Merlin’s tending to Arthur’s clothes as well as his bath (after working like this for so long, he’s used to multitasking) when Arthur turns around and says, “So, did I tell you about the new tournament that Guinevere and I want to set up?”
“No.” Merlin thinks it’ll be something pointless and exciting again, like one of those jousting tournaments where Arthur will hope that there’ll be some competition among the Knights—and there is, really—but he’s fought them all before and he’s won so it’s likely Arthur will win again. Merlin doesn’t quite see the point as to why Arthur insists on having this tournaments practically every bloody week, but he won’t complain. It is quite fun, watching Arthur duel it out and get bloody.
Not that Merlin’s sadistic or anything.
So he’s wrapped up in these thoughts and it jerks him back into reality when Arthur says, “We’re thinking of having a magical tournament.”
“What?” says Merlin, spinning around and nearly dropping the pair of trousers he’d been washing. Arthur yelps at him because those are his trousers, but Merlin doesn’t care— “What?”
“Those are my trousers! Pick them up!” Arthur demands, and Merlin quickly hurries to do as the King says. “And yes, we want to have a magical tournament.”
“But I thought you didn’t like magic.”
“I—well—” Arthur sniffs. “Guinevere was talking to me the other day, and she’d been insisting that magic isn’t all that bad. She says she’s witnessed some good magic before, and that it’d be wise to have some on our side. It’d taken a lot to persuade me, but...” He sniffs again. “I finally agreed.”
Merlin holds back a snort. He imagines that Gwen had been herself when she’d talked to him, but Arthur loved her too much to say no to her. And everyone in the court, if not in the whole of Camelot, knows that Gwen is certainly reasonable for a Queen and that despite Arthur’s stubbornness, he won’t turn a deaf ear to his beloved wife’s words.
“So just like that, you’re going to have a tournament for magic?” says Merlin.
“We’ve decided—” and Merlin mentally replaces Arthur’s we with she because it’s obvious that it had been Gwen’s idea “—that we shall have a Court Sorcerer. But we’ll need to know a sorcerer first in order for him to have the position. So it will be a competition, instead.”
Merlin’s so tempted to yell at him, so say, “I can be the Court Sorcerer!” or “I’m a bloody sorcerer and you’ve known me for years!” But Arthur’s sudden acceptance of magic is a bit too much that he just blinks at Arthur and says, “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
Arthur shrugs; apparently he doesn’t see what a big deal this is. “I don’t see why you should know,” he says. “It’s not like you’re a sorcerer yourself.”
Merlin seethes and turns back to his work and is so tempted to show Arthur how much of a sorcerer he really is. But between that and wanting to bash Arthur’s skull against the wall for being so dense, he just continues doing his work while plotting ways to hurt Arthur in the most magical ways possible.
“I can’t believe him!” Merlin explodes when he comes back to Gaius’s home for supper later that evening.
Gaius doesn’t look up from studying his medicinal book. “Arthur again?” he says.
“Yes!” Merlin throws himself onto the chair across from him and doesn’t even bother trying to get Gaius’s attention, because he knows his next words will. “Did you know that he actually accepts use of magic now?”
Gaius’s head does, indeed, snap up.
Merlin nods vigorously. “Yes, and—”
“Did you tell him that you have magic yet?”
Merlin lets out a frustrated sound. “No!” he says. “Because apparently the only reason he doesn’t mind it now is because Gwen told him that it would be good if they had magic as part of the kingdom’s allies so now they need a Court Sorcerer position so they’re going to host a tournament and it’s the stupidest, most pointless thing ever!”
“Why don’t you tell him?” says Gaius, looking incredibly confused. “It’ll save them the work and your secret will be out of the bag.”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “Because,” he says, as patiently as he possibly can. “First of all, I plan on entering the tournament.” He ignores the shocked look on Gaius’s face. “Second, Arthur would probably think that I’m a mediocre wizard or something and that he needs the very best, so he’d want me to enter the tournament anyways.”
“There’d be no harm in telling him in advance, though,” says Gaius reasonably.
“To hell with telling him in advance,” says Merlin. “I don’t care anymore. I’d like to see the look on his face when he sees me kicking everyone’s arse.”
To no one’s surprise, Gaius is made mostly in charge of the tournament a few days later when Arthur announces it to the whole court, because Gaius has had experience with magic before. Merlin has too, of course, but nobody except for him and Gaius know that.
The tournament is set up to be like one of those jousting ones that Arthur often holds, though without any weapons and only with pure magic. Merlin is astonished at how flexible Arthur seems to be with saying all these non-negative things about magic so casually, but he supposes that it’s just part of Arthur, that he can handle anything that’s thrown at him.
Merlin’s always liked this about Arthur.
He makes no comment throughout the whole setup of it, and when Arthur turns to look at him—not to ask for his opinion, surely—he stops with the inquisitive look on his face and merely says, “What’s with you?”
“What? Oh, nothing,” says Merlin innocently, his hands behind his back in that clueless manservant way. He hadn’t been thinking of nothing, though; he’d been thinking of exactly what difficult spells he should go over in case he’d need them for the tournament. Most magic comes naturally to him, but with this whole pressure of competition, there’s a little bit of worry that he won’t win.
He will, of course. He knows this. It’s just the confidence he’s lacking in, a bit.
Arthur definitely doesn’t look like he believes him. Merlin feigns his best innocent-manservant smile (again) and asks, “What should you do to prevent cheating?”
“Oh, right.” Arthur turns back to his planning committee, i.e. the Knights and everyone else who’s important in the court (and not the only present warlock here, Merlin.) “They’ll need to be inspected thoroughly beforehand, to make sure they don’t have any weapons on them...”
“What if their magic requires weapons, sire?” asks one of the men.
Arthur scoffs. “Then it’s not strong enough magic,” he replies. “If we’re going to have a sorcerer in the court, he’ll have to be one who can do magic any place, any time, any moment.”
I could do magic right now, Merlin thinks in spite. I could make his pants fall down
this instant and embarrass him in front of everyone.
He doesn’t do it, of course, because it’s not time for him to reveal his magic yet and he actually doesn’t want to embarrass Arthur, loath he admits it to himself.
“Potions, sire?” asks Gaius. “There are certain types of magic that can only be used through potions.”
Arthur waves his hand. “That’s silly girly magic, then,” he says. “If we need anything with potions, we can just ask you, Gaius. We need someone who’s strong and can make something magical happen just by blinking.”
Gaius glances dubiously to Merlin, who’s humming to himself like he’s not paying attention. When Merlin catches his eye, Merlin shrugs, like, What?
Arthur sends out the notice throughout all the land, and a few Druids who come out of hiding, as well as the villagers who’d been practicing magic in the secrets of their houses before, arrive at the castle within days. Merlin has been tending to all his chores during these few days while going over the most basic of his magic in case he would fall short in the tournament. He’s signed up, as well, under his Druid name, so Arthur doesn’t suspect a thing.
Gwen does. Late one evening she comes into Merlin’s room (he quickly shuffles his magic book back under his bed) and smiles at him.
“Evening, Merlin,” she says. “I haven’t talking to you lately.”
“Oh, it’s all right.” Merlin chuckles. “You’ve recently been queen and everything, it’s not your fault.”
“I still feel bad.” Dear Gwen, with her guilty smile.
“How’s being married to Arthur like?” asks Merlin. “Is it everything you’ve dreamed of?”
She laughs and says, “Oh, barely. All these official proceedings and the way everyone treats me—sometimes I wake up and forget who I am, that I’m Queen. But I’m happy,” she adds. “Arthur is a dear.”
“Yeah.” Merlin rocks on his hands. “You love him, I know.”
Gwen blushes, but surprisingly it’s not the blush he’d expected—a blush of having her feelings so confirmed by another person. It’s more of a shameful blush, like she’s thinking of someone else.
“I love a lot of people,” she says, and for some reason Merlin knows in his heart that she’s thinking of Lancelot.
Then she breaks the tension by adding, “I love you, Merlin,” and slings an arm around his shoulders and he laughs, falling into her hug.
“I do love Arthur,” she says as he lays against her shoulder. “I love him quite a lot. And I’m happy with him. But everything feels so... contrived.”
“What does?” asks Merlin, gazing up at her.
Gwen sighs, and Merlin sees the exhaustion in her face, the exhaustion from jumping from one social class to another; the exhaustion of having her old life being taken away. “It feels like,” she says, “our relationship so long ago was more pure, that everything I have now seemed like a dream and so far away. But now it’s here and it’s less...”
“Fun than you thought? I know, being around Arthur isn’t fun at all,” says Merlin.
Gwen playfully shoves him off and they exchange a smile that only friends can exchange. “You spend so much time with him, Merlin,” she says. “I don’t know how you haven’t turned into a boring person like this.”
“Maybe because I always defy him,” he chuckles, and then stops. “Wait, you think being with Arthur is boring?”
“We kiss and we talk and we understand each other, but...” Gwen bites her lip. “There’s nothing particularly exciting about it.”
Oh. Merlin gets it now. Gwen’s always lived with challenges and hardships; not everything has come easy to her and she’s used to it. And when she had been with Lancelot, there had always been something in their way, like friendship or death or betrayal. And even those times when they had been together before their marriage, before her banishment, there had never been the idea of permanence, that everything could all still be a gamble.
But now she’s in a secure spot and Gwen’s not the type of woman to want to be secure; as much as she desires peace, she can’t bear with it. There has to be something unsafe, there has to be a danger, and because of that lack she feels uncomfortable.
Merlin understands her and he says, jokingly, “Well try arguing with him from time to time,” but knows that Gwen won’t because she’s Gwen.
Gwen sighs, again. “That’s enough about me,” she says bracingly, looking back to him. “Tell me about you. Why have you been quiet this whole week?”
“Quiet? Me? I have not!”
“Oh please, don’t think I haven’t noticed,” she says. “At all these meetings about the upcoming magic tournament, you’ve been strangely silent and thoughtful. It’s out of character for you.”
“I don’t talk that much, you know,” Merlin says defensively. “And I don’t have anything to say about the tournament, that’s all.”
“Do you have any magic friends who you know want to partake in it?”
“I don’t have any magic friends,” says Merlin, a little too quickly. “I’m excited, I suppose, to—” defeat “—watch everyone. Oh,” he adds. “And congratulations for persuading Arthur out of decades of prejudice.”
“Well, Uther’s been attacked by magic countless times before and I don’t want the same thing to happen to him,” says Gwen. “I do still care for Arthur, and having magic on our side will ensure better protection.”
“True.” Merlin wonders suddenly if he should tell her, at the least.
But Gwen gets up before he can make his mind and says, “Well, I should probably go back. Arthur might be looking for me.”
“Yeah,” says Merlin absently. “Goodnight.”
The next morning is the tournament, and Merlin gets up with an air of confidence, because suddenly, he realizes how much of a threat everyone else who’s entered is—that is, there is no competition at all. All of these are peasants who’ve done nothing but merely learn how to use magic, or warlocks who haven’t had the same access to Gaius’s resources as Merlin has. Really, Merlin thinks, suddenly becoming annoyed, you’d think that if this were a challenge, there would be more of a challenge.
And so during breakfast, when Gaius asks him, “How are you feeling about today?” he rolls his eyes and continues eating his porridge like always.
“Fine,” he says.
Gaius eyes him.
“Not feeling nervous or anything?”
“No,” says Merlin, taking another spoonful.
“Gaius, really,” he says, putting his spoon back down. “How many sorcerers do you know who are as good as magic as me?”
“Well,” says Gaius, honestly. “None.”
“And you even said so yourself, on the first day that I came here, that I’m a complete natural at it. That magic just flows through my veins.”
Gaius looks thoughtful. “This is true.”
He resumes eating, no longer looking worried. Merlin eyes him this time.
“What’s with you?” he asks.
“I just thought you might be feeling a little anxious over this, that’s all,” says Gaius. “But I see that you’re perfectly well off and don’t have any worries.”
Merlin can sense the small hint of irritation in Gaius’s voice; he supposes he did sound like a jerk. “You know how many times my magic has gotten me—and Arthur, without him knowing—out of tight spots. Actually, how many times my magic has saved this kingdom in general,” he says. “Not to mention you and quite a number of people’s lives, and helped bring down Agravaine and Morgause and—”
“Fine, fine, you’ve made your point,” says Gaius. “And I agree, you don’t have any reason to worry. Still, I fear that there may be some trouble in the future.”
“I’d rather not voice them now,” says Gaius mysteriously, and no matter how many bemused looks Merlin sends him, Gaius just eats his porridge and says nothing else on the matter.
“Merlin! Throw me my shirt!”
Arthur pokes his head out from behind the dressing sheet, but no gangly gawky manservant is there. Frowning, Arthur calls again: “Merlin?”
Still no answer. Merlin isn’t in his bedroom at all, and he’s certainly not anywhere near here to have heard him. Arthur huffs and marches out from behind his dressing sheet— “Where has that useless idiot gone?”—and goes over to his bed to retrieve his own shirt.
Said useless idiot has been acting strange all morning, Arthur reflects. Merlin had spent no less than a second opening his blinds to wake him up, and no less than a minute to get his breakfast ready before sprinting out of his room. That had been the last time Arthur had seen him; he’d thought that maybe Merlin had forgotten to do one of his chores the previous day and had gone off to finish them now. But it’s been over an hour and despite the number of boots he may have, Arthur knows that there’s no way he’d be spending that much time doing just that. Besides, Merlin hadn’t even had as many chores yesterday as he usually did, as Arthur had been too busy planning this magic tournament to even boss him around.
Arthur’s thoughts drift to the magic tournament. When he’d told the Lords of the Court, they’d responded with some trepidation— “Are you sure this is a good idea?” they’d asked. But Arthur is sure. He knows that magic is not good in particular and very often can be outright evil, but he doesn’t want to have the same enemies his father had had, or else he may end up going the same way. And he won’t ever admit it out loud, but sometimes he’s thought magic was a form of strength that he’d wish to have. Even if it causes harm—but Arthur is sure that there is at least a little bit of good in it too.
He yells, “Merlin, boots!” before remembering that Merlin isn’t here, and reminds himself to reserve a place for him in the stocks next time he goes by them. Double the time, if Merlin happens to be in the tavern at this very moment.
His morning rituals are nearly over when Gwen comes into his room, as Arthur is finishing the last of his breakfast that Merlin had sloppily put together. “Hi,” says Gwen, giving him a little smile, and Arthur can’t help a smile from sliding across his face as well.
“Hello,” he says, giving her a good-morning kiss. They haven’t slept together—well, figuratively and literally—at all yet since their wedding, because in the evenings Gwen has always retreated back to her own chambers (although Arthur has invited her to his bedroom multiple times, but they’re usually at inconvenienced hours.)
“Ready for today?” she asks, taking his hand in hers.
“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “With all these... magic people coming in today, I’m afraid one might get angry at me and attack me for everything that’s happened in the past.”
“Just one?” chuckles Gwen. “Don’t worry about it, Arthur, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Yeah.” He sighs. “Oh, and by the way, have you seen Merlin today?”
Gwen furrows her eyebrows. “Merlin? No.”
Arthur exhales through his teeth. “That sod,” he mutters. “Where has he gone?”
“Don’t worry about it, Arthur,” says Gwen. “He’ll be at the tournament at least, that’s for sure. You might see him then.”
He better wish I will, is all he can think.
The morning proceedings go with he, Gwen, Gaius and the rest of the Knights and the Lords ensuring that the tournament will go smoothly and randomly matching up everyone who’s entered (Emrys, Arthur thinks, why does that sound so familiar? He doesn’t know any magicians by name, so he doesn’t know why he might know someone who’s signed up for this tournament). The Knights are excited, he knows—Elyan and Leon are talking enthusiastically as Gwaine and Percival are mock-fighting as if they were magicians themselves. They’re making swooshing noises and running around like rowdy boys, that Arthur has to step in and stop them before they break something (or each other.)
“That’s enough, men,” he says, though he’s grinning at them. “We’ll watch the real fighting later.”
“Hey, we can fight with magic too!” says Gwaine.
“We look the part for sorcerers, don’t we?” says Percival.
Arthur gives them a look. “You look the part for clotpoles,” he says, and privately thanks Merlin for inventing that word. “Now get the others so we can get this thing ready.”
The battles begin in no time and everyone in the whole stadium watches with some sort of envy—at least, they start out doing so. But the first few battles are between those "sorcerers" who had done nothing but perhaps practice magic before, but weren't familiar with it and could only do simple things, like conjure a small fire or control water to put it out. Or stare so powerfully that the opponent would be knocked out for a second—but only a second.
"I'd been hoping for something more impressive," Arthur mutters to Gwen.
"They're pretty impressive," she says in her most optimistic voice, but at seeing one of these so-called magicians make a rat appear, which doesn't scare his opponent at all, she winces, clearly thinking otherwise.
The duels that have Druid opponents are a bit more interesting, since it's evident that they are much better-versed in magic. Arthur's thinking that definitely one of them will win, after having watched a Druid completely knock out a peasant magician just with three non-contact blows—when Gwen suddenly gasps and grabs onto his arm.
"What?" asks Arthur distractedly, glancing to her.
Gwen points out into the battleground. "Merlin!"
Arthur whips his head around and does, indeed, see his missing manservant from all day standing in the center ring like he's about to fight the Druid on the other side.
"Merlin?" he says, disbelievingly. "What? Merlin, get the hell out of there, you're going to get hurt!"
That should have had a better reaction, Merlin thinks when he hears Arthur say this.
He's been avoiding Arthur all morning. Well, not avoiding really since all entrants were to report to the entrant tent at eight in the morning, so Merlin had to skive off most of his duties to attend. Gaius had been the one in charge of making sure all the entrants were there so it had been no surprise to him to see Merlin there, and none of the others knew who he was. Merlin had known all the Knights and the help and everyone who could have known him were too busy in the castle, so he had averted any suspicious looks all morning.
He'd been looking forward to Arthur's reaction. It would not be a lie to say that that was what Merlin had been looking forward to this tournament the most—winning was wonderful, yes, but to have Arthur shocked out of his pants would be even more satisfying.
Arthur would think that Merlin's completely weak and vulnerable, though. Merlin suppresses a sigh. He should have seen this reaction coming.
"Merlin!" he hears Arthur call from his stand. "Get out of there! What do you think you're doing?"
"It's his turn to duel," he hears Gwen say to him gently, though there's obvious shock in her voice too. "Why else would he be out there?"
"But he's no magician—"
Merlin sighs again. It's impossible to deal with Arthur, really.
The rest of the court is looking to Arthur, confused, and Merlin's Druid opponent calls out, loudly, "Are we allowed to fight yet?"
Arthur stops silently arguing with Gwen to see that all eyes are on them. Looking slightly embarrassed, he says, "Ah—"
"Yes," says Gwen firmly, before pulling them back into their conversation.
Merlin looks at his opponent, cracks his neck to his sides, and braces himself. Time to prove that he isn't the worthless manservant Arthur has always thought he was.
"But he can't have entered!" Arthur whispers to Gwen angrily. "His name wasn't on the list! We saw it!"
"Who's battle is this supposed to be then?" asks Gwen.
Arthur consults his list, which is sitting on his lap. "Meraud, and—Emrys." There's that name that he'd thought familiar. Is that Merlin?
Gwen's about to say something to him, but then they hear the audience let out a collective cheer and both snap their heads up to see what's gonig on. Arthur's afraid to look, if only for a moment, in case Merlin's lying facedown on the ground with blood spewing out of his head... but to his great surprise, Merlin looks calm, unscathed, and his opponent is on the ground only a few feet away from him.
Merlin glances down, almost lazily, and his opponent is tossed into the air and then lands sprawled right next to he audience stands.
"What the hell—" Arthur starts, standing up.
Merlin nods his head to the left; the Druid is flung to the left. Then the right, and the Druid follows. Merlin, useless and unfunny Merlin, is playing with his opponent so mercilessly that it's only when the trumpet sounds to deem his success, he stops.
"The winner is Emrys!" calls Gaius from the Lord's stand, the name Emrys rolling off his tongue that it sounds like, to Arthur, that he's almost used to saying it. And when Arthur glances at the Druid and sees his eyes widen, he realizes that there is much, much more to Merlin than he had always thought.
Merlin walks into the winner's tent at the sound of confused cheers behind him. It'd been so easy, he thinks; are the rest of his battles going to be this way? He'll be wasting time if he continues on with doing this; but he knows that he wants to prove to Arthur that he's the best, so he's going to have to.
He hears the tent flaps open from behind him and then a heavy hand is on his shoulder and Gwaine's saying, "You could have mentioned that you could do all that!"
"Yeah!" says Elyan as Merlin turns around. "You're magic!"
"Why didn't you tell us?" says Percival.
Merlin smiles; he at least likes this reaction. "Surprise," he says, and all the Knights laugh.
"All this time, and you kept it a secret," says Leon. "What if—"
He breaks off when someone else enters the tent, and everyone sees it's Arthur. By the look on his face, the air suddenly goes thicker and Merlin feels something cold drop in his stomach. Arthur does not look happy.
"Merlin," he says, coming over to him and ignoring the others.
"We'll be going," says Gwaine hastily, and then the four of them dash out.
Merlin feels guilty all of a sudden, because Arthur is still looking at him and it makes shame fill his heart. "Sire," he says, in the most confident tone he can muster, although suddenly he isn't feeling as confident anymore.
Arthur doesn't look at him. He fiddles with the chainmail on his sleeves. "So," he says. "You're magic."
"I, uh." Merlin stares at Arthur's golden head. "I guess I am."
"You guess you are?"
Arthur's looking at him now, and the coldness inside makes Merlin feel even colder.
"You could have mentioned it to me," says Arthur. "This whole time we've been friends, and you—"
"Well it's not like I knew you'd be okay with it!" bursts Merlin out of defense, because he knows that he isn't entirely in the wrong. "You've always been going on how evil it is, and suddenly you have this tournament—"
Arthur waves his hand, which cuts him off. Actually it's the resigned look on Merlin's face that cuts him off.
"You have a point," Arthur says, sounding begrudging. "It had been wise to not tell me before. But you could have at least..." He trails off.
"I'd have told you if I knew you wouldn't mind," says Merlin quietly.
Arthur nods. "Yeah," he says. Then he looks back at Merlin. There's an emotion in his eyes that Merlin can't quite understand.
"Be careful out there, okay?" he says.
Merlin scoffs. "You do not need to say that to me," he says. "You saw how I kicked that Druid's arse!"
"That was probably just a fluke. Chance. Luck." Arthur gets up. "Even if you're magical, that doesn't mean you're strong." But there's definitely something teasing in his voice.
Merlin rolls his eyes. "You saw me out there. You should just call this whole thing off and make me your Court Sorcerer already."
"What, and lose my manservant?"
"Arthur." Merlin's annoyed. "Seriously, is this all really necessary? You've known me for years now!"
"And you've never seemed strong to me till now," says Arthur, turning to leave. "I want the best sorcerer, not the one I've known longest."
Knew it, Merlin thinks annoyedly as he watches Arthur depart from the tent.
It's still difficult for Arthur to register that Merlin is magical, as he goes back up to the stands. He'd asked Gaius, shortly after talking to Merlin, about the name Emrys, and Gaius had explained to him that it's Merlin's Druid name. Arthur can't believe that because that doesn't make any sense and since when was Merlin a Druid? but then Gaius had said to him that Merlin's actually a very powerful sorcerer who is meant to help bring peace to Camelot between the magic and the nonmagic folk and that all the Druids know him, because he represents this hope.
And Arthur can't quite wrap his mind around a) Merlin being a very powerful b) sorcerer, who c) somehow represents hope. He's always thought, and still kind of does, of Merlin as a useless servant. How can a useless servant be powerful and symbolic?
The rest of the opponents demonstrate nothing even close to the amount of power Merlin had done. When the first round is finally over, Arthur consults Gwen and the others and voices what Merlin had suggested to him.
"Let's just throw this, we know who's going to win."
"Merlin," says Gwaine, and everyone nods in agreement.
"But it's not fair," says one of the Lords. "We've only seen him use his magic once; we don't know if any of the other winners can beat him."
"It's likely that they won't," says Elyan. "Did you see the way Merlin just flung that Druid man around like he was nothing?"
"Without even lifting a finger!" adds Leon.
"He's obviously more powerful than everyone else," says Percival.
"But he's right," Gwen admits. "It's not fair, to see Merlin just duel one person and declare him the winner."
"It'd be a waste of time to go through the rest of the rounds, too," says Arthur.
Gaius, who has remained silent throughout this whole exchange, finally speaks up.
"How about we do something different?" he says. "Everyone versus Merlin."
"Put everyone together and make them battle Merlin?" says Arthur disbelievingly at Merlin's guardian.
"Of course not," says Gaius. "That may overwhelm him. We'll just make him battle all the winners so far, so none of the others have to battle each other."
"That sounds good," says a Lord.
"We'll just be watching Merlin kick everyone's arse," says Percival eagerly.
They disperse, and Gaius goes into the winner's tent to explain the new arrangements to the other winners. Arthur can see that the peasants in their stands are talking amongst themselves excitedly, and suddenly wonders if they know Merlin as well as he does. If they're as astonished as he is. If they have possibly known beforehand.
Arthur shakes the thought out of his head. After Gaius, if Merlin ever has anything important to say, he would tell him first.
He feels Gwen touch his arm. "Still can't believe it, can you?" she says.
He shakes his head, and can see, from this corner of his eye, his Queen smile.
"Well," she says. "I do have to admit that explains a lot of the things that have happened in the past. And why Merlin gets into so much trouble." She chuckles. "I think we should have expected it, really."
"Expect what? That someone like Merlin is actually really powerful that 'all the Druids rely on him for the fate of magic'?" says Arthur, quoting Gaius's words from before.
Gwen shrugs. "Well you have to admit, Merlin is pretty reliable."
"Reliable my arse," Arthur grumbles, and settles into his seat.
He senses that something is troubling Gwen, then, and glances back to her. "Something wrong?" he says, seeing a thoughtful look on her face.
"Oh... no, I was just thinking about how close Lancelot and Merlin used to be." Lancelot's name sounds foreign from her mouth, and Arthur realizes that it's the first time since her banishment that he's heard her say it. "Close than you and Merlin, even. I wonder if he knew."
"I don't know." Arthur forgets, for a moment, why the mention of the ex-Knight makes her look so tense. Then he says to her, "Guinevere, are you feeling okay?"
"Oh! I'm fine," she says, clearly forcing a smile back on her face.
Arthur still senses her worry. "Truly?" he says.
Her smile falls. "I love being with you, Arthur," she says. "And I do love you. And I love being your Queen. But..."
She doesn't finish her thought. And Arthur expects himself to be a little hurt. And he expects himself to be, at least, a little curious to what she wants to say. But as he faces the battle ring again, to where the Merlin-versus-everyone round is about to start, he feels that he understands her. And whatever feelings she isn't voicing, he feels he same way.
Merlin's watched the last several duels and greets the next winners into the tent with a nod. (The ones who had been there before had ignored his rather terse exchange with Arthur.) They're all eyeing him suspiciously, probably because he'd come off as a rather pompous arse after his own duel; but also because they're wary of him, and they know that it's likely that he'll win.
Merlin's bored of this, and wishes that Arthur has the sense to call this whole thing off and declare him the winner. But after the first round of all the duels, when Gaius comes in and tells them that they'll be dueling in a new setup instead, Merlin can't help thinking, I'll still have to go through with this?
"It's been made obvious to everyone," says Gaius, "that Emrys here," and he nods to Merlin, "is significantly stronger than most of you."
He's blunt, that's for sure, and Merlin sees the other winners send both him and Gaius dirty looks.
"So instead, we'll pit each of you against him, one by one," Gaius continues. "If Emrys manages to defeat all of you, then he will be made Court Sorcerer. But if he does not, then the one who defeats him will be made Court Sorcerer instead."
And now the winners are eyeing him like he's a wild deer and they're thinking of the best ways to shoot him down. Merlin shifts uncomfortably, but is not discouraged; beating everyone sounds almost like one of Arthur's annoying chores. "Do we get any breaks in between?" he asks.
"Not for you, no," says Gaius, and then with one billowing sweep of his cloak walks back out of his tent.
The other winners are still staring at him. Merlin does his best to ignore them. Winning will be a piece of cake.
Arthur thinks that it should be a bit disturbing that he's thinking that Merlin's use of magic is a bit attractive.
It isn't, though. Well, it's not attractive, he continues to remind himself, and when he finds himself mesmerized by the way Merlin's eyes glow gold when he does his magic thing, it doesn't disturb him at all.
At the start of the Merlin-everyone round, Merlin defeats his first opponent in two minutes, his second in one minute and a half. And he isn't using the same tactic, Arthur notices—one time Merlin's used the ground beneath their feet as a weapon, while another he conjures up a bunch of ropes to tightly bind his opponent so she can't move, and then another he petrifies, while with yet another opponent he tosses him repeatedly into the air until the duel is declared over.
And he does this all with an air of uncaring. Arthur is sure that it's because Merlin's irritated with what he had said before; he doesn't look like he doesn't want to do this, but more that he doesn't see a point. Arthur knows where he's coming from, because suddenly Merlin is as powerful with magic as Arthur is powerful with weapons and shields and swords. But it won't be fair, he knows, to the other entrants if they at least don't have the chance to go up against Merlin.
Then again, he thinks as he watches yet another previous winner get thrown mercilessly to the ground, it's probably not fair to let them compete against Merlin and get defeated and humiliated.
All twenty-four previous winners are defeated, and Merlin's sort of brimming with pride when he walks over to the stands to where Arthur and Gwen are. "Can you appoint me as official Court Sorcerer now, or what?" he says.
"Or what," Arthur jokes, and Gwen lightly hits him on the arm.
"Good job," she calls down to Merlin. "I thought you'd win. Your first duel spoke enough."
"Well, I have been using magic under your noses all this time and you haven't noticed until now," he points out. "When I've finally told you."
"This man here still can't believe it," giggles Gwen, indicating Arthur, and Arthur huffs indignantly.
"With reason!" he says defensively. "Anyway," he says to Merlin, "as much as it pains me to admit that you're somewhat not useless, we will appoint you as official Court Sorcerer in a few moments—"
He stops, suddenly, and the whole crowd, which had been so loud before, falls into a hush as a dark horse whinnies loudly and enters the arena, and everyone sees who the rider is.
"Well, well," she says, and Merlin flinches at the sight of her—what a friend she used to be. "I see the great King's finally accepted the use of magic?"
She looks at Arthur, and Merlin can see the hatred flash on his face, practically surge through his veins. He can also see the regret, and the pain at feeling such hatred, and empathizes with him so much.
Morgana cocks her head to the side. "I have magic," she says in a mocking baby voice. "Can I play, too?"
"Get out of here, Morgana," says Arthur in a thundering voice. "I thought I banished you from Camelot."
"Like I heed to your rules." She sneers. Then she looks to Merlin, as if she's just noticed him. "So, are you in the lead?" she asks.
"I've won," says Merlin in a tight voice.
Her smile grows all the more sinister. "Bravo," she says, mockingly. "I never knew you had magic. Although I've had my suspicions."
"Get out of here, Morgana," says Gwen warningly.
Morgana ignores her. "How about you and I duel?" she says, sizing Merlin up. "I want to see how good you are. And if you are worthy of being... 'Court Sorcerer.'"
"He's definitely worthy," says Arthur, but Morgana ignores this too.
"I don't want to hurt you," says Merlin carefully.
"Oh, because I'm a woman?" Morgana laughs, and then thrusts her head forward and her eyes flash gold and Merlin's knocked off his feet.
The crowd is too stunned to gasp, but Merlin quickly gets back up; unlike Morgana, he knows that they have dueled before, and he knows her ways. More than that, he knows that he's stronger than her because during their previous battle, he'd won, and he'd been suffering from an ailment and oldness at that time.
He uses the same spell to send her flying off her horse, and the crowd cheers for only a millisecond before Morgana bellows, "Silence!" She waves her hand and all the noise stops, and then she turns on Merlin and tries to attack him again.
He blocks it with a wordless spell, and then tries to bind her with some ropes, but she dispels it and goes for throwing balls of fire at him instead. As she walks toward him, he waves his hand to try to fling them back at her, but they disappear when they do and he can only defend.
She corners him; Merlin glances around to see if there's anything he can do to make use of his surroundings. Morgana lets out a cry and hurls one large ball of fire at him, but before it can touch him, he raises the earth beneath his feet up and knocks her backwards with it, while at the same time blocking the fire. He jumps and lands on the other side of the ring, ready to take her on.
Arthur can't believe what's happening.
For the first concern, he can't believe that Morgana's come back. Well he can, really, he'd never thought her dead after their last battle; but here, now, during their tournament? It's like seeing a stranger.
And he can't believe at the way she and Merlin are dueling, using magic more complex than he had seen all day (save for Merlin's demonstrations.) It's hypnotic, watching them manipulate things like they're god, and it's evident that Morgana certainly knows what she's doing, that she's better than the other entrants today; but Merlin gives off an aura of control, of peace, and that's the kind of sorcerer he seems to be like.
Arthur watches back and forth as Merlin and Morgana continue, and know not to let any of his Knights interfere because this is not a combat battle. This is a battle of magic, and only the victor will declare it over. So all he, so all everyone else can do is sit and watch, like this is just another round of the tournament. He watches anxiously as he sees Merlin looking two times worn out than he'd been throughout the tournament, and there's a slight cut above his eye and the side of his face looks like it's bleeding by a little, and Arthur's worried that this won't turn out the way he hopes—
Except then Merlin flings Morgana to the ground and suddenly she doesn't look so tolerant of their duel anymore. Her gaze is no longer trained on Merlin, but she turns and looks at Arthur straight in the eye—and Arthur feels pure hatred coming from her—and he sees her lips move and suddenly their whole stand is on fire.
Gwen shrieks; Arthur jumps to his feet and shouts, "Bloody hell!" The fire is huge, hot, and as Morgana continues staring at them it grows, licking the air around them and making Arthur all of a sudden feel dizzy.
He sees, faintly, gold brighter than ever before flash in Merlin's eyes—and then the fire is out and Merlin is approaching Morgana with a fury Arthur's never thought Merlin was capable of having. Morgana turns back around at the disappearance of the fire and sees his face for only a moment, when Merlin whispers something harshly under his breath and Morgana is flung back to the opposite side of the tournament ring, and is knocked out.
There's a sustained silence for a few seconds. Then the whole crowd cheers and Merlin looks surprised, like he'd forgotten that they were there—but suddenly he's beaming and Arthur thinks it's as beautiful as Merlin's magic had been before.
"Wow," says Gwen, sitting back into her seat. "I thought we were going to die there for a minute."
"Me too," says Arthur distractedly, although he hadn't; somehow, he'd felt that Merlin would save them.
Morgana doesn't know where she wakes up. It's not the usual darkness of her usual home; in fact it reminds her of the stone ceilings of the Camelot castles.
She hears a rustling, and then an incredibly familiar female voice say, "Awake?" and nearly jerks and falls out her bed.
Her muscles don't allow it, though—they're sore and it feels, suddenly, like a thousand hammers have hit her for hours straight. Instead, she can only jump a little from where she's laying, and Gwen's dark face comes into view.
"What are you doing here?" she spits; she can't stand to see this unworthy Queen.
Gwen smiles, which only angers Morgana further. "I actually live around these parts," she says. "While you don't." She settles down onto Morgana's bed, and Morgana wants so badly to shove her off so she won't be near her. "Merlin knocked you out, but didn't have the heart to kill you. And Arthur'd insisted that we dump you in the forest, but I thought we should take care of you first."
"I don't need your pity," Morgana snarls, and wishes so badly that she isn't as weak as she feels.
The smile Gwen gives her is a sad one. "I wish you didn't," she says, but before Morgana can respond further, she hears the sound of the tent opening and sees an old man.
"Morgana," says Gaius, and he sounds grave. Gwen bows her head to him and leaves, so that Morgana and Gaius are alone.
"What do you want?" snaps Morgana.
"I thought you ought to know something," he says, and then looks hesitant, as if having second thoughts.
Morgana can't stand this. "Spit it out, then!" she demands. "What is it?"
"Merlin," the old man starts.
Morgana rolls her eyes: what about Merlin? "Yes?"
"He is..." Gaius looks hesitant again. Then his next words make her blood run cold.
"He is Emrys."
It feels like someone has constricted her throat. "Emrys?" she says, hoarsely. "Merlin's Emrys?"
Slowly, Gaius nods.
"No," says Morgana. "No, no—I've lost to him before—I can't lose to him again—NO!" She screams, and her body convulses, and then suddenly she disappears with a loud CRACK!
Gaius stays in the empty tent, and sighs. It'll only be time, he thinks, before she comes back again.
After the rather chaotic duel with Morgana, Merlin's a bit tired as he retreats back to his and Gaius's home. He's already been appointed official, of course, by all the bewildered and happily babbling Lords, and the admiring Knights, and he'd smiled at them and said thank you even though it isn't like he hadn't expected it. But through all this, he'd been forced to stay under the silent, smoldering gaze of Arthur and somehow felt, again, that he'd done something wrong.
There's a celebation going on in the castle at the celebration of the new Court Sorcerer, but Merlin hadn't wanted to go and expects that even if they can't find him, they'll continue on with it anyway. All of the royalty enjoy their feasts too much, and though Merlin often attends them, he doesn't want to go today. Too much discomfort has passed between him and Arthur today, and he doesn't want to deal with it any longer.
But he's only settled onto his bed to prepare to tuck in early tonight, when there's suddenly a loud rapping on the door and Merlin groans, rolling over on his bed. "Coming!" he calls, thinking it's someone who needs Gaius, even though Gaius is in the hospital in the palace, tending to Morgana.
He gets up and opens the door and to his complete surprise, it's not a patient standing in the doorway, but Arthur.
"Why aren't you at the feast for your celebration?" Arthur asks him sternly, his arms folded.
Merlin manages a grin. "You know me," he says. "I'm not really the type for feasts and fun."
"True," says Arthur, and then steps in without an invitation. Merlin closes the door, wondering what he's doing here.
"You were quite amazing out there, Merlin," says Arthur, turning to look at him.
"Well—" Merlin starts to say, perhaps another remark about how useless the whole tournament had been considering his skill level was vast above everyone else's. But Arthur shakes his head.
"Against Morgana, I mean," he says. "I didn't know you could do all that, too."
"I am a sorcerer," says Merlin. "I have studied sorcery."
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "While it had still been outlawed?"
"Uh—I mean," says Merlin quickly, realizing that he's been caught; but Arthur shakes his head.
"I still do wish you'd told me earlier," he says. "Even if I wouldn't have accepted it at first... you'd still be my friend, Merlin. I won't think that your breaking the law is more important than that."
"But you said you hated magic so much," Merlin points out.
"I don't hate magic more than..." Arthur doesn't look like he wants to say his next words. "More than I value you," he says, softly, but Merlin hears every word.
"Come again?" he says teasingly.
Arthur shoots him a look. "You know what I said," he says. "And I won't say it again." But his expression softens. "I'm glad though, that you won. I'd have been disappointed if anyone else did."
"Well," says Merlin, not modestly at all, "I am the best you'll ever find."
"I don't think it's that, it's just that everyone else is worse," says Arthur with a grin. "The moment we find someone better than you, they'll be Court Sorcerer and you'll only be the manservant you were before."
"Oh, does that mean I'm not your servant anymore right now?" says Merlin eagerly.
"No, it means right now you're my servant and Court Sorcerer. Be proud." Arthur pats him on the shoulder and his mischievous grin grows wider. "You're the first person ever in the court to have more than one role."
"I hate you."
"You love me and you're in denial," Arthur teases. "And now that you're Court Sorcerer, you'll have to come to all the meetings when we plan things—"
"Like I don't do that already."
"Train and battle with the Knights—"
"Like you don't force me to do that already."
"And you'll have double the chores than you had before," he finishes.
"You have magic, you can use that," says Arthur cheekily. "Maybe I should make it ten times more, and give you a challenge."
"You're joking," says Merlin.
"I'm not joking, actually," says Arthur. "But you have magic. Come on, be a man."
"I should find a spell that'll make us switch positions," says Merlin. "So you can see how I feel."
"Don't gripe." But Arthur's still smiling. "I'm sure you can handle it, Merlin. You're an official now."
"I'm having second thoughts about it."
"No, you aren't," says Arthur, and Merlin knows that he knows that he isn't because Merlin wouldn't.
Even if he's a manservant, even if he's the Court Sorcerer. Merlin knows, and Arthur knows, that he won't want to leave if he is at Arthur's side.