face fell even further told Arthur that Merlin probably had at least some of those answers as well. He pointed at a chair. ‘Sit.’
Merlin looked confused. ‘Huh?’
He indicated to the food on the table. ‘A servant brought it in earlier. Join me and tell me everything you know about this. I get the feeling that my father has been keeping things from me.’ He’d just become Crown Prince. He had believed, or at least hoped, that his father would now trust him with elements of running the kingdom, other than security of the castle and training the knights. Apparently that wasn’t to be the case.
He stopped as Arthur fixed him with a glare. ‘Who do you serve, Merlin?’
‘Who do you serve?’ he repeated.
‘And you’re my...friend, yes?’ This was the first time he’d vocalised their friendship. Before he had just assumed that Merlin knew that their relationship was different from all other servant/master relationships in the castle.
Merlin nodded. Arthur swallowed the smile that threatened to tell Merlin what that meant to him.
‘So tell me what you know.’
Arthur sighed. ‘Look, if it makes you feel better, I’ll swear never to tell my father or Gaius that you told me.’
‘You say that now, but after I’ve told you...’ Merlin shrugged. ‘I’d be angry and you can be...impulsive when you’re angry.’ There was an edge of anger to Merlin’s voice, although Arthur couldn’t for the life of him work out what Merlin had to be angry about. He’d find that out later, at the moment he was seconds away from having some of his questions answered, and he wasn’t going to throw that away.
‘I promise I won’t do anything.’ Right now he was prepared to promise nearly anything to get his answers. ‘If I try to, you can stop me.’
Merlin raised a doubtful eyebrow. ‘Me? Stop you?’
‘I have faith that you’d find a way to stop me from doing anything too stupid.’
‘But you’re usually so determined when you want to do something stupid.’ Merlin couldn’t fight the grin spreading across his face.
‘I think it takes a special kind of person to be as bad a servant as you’ve turned out to be,’ retorted Arthur. He couldn’t really argue since, well, he did tend to rush off without always thinking things through.
Merlin laughed as he sat. Arthur walked round so he could sit next to Merlin. It was much easier to make sure Merlin told him the truth if he was in range to deliver a good, swift kick if Merlin faltered.
Arthur grabbed a wedge of bread. ‘So come on,’ he said, ‘tell me everything.’
Merlin slumped back in his chair with a sigh and played with the fraying edge of his shirt. ‘The Black Knight was Tristan de Bois.’ He glanced up at Arthur. ‘Do you recognise the name?’
Arthur shook his head.
‘He was your mother’s brother,’ said Merlin softly.
‘He was my...’ Arthur swallowed ‘...my uncle?’
Merlin nodded. ‘He, uh, he blamed your father for the death of your mother. I don’t know why. Gaius didn’t say. He challenged your father to a duel.’
Arthur didn’t need to ask how that turned out. ‘He lost.’
Merlin nodded again.
‘So he came back to get revenge on my father?’
Arthur slumped into his chair, rested his chin on his hand, thinking. How could his father have not told him about his uncle? What else was there that his father hadn’t told him? Why had his uncle blamed his father for his mother’s death? She’d died giving birth to him, Arthur. Arthur at least knew that much. How was that his father’s fault? It didn’t make any sense. And Arthur knew it would continue to not make any sense. Merlin didn’t know and he could never go and ask his father or even Gaius. He could never even let his father find out that he knew that the Black Knight was his dead uncle. God, how he hated secrets. He was half tempted to outlaw the keeping of secrets when he was king. He didn’t need Merlin to tell him that that was as likely to succeed as his father’s attempts to outlaw magic.
‘How did he come back to life?’
Arthur sighed. Of course it was sorcery; it was always sorcery. ‘Does my father know?’
Merlin nodded. ‘Gaius told him.’
‘And yet he didn’t order a search for whoever did it.’ He starred at his glass of wine. ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
‘Well, maybe it slipped his mind because you were about to fight the Black Knight.’
‘Things like magic do not slip my father’s mind. You know that, Merlin. There has to be another explanation. Although for the life of me I can’t think what it could be.’
He glanced up at Merlin and saw that he still hadn’t eaten anything. He pushed a plate Merlin’s way. ‘I was serious, you know. Eat something.’
‘The wraith would die once it succeeded in what he rose to do,’ said Merlin as he grabbed an apple.
‘You mean once it killed my father?’ Which meant that his father had taken his place knowing full well that he was going to die instead of Arthur. Arthur didn’t know what to think about that. His father had been prepared to die in his place; had expected it. It turned everything he thought he knew about his relationship with his father on its head.
‘Yes. That’s why, even when they dealt the wraith killing blows, Owein and Percival couldn’t beat him. It’s why you would have died. You could have run it through with your sword a hundred times, and it still wouldn’t have died.’
‘And that’s why you didn’t want me to fight it. You knew it wouldn’t die, no matter what I did.’ Merlin had been worried about him, scared for him, even, thinking back to Merlin visiting him in his rooms last night. But he hadn’t thought that Arthur couldn’t beat someone, just that they had the endurance of a dead knight. That made him feel significantly better.
Merlin sighed in relief. ‘Exactly.’
‘And yet my father killed it,’ he mused. He didn’t really expect Merlin to have an answer; he only said it to see what he said.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘Yeah, he did, didn’t he?’
‘What kills a wraith, Merlin?’ he asked curiously. Because he didn’t think it would be a father trying to protect his son.
‘And you haven’t answered my original question of what you would have done instead of drugging me if you were so convinced that I couldn’t beat my uncle.’
‘I didn’t mean you couldn’t beat him, well, I did, but at the same time, I didn’t,’ protested Merlin, ‘I just knew he wouldn’t stay dead. And no matter how good you are, eventually you’d tire and he’d get in a lucky blow. If he had been mortal you would have beaten him, no problem.’
‘What would have killed him, Merlin?’
Merlin sighed and lent forward, resting his elbows on the table. ‘You can’t get mad,’ he said seriously.
‘I think I’ve done exceptionally well at not getting mad so far, don’t you?’ Having said that, he was definitely going to kill several dummies tomorrow at training before he took the rest of his anger out on the remaining of his knights. And sod it, he’d have to conduct more trials.
‘Yes, I do and I don’t want to push my luck.’
Arthur rolled his eyes. ‘Just tell me, Merlin.’
‘I was reading some books, looking for that very answer...’
‘And?’ Merlin was taking forever to get to the point.
‘And it said that only a magical blade would be able to kill the wraith.’
‘More magic?’ It seemed that no matter what his father did, what laws were created, how vigorously he pursued the removal of all magic, magic still managed to permeate life at Camelot.
‘More magic,’ agreed Merlin, sounding sad.
‘So, my father, who hates and detests magic to a truly fanatical level, had a magic blade lying around the castle that he was prepared to use on the wraith?’ he drawled.
‘No?’ repeated Arthur.
Merlin winced. ‘That, uh, that might have had something to do with me.’
Arthur raised my eyebrow. ‘With you? How so?’ What had Merlin got himself into this time?
‘I, uh, well I was looking around, trying to find something that would kill the wraith-’
‘And why were you doing that? Wasn’t Gaius already looking into it?’
‘Well, yes, but I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing while you got ready to die.’
‘Carry on,’ sighed Arthur. Merlin never could leave well alone – but then, when it concerned Merlin, Arthur supposed he was unable to leave alone either.
‘And I came across a sword. It was a truly magnificent sword. Anyway, your father saw it when I was preparing your armour for the fight and decided to use it.’ Merlin shrugged. ‘I guess it must have been magical.’
Arthur didn’t say anything. Merlin was a terrible liar; he obviously knew more about the sword than he was letting on. He was watching Arthur, an apprehensive look on his face. He quite obviously didn’t want Arthur to ask any questions, but expected him to nevertheless. He trusted Merlin, he knew that. Merlin was loyal to him because they were friends and that was a stronger reason than any other. He hated the fact that there were things he didn’t know, but, at the same time, he knew he had to trust that Merlin had his reasons and he would reveal them eventually. It was very near impossible for him to not order Merlin to tell him everything immediately, but he was managing so far.
‘And where is this sword now?’
Again Merlin shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It disappeared.’
‘Disappeared?’ questioned Arthur sceptically. In his experience swords didn’t just disappear. ‘What exactly does that mean?’
‘It means...it means what it means, Arthur,’ replied Merlin in frustration.
‘Do you know where it is?’ asked Arthur, carefully.
Merlin didn’t say anything, just chewed on his lower lip, which obviously meant yes.
‘You’ll tell me someday.’ It was a statement, not a question.
Merlin nodded vigorously. ‘Uh, I heard you saw your father.’
Arthur picked up an apple and stared at it. ‘Yes, I did.’
‘I, uh, how did it go?’
‘It was possibly the strangest conversation I’ve ever had with him,’ admitted Arthur.
‘Really? How so?’
‘What business is it of yours?’ snapped Arthur. He wasn’t sure he was ready to talk to anyone about his father. Not even Merlin.
‘None. None whatsoever.’
‘So why are you asking?’
‘I just thought that if you wanted to talk-’He trailed off as Arthur glared at him. ‘If it helps, I’ll not say a word. You can just talk.’ He leaned back in his chair, nodding. ‘I’ll be quiet as a mouse.’
Arthur snorted. ‘You, Merlin, don’t know the meaning of the word, quiet.’
‘Well, you’ll never know if you don’t try,’ said Merlin.
That was true, he supposed, and really, he wasn’t managing to sort anything out in his head, so maybe talking would help. ‘I was so angry that he had me drugged and locked me in my room like I was a child,’ Arthur said eventually. ‘I thought he thought that I wasn’t good enough.’ He stared into the empty fireplace. ‘I always thought I wasn’t good enough,’ he admitted quietly.
‘You’re wrong,’ said Merlin with conviction. ‘You’re better than good enough.’
‘You really think so, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Arthur, but I’m unlikely to say something just to make you feel better.’
Arthur smiled at him. ‘I must admit that it was something I noticed about you the first time I met you. Not many people would call me an insufferable prat to my face and then continue to do so.’
Merlin flashed him a cheeky grin before becoming serious. ‘So what did your father say?’
Arthur shifted uncomfortably. ‘He, uh, he told me that he was proud of me; that if I didn’t know that, it was his fault and not mine.’
‘So..?’ prompted Merlin, looking expectantly at Arthur.
‘What do you mean, ‘so’?’ demanded Arthur. ‘This is my father we’re talking about. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he rarely, if ever, goes in for moments of sentimentality.’
‘To be fair, he had spent the last three days thinking you were going to be killed by someone who had been dead for twenty years. I think he’s allowed to be a little sentimental.’
Arthur stared at Merlin in shock. ‘Did you just defend my father? I’ve never heard you ever say anything even remotely good about him. Are you feeling alright?’
‘I’ve not never said anything positive about the king,’ protested Merlin. The plaintive and somewhat nervous tone to his voice suggested that Merlin knew that Arthur wasn’t stupid enough to believe that.
Arthur raised a sceptical eyebrow.
‘It’s just,’ continued Merlin, ‘that you remember the few times I’ve criticised his policy – or lack thereof – on magic. That’s all.’
Arthur rolled his eyes. Only Merlin could make disagreeing with the king about his consuming obsession sound like such a trivial matter. ‘Why would you defend him though?’
‘I’m not defending him,’ said Merlin, looking quite insulted at the suggestion. ‘I’m just saying that he thought you were going to die. Of course he was going to be relieved that you were alive. Just like he’s relieved when it looks like you make it through a tournament more or less intact.’
‘But he wasn’t just relieved; he was happy to see me.’
‘It really surprises you, doesn’t it?’ asked Merlin.
‘And it doesn’t surprise you?’ retorted Arthur. He knew that as far as Merlin was concerned his father didn’t have a single human emotion.
He was surprised then, when Merlin shook his head and said, ‘Not so much, no.’
‘I may disagree with the king over a few issues-’
‘Only a few?’ Arthur muttered under his breath, but Merlin ignored him.
‘- and especially his ideas about magic, but I don’t doubt how important you are to him.’ Merlin shrugged. ‘It’s just most of the time he has a tough time showing it.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ How could Merlin have worked out something about his father that Arthur had never known?
‘You mean apart from the fact that he rewarded me for saving your life?’
‘I always thought that was a punishment,’ mused Arthur.
‘For you or for me?’ asked Merlin.
‘I never did decide,’ said Arthur. ‘Probably both of us.’
‘It’s always likely, but surely I can’t have angered him before he even knew me.’
‘Oh, Merlin, don’t sell yourself short. You hardly need to spend any time with a person to annoy them.’
‘You’re too kind, sire,’ said Merlin sarcastically.
‘But seriously, Arthur, your father loves you. He’s more proud of you than I think you can know. It’s obvious in the way he worries about you.’
‘He worries about me? How come I’ve never noticed?’
‘Because when he worries, he tends to yell.’ Merlin gave him a lopsided smile. ‘You’re a bit like that, too, you know.’
‘Am not,’ muttered Arthur, wishing that if he ordered Merlin out, he’d actually leave. It made him uncomfortable to know that Merlin knew that the more gruff and short-tempered he got, the more it meant that he cared. It made him even more uncomfortable to think that he might have acquired the habit from his father.
‘How do you know all this?’ he demanded.
‘Because it’s my job to watch,’ said Merlin.
Merlin wouldn’t lie to him just to make Arthur feel better, so Arthur had little choice but to believe what Merlin was telling him. He just needed time to reconcile what he already knew about his father with what he had discovered today.
‘Thank you, Merlin. You can go.’ He made sure he kept his voice low and relaxed so that Merlin didn’t think Arthur was cross with him, or anything.
‘You don’t want me to tidy up here?’ asked Merlin, looking around Arthur’s room expectantly.
‘Why? What wro..?’ He trailed off as he looked around as well. ‘How did that happen?’
His room looked as though a whirlwind had gone through it. Merlin may not be the best manservant ever, but not even he could have failed this spectacularly, leading Arthur to the conclusion that the mess was probably his fault.
‘You don’t take well to being cooped up,’ said Merlin. He bent to pick up some shirts Arthur remembered throwing on the floor while locked in his room. In fact, looking around, he remembered throwing a good many things around his room before his door was opened and he stormed off to see his father.
Arthur lent forward in his chair, thinking. Merlin had already managed to help Arthur think out some of what was going around in his head. Who knew, he might be able to help with more. And even if he couldn’t, then at least Arthur had the company of someone he liked. After getting a good look at the mess he’d inadvertently created he looked back at Merlin who was sitting, waiting. ‘Well then, I suppose you’ve got quite a lot to be getting on with, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, sire,’ said Merlin as he stood, but he was grinning.