For a week after his return from Ealdor there is an uneasy tension in Camelot. The king is furious that his son dared risk outright war for a small village not even under Albion's dominion, though perhaps there is a grain of grudging admission that something had to be done. Uther also confines the lady Morgana to her rooms for general unladylike behaviour. Arthur was unfortunately present for that unpleasant little interview, and to be honest, he isn't sure he would have stopped his foster-sister from yelling at his father - one, he has no wish to have Morgana redirect her anger at him, especially as she finally seems to concede he has a head on his shoulders, and two, he quite agrees with some of her points.
Though of course he left before the candlesticks began flying. Sometimes he wonders if Morgana flies into her defiant rages just for the fun of them, and then decides that courting death by angering Uther was really not the best way to go.
Speaking of which, his father's anger is expected, but not having Merlin's usual impish self around makes it all the more apparent. This is also why Arthur finds himself sitting on the edge of his bed, staring morosely into the banked fire Merlin had arranged for him. Usually he would be trading insults with his manservant while the other man - boy, really - put the finishing touches whatever had been left undone during the day, but he isn't here now. Arthur would try to insult Merlin for being inadequate (though truthfully he does learn rather quickly, and Arthur's eternally warm baths have become the envy of Camelot) and Merlin would sidetrack him with news from the servants and people who came and went in the city proper.
The past few days, however, Merlin escapes before Arthur finishes his night patrol. He leaves nothing for Arthur to complain about - the bath water is always warm, his clothes clean and folded, his armour gleaming, and his room spotless. Arthur knows he has to give his servant time, that the death of a close childhood friend is not easily dismissed. As crown prince, Arthur's led his fair share of disastrous fights and seen too many people die. And he knows, the same way he knows that his own eyes are blue and that one day he will be king, that the pain of losing Will would be better for a conversation with the right person.
Arthur finds himself staring up at the ridiculously elaborate crimson velvet canopy of his bed, for the umpteenth night in a row, and grows so desperate that he decides to see Gaius. He makes his way quickly to the old man's quarters, feeling at his shoulder for a 'pulled' muscle.
The old man prods Arthur in the shoulder experimentally.
"Something tells me you are not here for a sore shoulder, your highness." The outright manner surprises Arthur a little, but then Gaius has always been honest, ruthlessly so, with the royals he serves.
He turns his head to look the court physician in the eye. "Perhaps if you saw to the obvious distress of your charge, Gaius, I would not have to sit here and shiver."
Gaius raises an eyebrow (Arthur is not sure how he accomplishes this, since his usual expression is already one of permanent skepticism, but it's impressive nonetheless). "And perhaps not all things can be so easily treated as your complaint, sire."
"Then they would do well to let those who are better informed help." Gaius gives him the Look, again, and Arthur feels all of eight years old, caught sampling the strangely coloured liquids stored in the physician's cupboards.
"Some problems have to get worse before they get better, sire. And you of all people should know that not everyone can afford to speak openly." With that, he pokes Arthur's shoulder one last time, with a precision Arthur suspects is calculated to cause discomfort, and packs the crown prince back to bed with some ointment.
Arthur mulls over the old man's words and falls asleep with the smell of cloves in his nose.
He dreams of it again.
That day, the ambush, Merlin running off like a fool to help Morgana light the fire - Will conjuring that whirlwind - Kanan and his stench - and finally, Will's rosy cheeks losing their colour with an arrow sticking out of his chest. Arthur is just about to reach up to Merlin's ashen face when he wakes with a start, one foot on the cold stone of his floor.
It is not yet morning, but Arthur cannot go back to sleep. Something is not right about his dream.
He gets up and pads silently to his armour stand, running his hands over the cold, clinking metal, checking for weaknesses and breaks. It's a longstanding habit of his, whenever there is something he needs to puzzle out.
When Arthur realizes what bothers him, his hands lay still on the polished metal of his armguard.
He remembers it perfectly, and curses himself for being such a fool. The whirlwind rose and swept the raiders off their horses, chased them away into the woods, with the villagers screaming in hot pursuit. Will and Merlin had stood in front of it. And as he lay dying, Will had admitted to using magic.
But when the wind was rising, Will's hands were slack at his side, and it was Merlin who had a palm out, directing the wind higher and higher, spurring it onwards to the raiders.
Merlin was the sorcerer. He had used it to save the villagers, and Will thought he was protecting his friend. And now everything makes so much sense, how his manservant was able to save him from the singing enchantress, so quick to spot the ensorcelled shield, the awkward glances he and Gaius exchanged after the Sophia incident, how he was there, every single time Arthur was miraculously saved from magical harm.
It explains the odd way his eyes sometimes flash gold in the torchlight. Perhaps the glowing sphere was Merlin's doing too, though Arthur immediately realizes that he cannot ask.
He promises himself that he will give Merlin a hard time about not telling him when the secret is actually entrusted to him, but instead of hurt and anger, Arthur feels a strange sense of relief, almost as if some burden has been cast off. For now he will let the manservant take the easy road - and he is grateful that Merlin does not want to make him choose between his father and his servant. (Though there is hardly any choice in it anymore, which Arthur refuses to think about.) It is enough for the moment.
Arthur hopes that Merlin will eventually trust him enough to tell him about his magic in person.
And as the crown prince tucks himself back into bed, he realizes that Merlin had been telling the truth about being able to take Arthur apart without ever laying hands on him.