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Daughter of the Dragonlord - extended nanowrimo edition

Chapter Text

"Again." The prince says.

Lancelot raises his sword into position, and with the other trainees, goes through the motion again. The prince narrows his eyes, walking around them, singling out bad elbows, raised shoulders, dropped shoulders, feet in the wrong place. He's a very hard, very exacting taskmaster, never giving any quarter and picking up on every little detail.

"Once again, ladies, I'm not doing this for fun!" He says, voice echoing over the practice ground. "You were recruited to be part of Camelot's knights, and need I remind you, we are not decoration. I expect you to be able to fight, and that means making sure you don't get killed, and more importantly, that your fellow knights don't get killed because of something stupid that you did. They're more important than you are, never forget that. And you being sloppy means that they'll be dead. I do not tolerate sloppiness amongst my men."

Prince Arthur of Camelot is a little bit of a surprise. Lancelot knew when he came to Camelot that Arthur Pendragon had a reputation as the best knight in Camelot, and possibly one of the best of Albion. However, reputation can be boosted and boasted of by bards and gossip, and there are plenty of knights who aren't much good outside the lists, or even in them. He watched some of the duels that were part of the competition that Lancelot wasn't a part of, and Prince Arthur is definitely as good as his reputation. Still, he wasn't quite expecting him to take such an interest and integral part in training. That's normally left to seconds and captains. In Camelot, however, it turns out that since the prince leads his knights into battle, he expects them to be up to his standards and that means overseeing their training with a gimlet eye and giving no quarter. Lance is part of the new intake after the tournament - aside from the main tournament for the knights and nobles, commoners are allowed to compete for one of a few places they make available, sponsored by nobles who have no children to send in to serve. You have to be better than anybody, and possibly even better than most of the nobles to be allowed in. Lancelot trained hard, for long hours, and even then he's struggling a bit.

"Faster. You've just left a bloody great gaping hole that I could get a boar through without any effort, and I don't need to tell you that a boar is far, far nastier than any human you might come up against." He pauses and sighs noisily, crossing his arms. "Merlin, could you at least make *some* effort?"

The knight in training he's looking at stops and drops his sword. Lancelot’s been trying to ignore them, but it's really difficult to ignore someone who's that terrible. It's as though they've not even had lessons, and that this is the first time they've even picked up a sword. Given that everyone else here trained for years and had to fight for a place, even the nobles - what's on this field are the ones who made it through the first tests, he can't understand how they earned their presence here. Everyone's been giving him glances, presumably wondering the same thing. Maybe they're someone whose father is so high up that the king risks a fight on their hands if they don't become a knight, and will be carefully ushered off to one side whenever any actual fighting is due?

He shoves the mail and cloth hoods he's got on back, and a long plait whips out. Lancelot and the other trainees stare, with good reason. It's a ... girl? A tall girl, but admittedly still very obviously a girl now he's looking. Pretty and high cheekboned with pale skin and dark hair.

The girl crosses her arms and glares at the prince. "I still don't see why I've got to do this."

Arthur sighs. "Because, Merlin, my loving father appointed you to this position, and it was decided that the easiest way to accomplish it was for you to have some training since you're supposed to accompany me into actual dangerous situations. This requires that you need to learn how to not be an active danger to all the other knights you'll be accompanying."

She rolls her eyes. "The entire point of my being here is to defend against all the times your swords fail, pratface. So me learning how to use them is a bit pointless when I can do this." With that, she snaps her fingers, and every single person in armour that's not the Prince or her finds themselves two feet off the ground.

Floating. With nothing to support them. At least when you're holding onto a rope you can feel what's holding you up, and the drag of the ground, just urging you to rejoin in. Even swimming you can feel the weight of the water holding you up. But this - there's nothing under them whatsoever. This is probably how hawks feel soaring high above the grounds. Lancelot is not a hawk, thank you, and it's a bit terrifying.

The prince rolls his eyes at the show of power, ignoring the fact that there are a bunch of massed armoured men, many of them battle-tested, desperately trying not to crap themselves floating around him. "Put them down, Merlin. We're quite aware that you can do that. however, it doesn't get you out of learning how to comport yourself as a knight and learn how to use a sword."

Merlin fumes and pouts. "You do remember that I got told I could be excused from any sword training at the age of ten because I was so bad at it?"

"Quite well, thank you. I'm sure you permanently scarred the sword master." The prince says. "However, circumstances dictate that you can't get out of this. I don't expect you to like it, I expect you to learn it. Let them down, Merlin."

"Fine." She huffs and gestures, and everyone lands on the field with a bump. A good half of them fall to their knees, not even trying to stay upright, kissing the ground and sending up prayers of thanks for being on lovely, familiar solid ground again. Lancelot is very, very tempted to join them but just stays upright. Which means he gets to see Merlin grumble and pout some more as the prince pulls her hoods back up and shoves the sword back in her hand.

They get on with their drills in form, Arthur continuing to correct them, and in Merlin's case, frequently having to grab her shoulders and jerk her into the correct position. "It's worse than having to teach book-loving squires on their first day. Shoulders down, Merlin, how many times do I have to tell you? You'll give yourself a crick in the neck if you try to do it like that." As he turns away, Merlin sticks her tongue out at him. "I saw that. You'd think as a lady-in-waiting you'd have more manners."

"Former lady-in-waiting, pratface. I was quite happy being one, too, and I'd quite willing to go back to being one in a flash. it's your fault I'm here."

"I'd be quite willing to not be saddled with you as well and dump you back on my sister. You suit each other perfectly. However, you'll have to take it up with the king." He pauses. "And need I remind you, it's not my fault, it's yours for intervening."

Merlin brightens visibly. "So you'd rather be dead? I can manage that really easily. Just say the word."

"Very funny, Merlin. Put your tongue back in your head and get on with it." He pauses. "Sticking your tongue out whilst fighting is an incredibly bad idea, by the way. If someone bashes you, your jaw tends to clamp up automatically. I've seen men bite clean through their tongues when that happens. Just think, you wouldn't be able to gossip or call me names. What a lovely quiet world that would be."

Merlin snarls at him as he walks away, smirking. Lancelot looks around. The new knights in training are gaping that anyone would talk to the prince like that. Everyone else - the knights in training who've been here for a while, the knights who're helping with training, and the servants and squires - is smirking, aside from Sir Leon, Arthur's second in command, who's just looking long suffering. Lancelot guesses there's a story there.

During the break, Lancelot sits down next to her. "I'm Lancelot. First day, I take it?"

"Merlin. Really, really wishing it was my last day." She says, pulling off her gloves and grumpily plucking at her tabard and mail coat. She looks at him. "You don't look familiar, and you didn't introduce yourself as son of anyone. Let me guess, you're
one of those strange people who actually wanted to be a knight of Camelot so badly that you competed for one of the sponsored places."

Lancelot grins. "Guilty as charged. However, I'm nowhere near as strange as you. How does a girl who's terrible with a sword who quite obviously doesn't want to be here get strong armed into it? I've heard tales of girls who so desperately wanted to be a knight that they cut their hair and bound their breasts, and here you are, calling the prince names - and getting it away with it by some miracle, the rest of us would've been thrown in the stocks for it. You, my lady, are very clearly not one of those."

Merlin sighs. "I was stupid enough to save pratface's hide from a magic attack a few times in full view of the king. So he, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, decided that it'd happened a few times too many for his liking and so Arthur needed a bodyguard." She traces a glowing line in the grass. "And who better than the person who was actually there to save him and thus not bother with the bother of auditioning people for the job? Never mind that I'd got a position already. That I was very happy with and quite good at."

Sir Leon looms over them. He's the prince's second in command of the knights, and is a little nicer than Prince Arthur. A little more encouraging, but just as strict. And bigger. "It's your own fault for showing skill and quickly reacting to the situation in public, Merlin. If you were a soldier, you'd know that’s called volunteering and you only ever do that when there's no other options left." He pauses, looking at Lancelot. "As for the name calling, the reason she gets away with that is that she and Arthur have been insulting each other in public since they were babes. The rest of us have no such protection."

"You'd like to, though." Merlin says, beaming at him. "Do I need to remind you of last month?"

"I have no idea what you mean, Merlin." Sir Leon says, twitching slightly, before going on his way.

"So how long have you been his bodyguard?" Lancelot asks.

"Since a bit before the tournament." Merlin says. "Then Valiant did his thing with the snakes and then suddenly the best way for me to do it is get shoved into a padded coat and a bloody great heavy mail coat. never mind that I actually did it from the stands and that wasn't a pitched battle." She raised her voice on the last bit. "I still maintain that certain blond twerps are just doing this to torment me!"

"I can't imagine why you'd think I'd do this to get back at you for years of you being you, Merlin." The prince says. "Now get up and run around the field, that's enough break. The rest of you, do some stretches."

Merlin's jaw drops. "What?"

"You heard me. Get on with it, you need to build up your fitness and getting used to wearing mail." The Prince says, folding his arms and grinning. "Go on."

"I'm going to kill you in your sleep." Merlin says. "See if I don't." She gets up, slowly, Lancelot giving her a hand. mail really is very heavy if you've never worn it before, and balance can be a bit of an issue when getting from sitting to standing. She starts walking, before breaking into a very slow, careful trot.

"I said running, Merlin! Faster!" The Prince yells, laughing.

Eventually Merlin gets around the field, and nearly collapses, puffing heavily and nearly as red as her tabard in Pendragon red. Lancelot hands her the water, and Sir Leon pats her on the shoulder sympathetically. "It'll get better as you get used to it. I promise."

"I don't believe you." Merlin grumbles between gulping the water down and breathing like a horse after a race.

"Honestly." Sir Leon says. "Normally you get to build up your muscles before you're made to run in mail, but getting thrown in at the deep end does mean you'll get used to it fast. You'll be wearing it most of the time anyway and get used to it that way."

Merlin just groans. Prince Arthur appears, smirking. "So, got enough breath left to call me names, Merlin?" he asks, drawing her name out.

"I will always have enough breath for that, Pratface." Merlin mutters as he walks off, whistling. And then suddenly jumps, spinning round to glare at her.

"Right, break time over, time to get back to work!" He yells. "That includes you, Merlin."

"What did you do?" Lancelot asks quietly as he helps her to her feet. She doesn't look like she's dying quite so much now. lady-in-waiting to running around in mail in the space of a day is probably an incredibly large jump in fitness expectations, he'll admit.

"In another life?" Merlin groans, grabbing her sword as she gets up. "Probably drowned kittens."

"I, er, meant just then." Lancelot clarifies. "When the prince jumped."

"Cat spark on the back of his neck." Merlin grins. "It's a little amplified when you're wearing metal." Lancelot winces in sympathy.

The Prince has called an end to the first day's training when two women appear on the edge of the field. One tall, finely dressed beauty with pale skin and long dark hair that has to be the Princess Morgana, and a shorter, curvier dark skinned girl with her who by her dress appears to be a serving maid. And she's just lovely. They come over to Merlin, fussing over her.

"What did you do, Arthur?" The princess asks, glaring at him as she and the maid attend to her. "She's exhausted. And why on earth have you got her training with the knights?"

Arthur rests his sword on his shoulder. "Father and I agreed that since it was clear that I'd be attacked probably just as much during my duties away from court, Merlin should learn to keep up and defend herself. She'll be trained as a knight. She wasn't quite as awful as I was expecting." He pauses. "No, I tell a lie. Just as bad."

"Merlin?" The princess asks incredulously. "You want to train Merlin as a knight? Did you completely take leave of your senses?"

"She's actually worse than Gareth was when he started." Prince Arthur says.

The princess blinks, and says incredulously "Worse than Gareth? Are you quite sure?" Lancelot assumes Gareth was one of the nobles sons sent to serve in the knights at a young age. He wonders if he can find out just how bad this Gareth was. Maybe he's now one of the best knights. It's unlikely, but it's possible with hard work and dedication.

Arthur nods. "I didn't think it was possible, even considering her record. Merlin at least appeared co-ordinated before we put a weapon in her hand."

"She is normally, she's just got no experience in any sort of fighting." The princess says. "And of course you didn't take any joy in tormenting my poor lady-in-waiting, did you Arthur?"

"I have no idea what you mean, considering you two made it your mission in life to be my tormentors." Arthur says.

"You have far too high an opinion of yourself to imagine that we think that much of you to expend any effort, Arthur." Morgana says. "As it is, we're going to take Merlin to get cleaned up and rest. Try not to die in the meantime as Merlin will be indisposed."

Morgana's maid smiles sheepishly at Lancelot. "We're not like this all the time."

Lance smiles back. he can't help himself. She is really, really lovely. "I imagine not. Hopefully next time they'll be more concerned with training than calling each other names."

The maid wrinkles her nose as she strips Merlin of her mail and tabard. In a very efficient fashion. Perhaps it's a requisite of maids in Camelot? "I think that's wishful thinking. Merlin and Arthur can't open their mouths without arguing." She gets one arm under Merlin's and braces herself as she pulls her to her feet. "Come on, you, up. There's a bath awaiting you." Merlin mumbles something. "And a meal and tea, don't worry." She and Merlin walk off with Morgana following behind. Well. Merlin's more stumbling in her exhaustion.

Prince Arthur folds his arms as they watch them exit, and says wryly. "And just think, I'm going to be saddled with that until my father says so or she gets injured."

Lancelot tries to bite his lip, but it comes out anyway. "You didn't have to be that hard on her."

Arthur barks a laugh. "I'm that hard on every new recruit. Trust me, Merlin was getting no special attention there."

"It seemed a bit vindictive considering she's got no training whatsoever." Lance swallows. "I meant no disrespect, sire."

"Merlin's going to be an asset to Camelot's knights if it kills me." Arthur says. "And if her ego takes a battering along the way, so much the better." He grins, slapping Lance on the shoulder. "I like you, Lancelot. Be careful your forgiving nature doesn't get you killed."

----

Merlin comes in with a large pot of hot water, the pot floating in front of her as she closes the door behind her. "Got the hot water and the fresh towels. Where did you want them?"

"Over there, thank you, Merlin." Gwen says as she lays out Morgana's dress for tonight. "Did you have any trouble with it?"

"No, aside from one of the footmen asking if he could send you a flower." Merlin says. "I said he could deliver it himself if he was that keen. At which point he blanched and mumbled something about not wanting to disturb you in your duties."

"Quite right." Morgana says, emerging from behind the screen in her shift. "If they haven't got the guts to approach you themselves, they're certainly not worthy of you."

"I suspect they're probably more afraid of you." Merlin says.

Morgana grins, twisting her hair back out of the way. "I can't imagine why. I'm very approachable and not at all scary." Gwen snorts. "Unless you're my brother."

"In which case we loyally support all attempts to terrorise the pillock." Merlin says, going over to the wardrobe. "So what dress did we have in mind for the concert tonight?"

"Well, Lady Helen is said to be quite enamoured of saffron and gold." Gwen says. "So no clashing or merging. That means no purple - what about red?" Morgana looks thoughtful, and grins quite wickedly.

"You're not seriously considering the shoulderless one, are you?" Merlin asks.

"You know, I think I just might. It is a rather impressive occasion." Morgana says.

"And a perfect time to scandalise pratface." Merlin grins. "Right, let's get you ready."

The evening starts off pretty well, with some lovely singing from lady Helen. Then it goes a bit fuzzy. Next thing Merlin knows, the dragon's making a pointed coughing noise in her head.

"I suggest you wake up, young witch."

"Piss off, sleeping." Merlin grumbles. And then blinks. Because last she remembers, she was listening to a performance by the most in demand singer in all of Camelot, and she doesn't want to be missing that. She can't have nodded off, surely. She opens her eyes, cautiously, to a near-silent hall. Everyone's asleep. And... covered in cobwebs? It looks like those legends where everyone fell asleep for a hundred years when a fairy cast a spell on a castle. Everyone except Lady Helen. Who's chanting and spinning around in a somewhat demented fashion.

Everyone else starts waking up, but they're still fairly frozen. Merlin finds that she can move a bit. and that's when the knife appears. It spins, Helen screams something about Uther losing a son as she did, and ... oh bugger, it's heading for Arthur. Merlin pulls against the spell webs, rising to her feet, wrenching against the webs that are still trying to fug up her head, wrenches hard, and lets out a big pulse of magic that deflects the knife, but it somehow explodes everywhere, the webs are affecting her control. A great shudder goes through the hall, and the chandelier creaks in a way that just sounds wrong, the ropes shouldn't sound like that, they sound like something's warped and is tearing as they creak. And that's when the ropes very definitely snap and the chandelier falls. Right onto Lady Helen.

Merlin scrambles off her chair whilst everyone else is trying to move properly, to go and see if she needs more spells to keep Lady Helen immobile.

The body under the chandelier is... very definitely dead. And no longer has black hair and the features of a beauty, but grey hair and the face of a woman in her late forties, at the very least. Merlin frowns. Who on earth -?

Arthur's at her side soon enough. "Do we know who she is?"

"No idea. It's not Lady Helen. Must've impersonated her with magic." Merlin says. "You're lucky the dragon woke me up."

"Yes. Well. I suppose." Arthur says.

"One day you're going to get the hang of this phrase called 'thank you', pratface." Merlin says.

Over in her chair, Morgana's making a disgusted face. She's not the only one. "This is horrible. What kind of spell does this?"

"Maybe it's the one that all those legends of castles going to sleep come from." Gwen says.

"It's still disgusting." Morgana says, murmuring something that sounds very like the spell you use for spindles. The cobwebs attach themselves to nearby poles, and the poles start spinning gradually, reeling it all in, strand by strand. After a few minutes it starts to look a bit clearer and everyone a bit less dusty. "It'll all be gone soon enough, my lords. Apologies for the disturbance." She declares.

Arthur marshals his knights to get rid of the dead body once Merlin's lifted the chandelier, floating it up and repairing the ropes and chain links.

Uther makes some sort of declaration declaring the threat over, which you'd think was fairly obvious given the fact that there's a dead sorceress getting carried out of the hall, but no, official reassurances from the king apparently help calm the court lords and ladies. She's never understood that. Once the cobwebs are gone, it turns out that the food's all right underneath. Most of the nobles have stayed, if only to gossip about the horror of something like that happening in the middle of court, and poor Lady Helen, and who could be targeting the prince.

During the feast, Uther beckons her father over for a word, and they have what looks like a rather intense discussion, complete with pointed looks at her and pratface.

"What do you suppose they're talking about?" Merlin asks Morgana. "It's not like this is the first time I've saved pratface's life." Then a horrible thought occurs to her. "Oh no, the gossip's not started up again, has it? Just because you save someone's life doesn't mean you actually like them."

"According to ballads it does." Gwen says, topping up the wine and taking some quail that Merlin passes her.

"Ballads know nothing." Morgana says. "On the other hand, prolonged squabbling does tend to mean something."

"Yes, it's called we've disliked each other since childhood because your brother is an unreconstructed prat. Who thinks having shiny hair and regular features mean that he should be able to charm his way past anything." Merlin says.

"He needs to learn to act like a pleasant human being first." Morgana says. "But no, I've not heard anything about you two being madly in love recently."

"Good." Merlin eyes her father, who's now back at her mother's side, talking quietly. "Maybe it was asking Kilgarrah to behave himself. he's been having too much fun dive bombing herds recently. You can actually hear him going 'wheeeee' if it's close enough."

"Dragons make sounds like a child on a sled?" Gwen asks.

"Sadly, yes." Merlin says. "I just wish they'd be quieter about it." She sips some of the wine. "Maybe that's what Uther's talking to my father about. Kilgarrah's got into the catnip, been acting up and he's telling him
to sort him out."

"Would he listen?" Gwen asks.

"Well, he's got to." Merlin says. "Pay attention, that is. That's what makes people dragonlords. You can hear them, speak the language, and make them listen. They don't have to do what you say, but they get a pretty strong compulsion."

"A bit like Morgana, then." Gwen says.

"I'm not sure if I should be offended or not." Morgana says cheerfully. "Am I the dragon or the dragonlord in this situation?"

"That's for us to know and you to find out." Gwen says, nibbling on the quail.

A day later, Uther calls an audience as he says he's got an announcement to make.

"Any ideas?" Merlin asks as she and Gwen get Morgana ready.

"No idea whatsoever." Morgana says, then grins. "Maybe it's an announcement that Arthur has to marry that ugly niece of Bayard's to seal the peace treaty when that's signed."

"The one with the squint?" Gwen asks as she tucks the last strands of Morgana's hair into place. "She's supposed to be quite nice."

"Yes, but Arthur's vain enough to be completely offended at having to marry her." Morgana says. "I'd have to talk to her in person to find out if she's actually nice or just a pushover."

"Not everyone who's described as nice is a pushover, Morgana." Gwen says reprovingly.

"Nobles' daughters don't tend to be nice if they have any sort of backbone." Morgana declares.

In the hall, everyone's standing around, and Uther has that look on his fact that indicates that he's pleased with himself as he's had a marvellous idea and the court's going to have to deal with it.

"Pratface is twitching already." Merlin murmurs.

"Shush, I don't want to start giggling in court." Morgana murmurs back, trying not to crack a smile. Gwen, of course, is managing to keep a perfectly solemn face. It's a pity they've never really had the patience to learn mind speech properly, but then they'd probably still have a problem keeping their faces straight. Oh, and Gwen couldn't take part.

"In light of the very nearly tragic events recently, I wish to recognise and give thanks to the woman without whom my son would not be alive today." Uther says. "Step forward, Merlin, daughter of Balinor Dragonlord."

Merlin blinks, frozen. Gwen and Morgana discreetly shove her forward, so she has to step forward to avoid tripping and flailing. She steps forward in front of Uther, turning to face him, uncomfortably aware of the entire court staring. and not in the way when she's managed to make a scene with her magic, or her and Arthur have had yet another yelling match, or the gossip has managed to reach that level again. You'd think they'd be sick of it now, but it's been popping up on a regular basis for the past few years. And curtseys. "Thank you, sire." She says, just loud enough to sound appreciative of the honour of being recognised. Assenting noises are normally the only responses permitted and considered advisable. Here's hoping this is all it is.

"Your service is greatly appreciated and your modesty commends you. In fact, you've saved his life from magical attacks several times recently. Attacks on his life have been increasing as he comes of age, as enemies of Camelot wish to destabilise its position. Unfortunately, Arthur's worth as a warrior is not enough to combat all of them, and thus he requires a bodyguard to combat such magical attacks."

Arthur blurts out "A bodyguard? Father!" Merlin very firmly does not smirk. His face is the picture of wounded manhood, and should be used to illustrate it in books.

Uther ignores Arthur's offended tone, and adds "Indeed. Steel cannot repel them all. Normally we would have to hold trials, but as a candidate has already proven themselves as highly competent in dealing with such situations, I am pleased to announce that Merlin will be rewarded with position of bodyguard to Prince Arthur." He smiles, as Merlin feels her heart sink to her feet. Morgana's face has frozen. So has Gwen's. She suspects her face looks much the same. Half the court is now whispering furiously.

"I - your highness, this is too much." Merlin stammers, gulping. She doesn't dare look at Arthur right now. She pauses. No, she really should look, because he's the only other person saddled with this situation. And there it is, half furious, half stunned haddock.

"You have proven yourself a great asset to Camelot, Merlin, and I felt that you should be rewarded suitably." Uther smiles. he looks so pleased with himself.

Arthur grits his teeth. "I wouldn't want to deprive Morgana of such a loyal servant. And potential bodyguard."

"Your sister is quite capable of defending herself against magical attack and quite cognisant of the need for vigilance." Uther pauses. "And of the honour of this position for her lady-in-waiting."

"...There are other sorcerers." Arthur tries as his last public attempt.

"But none so firmly tested as effective and used to coping with your ... idiosyncrasies." Uther replies. Merlin doesn't manage to restrain her smirk at that one. Nor does Morgana. They weren't aware Uther ever used polite language for Arthur's tendency to be a tosser and lack of patience with, oh, almost everything. It may be an awful situation and now she's half wishing she'd let Arthur die the last time, but oh, that's a good line. They're definitely using it on him to see what happens.

----

Once they've exited the hall, Morgana and Gwen steer Merlin into an alcove. "I don't need a moment to get my breath." She complains.

"Oh, we're not doing this for you." Morgana says, craning her head to see over he people coming out. "We're waiting to catch your father to see what he was thinking."

"What?" Merlin asks.

"You never know, he might have been brow beaten." Gwen says.

"The only person Balinor has ever been brow beaten by is Hunith." Morgana says. "When you're used to facing down dragons kings pale into comparison. Have you ever seen Merlin here act remotely sanely in the face of royalty? She's got no concept of danger."

Merlin eyes Morgana. "You sound as though you fancy the position yourself."

"It always looked more interesting than princess." Morgana says. "Also, you've ridden dragons. It involves flying, Merlin."

"It also involves very annoying overgrown lizards singing out of tune in your head when they pass an inn where a bard was murdering a perfectly reasonable ballad." Merlin says. "In the middle of the night. For a week."

"Oh, look, there's your father." Gwen says, getting on her tiptoes.

"Balinor!" Morgana says, expertly hooking her arm around his, all smiles. "How are you?"

Balinor smiles. "Not so bad."

"Your daughter wished to talk to you." Morgana says. "Considering you seemed so concerned about her standing at court all of a sudden. It's quite fascinating, really."

Balinor looks at Merlin. "You look just like your mother right now. Precisely how pissed off with me are you right now?"

Merlin smiles. Sweetly. "Did you discuss this with mum?"

"A little." Balinor says.

"And she was all right with you shackling me to Arthur, was she?" Merlin asks.

"Well, she thought that if someone was going to get lumbered with the job it might as well be you." Balinor says. "Given that you've got experience at it."

Merlin folds her arms. "You didn't talk to her at all, did you?"

Balinor looks a bit sheepish. "No, love, I didn't."

Merlin rolls her eyes and hooks her arm in Gwen's. "In that case, you can break it to her that you had a hand in the royal decree that forced me to leave a very good position. I'd love to hear her reaction to Uther's reasoning."

Gwen looks concerned. "Your mum doesn't throw pots, does she?"

"Gwen, mum's a healer. She's not going to stoop to pots." Merlin says scornfully as they walk off, leaving a somewhat worried now looking dragonlord in their wake.

Morgana smiles sweetly. "Do give my regards to Hunith, my lord." She inclines her head in farewell and sweeps off after her maid and soon to be ex lady-in-waiting.

---

Once they're in Morgana's rooms, Merlin collapses in a chair, covering her face with her hands.

"I'm going to die." Merlin groans. "Actually, no, I'll kill him first, and then my head'll be on the chopping block for killing the prince of Camelot."

"The miracle would be that you lasted so long without killing him." Morgana says soothingly, rearranging her skirts. "Remember, accidents happen and you can't possibly be expected to be there all the time. He might be smothered in his sleep."

"You really can be smothered by your own bedsheets. Some really nasty accidents have been known to happen to people just trying to get out of bed, according to the older servants." Gwen provides, then adds hastily. "Not that I'd condone it, of course."

"Gwen, you're a true and lovely friend." Morgana says. Then frowns. "Merlin, why are you wincing?"

"Certain great scaly overgrown lizards are calling." Merlin says, rubbing her temples. "He's being particularly loud."

Gwen goes over to the window and leans out of it. In the distance she can see a shape that looks like a large bird, coming closer. She turns "I think you've got a visitor...?"

"Tell him to bugger off." Merlin says.

The light that was coming through the windows gets blocked out by the shape of the large dragon currently Perching on top of one of the roofs above the courtyard. "I will not 'bugger off' as you so delicately put it, young witch." Kilgarrah booms.

"I said bugger off and I meant it." Merlin says, raising her voice. "Go and harass my father."

The dragon chuckles. Which reverberates a bit around the courtyard of Camelot, causing the animals and those of a nervous disposition who haven't already to scatter. Just because dragons are regular visitors to Camelot doesn't make them any less scary. It's the teeth and claws and propensity to breathe fire that does it, apparently. "Oh no, young witch, it's you that I wish to speak to. I hear you and young Pendragon are making steps closer towards your destiny." he pauses. "Although when I was younger, young witches did not swear nearly as much. They were far more gracious."

Merlin gives Gwen a look "And you didn't believe me about dragons being the worst gossips in the entire kingdom."

Gwen looks at her and then at the sight of Kilgarrah through the window. "To be fair, you don't really think of them doing human things."

There's a clatter from down below, and a yell. "Merlin, are you around here somewhere?"

Morgana leans out of the window. "She's up here, Arthur."

"Young Pendragon!" The dragon booms. "Did I not say that you would become two sides of the same coin?"

Arthur groans. "Oh no."

Morgana looks down at her brother, up at the dragon, then back into her room where Merlin's sitting on a chair and pouting. Finally she looks at Gwen. Gwen shrugs. "At least it's not dull, my lady."

----

The next morning, Morgana's reading at the window while Gwen and Merlin tidy up and organise a few things. "So how do you think this is going to go?" Gwen asks.

"Keep an eye out for people who look a bit demented at state occasions?" Merlin shrugs. "I have no idea. I'll probably get through an awful lot of embroidery while he attempts to look good in front of those cloth-eared toadies who hang around him and think hitting things is the most fun you can have with or without your clothes on."

"Don't worry too much about trying to keep him alive." Morgana says. "Maybe just a little maimed."

"Don't the Irish have that rule about kings having to be physically perfect?" Gwen asks as she smooths out the sheets. "I heard that one of them lost an eye being very heroic whilst saving the kingdom and still had to give up the throne."

"Do go on, Gwen, this is a very fascinating subject." Morgana says. "Speaking as the next in line to Camelot's throne."

There's a knock at the door. Merlin opens it. "Hello?"

It's the steward, who raises an eyebrow. "You haven't heard?"

"Heard what?" Merlin asks as he brushes past.

He stops in front of Morgana. "Your highness." He says, bowing. "I apologise for intruding, but Merlin is needed elsewhere." He turns back. "Might I ask if you have anything in here?"

Merlin looks at him. "Anything what?"

"Possessions and the like. You're being moved to your new quarters."

"I have new quarters?" Merlin asks, perplexed. "What's wrong with my room at my parents' house?"

"You need new quarters as befits your new station and position." The steward says. "The position of bodyguard involves being close to the prince at all times, and not just there early as a servant should be. You need to be considerably closer than a house in the town."

Merlin folds her arms and raises an eyebrow in disbelief. "You're not serious."

"I am entirely serious, Merlin." The steward says. Sadly he's well known to be a man with so little sense of humour that he could be compared to a rock, except rocks may have found at least two jokes funny in their lives. "Please follow me."

"Um, there's a small chest and I think a few books." Gwen says, pointing at one of the lower shelves in the corner.

Merlin picks them up and frowns. "I'm still protesting this change of position."

"For now your king has decreed it, Merlin." The steward says. "Please follow me."

Merlin follows him with her chest and books through the corridors, the items bobbing along with her. When they arrive at Arthur's quarters, Merlin blinks. There are servants going in and out of the room next to his, carrying her things. Books and spell bits and clothing. "...This one? when you said close, I didn't think -"

The steward ushers her in past the servants. "I assume you'd like some say in how your room is arranged."

Merlin looks around. It's being dusted and aired. She sighs. "Randulf, you can put that down." She says to the big bearded servant currently sweeping the room out. "This is ridiculous."

Gytha, who's in the middle of making the bed, looks round. "Oh, hello, Merlin. It's a bit of a step up, isn't it?"

Merlin frowns. "I've got to spend time with the prat, I don't count that as a step up, even if this is a very nice room." Randulf's still sweeping. "Randulf, I did say stop. Sit down, I can do this myself." she says, snatching the broom from his hands and setting that and the cleaning cloths to clean on their own.

Randulf shrugs. "used to it."

Merlin sighs. "Honestly, this is all utterly ridiculous as it is." There's a noise from next door that sounds distinctly like a blond prince. "Hold on, I need to go and yell at someone."

Gytha waves cheerily. "Have fun."

Merlin bangs the door open to Arthur's room, where he's reading some documents. "Why are the servants moving all my things to the room next to yours?"

Arthur looks up and sighs. "Because you're my bodyguard. That means you're supposed to be near to protect me from attacks day and night, not just in public."

"I have absolutely no wish to know how much you snore. What's wrong with one a few along the corridor?" Merlin asks.

"It's a bit difficult for you react to yelling for help from several rooms away." Arthur says, putting the papers down. "Given that normally the guards are further down the corridor, I think it would be sensible for the person who's supposed to be guarding me from magical attacks to not have to sleep in the corridor. Hence the room next door."

"There's also a door just here for access between the two rooms just in case." George, Arthur's scarily helpful manservant says, drawing aside a tapestry. He's been hovering in the corner. Just being alert in case Arthur needs him to run an errand.

"Um, thank you, George." Merlin says. The tapestry is on a rail and looks as though it functions like a heavy curtain door. it'll keep a bit of sound out, but if Arthur snores, she's going to find that silencing spell Alice has occasionally threatened her and Morgana with and use it on him. Night-time assassins be damned.

"I live to serve." he says glassily. Merlin and Arthur exchange glances. George is so devoted to his job that it can be a bit creepy. All the servants, no matter how high or low their status, agree on this. Uther has rejected 'being overly devoted to his role' as a reason for Arthur to get a new manservant. "Now, will you be wanting to breakfast with his highness each morning, my lady?"

"Depends. How good is the breakfast?" Merlin asks.

"The very best the kitchens can provide, my lady." George says, radiating helpfulness and pride in his job.

"We'll discuss it later, George." Arthur says. "Though I'm not sure Merlin counts as a lady."

"Good point. My father's not dead, so I'm not a dragonlord yet." Merlin says. "lady-in-waiting doesn't actually mean noble, George, you know this."

"Very well." George says. "Did you want me to bring your clothes in while you breakfast in the morning?"

Merlin sniffs. "I can dress myself, unlike some people." She says, not looking in Arthur's direction. Morgana's dresses tend to do up at the back, and she has her hair to do, so of course she needs help. Arthur, on the other hand - it's not as though a shirt and breeches require an extra pair of hands to get on.

George sniffs. "As you wish."

"George, could you fetch some drinks and a light snack? I need to talk to Merlin." Arthur says.

Merlin glances over her shoulder at the door once George has left. "His not blinking an eye worries me."

"He never blinks." Arthur says, picking up the documents again.

"What, never?" Merlin asks. "I thought it was just him in company."

"Occasionally my eyes start burning in sympathy if I think about it too much." Arthur grimaces.

"He does know that the hidden door is for the mistress to come and go discreetly, doesn't he?" Merlin asks, sitting in a spare chair by the table and looking around.

"I try not to think that he knows anything about that kind of thing." Arthur shudders. "Even though it's not like he hasn't caught me in bed with a woman before."

"Really? Thought you had one of the worst track records possible at court." Merlin smirks.

"That would have nothing to do with the influence of you or Morgana, of course." Arthur mutters.

Merlin does her best innocent look. Spreading discreet rumours about Arthur or dropping hints is one of Merlin and Morgana's more amusing past times. "Are you saying that they don't swoon at your feet by the sheer force of your charming personality?"

"Funny, Merlin." Arthur says.

"Seriously, what am I supposed to do, trail around after you?" Merlin asks, arranging her skirts. "A bodyguard's not a lady-in-waiting, so I'm not your servant." She pauses. "Besides, you've only been attacked in really public places during events."

"Given that George only attends to me in my chambers and at feasts, I have even less idea." Arthur says, picking up his quill and making a couple of notes. "I've always assumed Morgana only requires you at all times so she has someone to gossip
with."

"Remember how I like your sister but I don't like you?" Merlin says, smiling sweetly.

"I'll ask my father exactly when he requires you to be on duty." Arthur sighs. "I'm quite sure you being by my side at all times is overdoing it."

Arthur wakes up to voices. Specifically, his servant and Merlin, his newly appointed bodyguard cum eternal thorn in his side. And they're not in Merlin's room or the corridor. "What are you talking about at this hour?" Arthur asks, sitting up.

"Routine for the mornings." Merlin says, then turns back to George. "I can't believe he sleeps this late."

"It gives me more time to prepare his clothing and the room." George says. "So, my lady, if you do -"

"That'd be great." Merlin nods. "I'll handle the -"

"That would be a great help, it's quite difficult to get hot water up the stairs and still have it be hot." George says. "It'll give me more time for -"

"That reminds me, if there is anything with blood stains -" Merlin says.

"I defer to your superior experience." George replies.

Arthur stares at them. It's a bit unnerving to be almost entirely ignored by servants who aren't cleaning and actually discussing him. "No, really, what are you two talking about?"

"Servant stuff." Merlin says. "You know, all the things that make your life easier that you think happens by magic."

"Wonderful." Arthur rubs his hand across his eyes. He doesn't really care, it's just annoying being woken up by it. "Breakfast?"

Merlin walks over to the table and gestures, a tiny flash of light flaring from her eyes. "We've got it here. Surprised the smell didn't wake you."

"But how do you even know what he's talking about?" Arthur demands after George interrupted with a murmured half finished question and Merlin nodded and agreed.

"You probably do it with Leon discussing troop placement." Merlin says.

"We normally include the name of the thing we're discussing." Arthur points out, using the last of his bread to wipe up the last of the grease. "However, out of curiosity."

"You? Wanting to actually learn something that doesn't involve weapons?" Merlin asks. "Pigs are about to fly without the help of magic."

"Very funny, Merlin. I heard one thing. Why would George defer to you on the subject of blood stains?" Arthur asks, working through his reasoning. "Morgana may be fond of sword practice, but she's never fought for real where her opponent was trying to properly injure her. You're a lady-in-waiting, you wouldn't have done her laundry anyway. George is so picky that he gets sniffy about the mere suggestion that someone would clean something by magic, so why would he defer to you on that?"

Merlin sighs. It's one to rival Morgana's most put upon sigh. It might even rival Gaius's when a knight's done something terminally stupid to land himself in the healers' rooms. "Pratface, I'm a girl."

"Do girls get injured more often as children?" Arthur asks, perplexed. He doesn't remember that happening to Morgana or Merlin as they grew up.

Merlin actually groans. "I can't believe I'm having to talk to you about this. I'm a girl. That means I'll see and deal with more blood than you ever will." Arthur raises an eyebrow in disbelief. "I bleed? Every month?"

Arthur flushes. "Oh. Sorry. I'll never speak of it again."

Merlin puts the lid on the porridge bowl and looks sympathetic. Ish. Poor men and their inability to even cope with the concept of periods whilst yelling about the glory of battle. "Trust me, you'll probably hear about it if I continue to be your bodyguard."

Gwen stops by the training grounds while Merlin's idly flicking through a magic book. On the field, Arthur's practising. "Catching up on the learning you keep avoiding?"

Merlin rests her elbows on her knees and puts her chin on her fists, blowing a bit of hair off her forehead. "Gwen, I'm so bored."

"Really?" Gwen asks. "It's something new, Arthur's the prince so you get to see a load of things that you don't get to with Morgana. I'd have thought that would at least be interesting." Merlin shakes her head. "Really? Not at all? What about arguing? I've heard about at least one squabble in the corridors in the last few days."

"Gwen, I have nothing to do. Nothing. My life now consists of trailing after Arthur or sitting or standing around while he hits things with lumps of metal. I can't even tidy or clean anything like I used to help you with because George is so picky and so efficient that the rooms are always sparkling and everything gets picked up the second it's moved out of place." Merlin sighs. "The most I get to do is heat the water."

Gwen bites her lip. "Morgana's been doing that herself for the last few days. She asked why the water wasn't as hot as usual and I had to tell her."

Merlin puts her hand on her chest in disbelief. "Gwen, I am shocked, shocked that you'd even admit that you couldn't fix everything."

Gwen wrinkles her nose. "Very funny, Merlin. So what caused the squabble?"

"Oh, he and his idiot friends decided that they'd kick a servant around - Davey, he mostly works around the armour area so I don't know if you know him - and then get him to hold the target while they flung knives at it." Merlin says, rolling her eyes.

Gwen has her hands to her mouth. "You're kidding. That's just bullying. He could've been hurt. He wasn't, was he?"

"Well, the toadies were egging him on, so there was no help there. And Arthur sneered when I told him to stop." Merlin says.

Gwen winces. "Oh dear, I can see where this is going."

"The target may have fought back a bit." Merlin says, grinning. "And then there was yelling." She pauses. "Only a bit."

"Just enough for everyone around you to stop what they were doing because there's free entertainment and something might get broken." Gwen says. "but really, that's been it?"

"One argument and forcing pratface to treat servants a bit better in my presence has been the entirety of my new life." Merlin raises the book. "Anyway, hence me shocking Gaius and Alice by asking to borrow a book and read up on my spell lore." She frowns. "I always forget how much you have to repeat things just to get any effect."

Gwen grins. "This is what most people with magic who aren't you and Morgana have to do, so I've heard. Just think, you're having to work at it."

"It's weird and just wrong." Merlin grins, sitting up. "All right, tell me if there's been anything interesting that's gone on with you. I tried to get your brother to talk but apparently you don't discuss anything of interest when you go home."

"Well..." Gwen's about to launch into the latest gossip when a certain blond twerp looms over them.

"Gossiping, Merlin? Aren't you supposed to be looking out for the latest threats to my person?" Arthur asks.

"If there were any threats I cared to take notice of, I'm sure you'd know about them." Merlin says. "And your ego doesn't need massaging."

The morning of the tournament dawns. Merlin watches as Arthur's strapped into his armour for the final bout. "I'd wish you good luck but..."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "Yes, I'm quite aware that you're cheering for whoever I'm fighting against. Go and sit with Morgana and keep an eye out for anything from there."

"It is a better vantage point to spot things from." Merlin agrees. "Have fun getting your head bashed in." She says cheerily as she exits.

The fight seems relatively evenly matched until Valiant knocks Arthur down, and Valiant presses close with his shield instead of his sword. Merlin frowns. From all of the bouts she's watched over her life, from training to tournaments, that's something you don't do. They're close enough for her to see Valiant definitely say something that's not normal speech, and the snakes painted on his shield look like they’re moving.

Merlin lashes out a hand before she even knows she's done it, spell on her lips to freeze things issuing forth, honed by days of boredom and seeing if she could freeze flies that insisted on landing on her book.

Everyone that can see Valiant's shield gasps as he gets up a bit, unaware of what they can see. The snakes on his shield that form his emblem are caught in the act of writhing out of the shield, mouths caught mid-bite, fangs raised. "I suppose he was prepared to win by any means." Morgana murmurs.

"But poisoning your opponent mid-fight?" Gwen asks. "The entire point of the tournament is a test of weapons skill, not magic."

On the ground, Arthur's got to his feet again, using his sword to cut the head off the snake frozen in the act of reaching out to bite him. Valiant gapes and struggles, speaking something else, agitated.

Merlin narrows her eyes, casting a spell to deflect his. It's like swatting a fly. Uther gets to his feet, having now seen the shield as Valiant struggled with it. "Guards! Arrest him!"

The guards tramp onto the field, from the sides where they were mostly acting as decoration with their pikes, and surround Valiant. he goes without much fight, shield clattering to the ground.

Arthur dusts himself off and walks over to the stands, pulling his helmet off. "I see you proved yourself useful, Merlin."

Merlin folds her arms. "I can't take the credit, I'm afraid. I'm a terrible bodyguard, I'll have to go back to working for Morgana."

Arthur wipes some sweat off his forehead. "Sadly for you, I saw you gesture and your eyes flash out of the corner of my eye, and far too many people were facing in your direction. Sad to say you were seen once again saving my life, Merlin. it's getting to be a habit."

"Definitely by accident and it's a compulsion I'm trying to break myself of." Merlin replies.

Morgana leans back in her seat. "You two are aware it looks as though you're asking for her favour." Both Merlin and Arthur look disgusted. Morgana snorts in an incredibly indelicate way, and Gwen covers her mouth and giggles.

"I think it more likely I'd be coming over to accuse her of being responsible for the snakes." Arthur says.

Merlin looks at him, looking rather offended. "You really think I'd stoop to poison."

"True, it's a little subtle for you." Arthur agrees. "You'd prefer me to meet my doom in a far more embarrassing way."

"Precisely." Merlin says, now mollified.

Morgana waves her hand dismissively. "And poison is sometimes entirely too messy."

The next morning, Merlin and George are setting out breakfast, Merlin yawning a bit due to the feast the night before. "Really, my lady?" George says with a faint hint of disapproval.

Merlin rubs her nose to get rid of an itch. "I was on duty. You know, the big events that Pratface has a habit of getting attacked at? had to keep an eye out the whole time for magic users who decided that bumping off the prince was a good idea."

"It's your job, you should be able to pace yourself." George sniffs.

"You try pacing yourself when it's a job that's mostly me trailing behind pratface bored out of my skull." Merlin retorts. "I definitely prefer attending to Morgana at feasts. And then the king insisted on everyone toasting my efforts at one point, and I didn't even get to drink for it. maybe if I keep doing it he'll stop drawing attention to it."

"Not if it's done so publicly." Arthur says, awake unexpectedly.

George actually straightens. Arthur didn't think it was possible. Apparently there really are times when George slouches slightly, no matter what Merlin says. "Your highness, is there anything I can get you?"

"Just breakfast and my clothes for training." Arthur says, pushing the bedclothes back and swinging his legs out of bed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and padding over to the table as Merlin waves her hand over the food to heat it up, George pulling out the chair for Arthur while Merlin sits down on the other side of the table as George gets his clothes.

"So, what's happening this morning?" Merlin says cheerfully, stealing a piece of bacon. "Torturing the new recruits?"

"They think they're good, but they have no idea what training is." Arthur shrugs. "It's my job to get them into shape."

Merlin picks up a slice of fried bread and breaks it in half. "While I learn the intricacies of some of the more tongue twisty spells." She sighs. "If I fall asleep, it's not my fault. Magic tomes are incredibly dry."

Arthur glares at the bit of bread in her hand. "Merlin, is George not feeding you?"

"Hmm?" Merlin asks whilst popping a bit of the bread in her mouth.

"Sire, Merlin is being provided with a very good breakfast as befits her new position." George says, sounding a little put out that Arthur's disparaging his efforts to be the most efficient and attentive servant in Albion.

"But she's still stealing bits of my breakfast." Arthur points out. "It's been a slice of bacon and one piece of fried bread so far. If it goes like the last few days, I’m going to lose a slice of black pudding or one sausage too." He cranes his head to assess her. "Where are you putting it? Did you do this to my sister's breakfast too?"

Merlin looks a bit guilty. "Morgana tends to graze her breakfast, so Gwen would bring up a big plate and we'd all take bits throughout and warm it up when it got cold again. It's habit."

"Is there any way for you to unlearn the habit?" Arthur demands. "Preferably quickly, for the sake of my stomach. Unlike my sister, I need this to fight on."

George coughs discreetly. It's never not going to make him sound like a sheep. "Ah, sire, I'd noticed that she was doing it and brought just enough extra to compensate for it. you are in fact eating the same size breakfast you normally do."

Merlin grins, and picks out a piece of black pudding. "See? George is a very efficient servant and very good at his job."

Arthur glares at her as she munches on the rest of the fried slice, black pudding in her other hand. "It's still a terrible habit that you should stop." Merlin raises an eyebrow and makes a stabby gesture with one hand, indicating quite clearly that if he was serious about it, she'd have been stabbed in the hand by now. "Merlin, I'm not about to do that at breakfast."

"What you’re saying is that you're still half asleep, so your vaunted reflexes are crap and you're afraid you'd miss and stab the table." Merlin says, pausing after swallowing her mouthful.

"Some of us are civilised." Arthur says, aiming a kick at her ankles.

"Tell that to someone who's not had bruised shins for years from you, pratface." Merlin says. "And you missed. You telegraphed it. You're going to have to get better at it if you're sharing a table with me for the foreseeable future."

"Kicking someone under the table is not a skill I can see that would be useful in honing." Arthur says.

"You says that now." Merlin says, moving her feet fully out of the way and getting up, stealing another bit of bacon for good measure.

"That reminds me, while I finish this, you'll need to change into hose and a tunic or shirt. And sturdy boots." Arthur says.

Merlin stops in the middle of raising the stolen bacon to her mouth. "Whatever for? Are we going rock climbing straight after?"

"Just put something resembling breeches on, Merlin." Arthur says.

"Worried that your new recruits might judge you for having a girl for a bodyguard?" Merlin sneers. "Hate to say this, Arthur, but I'm still really quite obviously a girl even in breeches."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "Just go change, Merlin." Merlin stomps off to her room, grumbling all the way.

Merlin follows Arthur down to the armoury. "Seriously, what do I need to be in these for? I'm perfectly capable of scrambling around in my skirts."

"You'll find out." Arthur says. When they get there, Leon and Elyan are waiting in amongst the racks of swords and pikes and armour. "Did you get what I asked for?"

Leon nods. "At least she's tall."

"At least I'm tall what?" Merlin asks suspiciously.

"Sorry about this, Merlin." Leon says as Elyan comes forward with a padded jerkin. Specifically, one of the ones that go under the mail coats the knights wear. Both of them shove her into it.

"What is this about?" Merlin asks as she pulls her plait out so it won't get trapped. And then Elyan produces the mail coat. "You're kidding. Whose idiot idea was this? Why on earth are you putting me in armour?"

"Group decision, I heard." Elyan says as he settles the distribution of the mail on her shoulders. "Pass the belt, Leon." He takes it from Leon and puts it round her waist, buckling it. "This'll take a fair bit of the weight off your shoulders."

"I still don't understand why you're putting me into armour." Merlin says. "is this revenge for me making you stop using Davey for target practice the other day? Because I'm not about to stop humiliating you for being an arsehole."

"Trust me, not even Uther thought you were about to stop yelling at Arthur when he made you his bodyguard." Leon says, picking up a coif and getting that over her head, again being careful of her plait. "You'll tuck that up inside the hood when you put this up or you've got a helmet, it'll add a bit of padding."

"Is that what all the hair's for?" Elyan asks, eyeing Leon's mane.

Leon tucks a bit behind his ear. "Not all of us can carry off the close cropped look."

"I still don't understand what this is for." Merlin says. "Am I being used for target practice and showing the new lot how to defend against magic?"

Arthur folds his arms, leaning against the wall, edge of his mouth turning up slightly. "Congratulations, Merlin, you've made the cut to join this training class for the knights of Camelot."

Merlin gapes. "You. Are. Kidding. Whose idiot idea was this? Did you take one too many hits to the head yesterday? Did the snake actually drip some poison into a wound and it got into your brain?"

"The King thought given the events of yesterday, it was clear that I should expect to be attacked by magic users during battle, not just at formal occasions." Arthur says. "And as you'd be accompanying me, you might as well have some training in how to defend yourself and not be a danger to others. Hence the mail shirt."

"I can't just wear a leather jerkin?" Merlin asks. "I'm barely going to be able to move in this."

"No, you're going to be trained as a knight." Arthur says, casting an eye over Leon and Elyan's work. "Look at it this way, Merlin, you'll stop endlessly whining about being bored."

"I hate you all." Merlin says.

Chapter Text

"Someone's distracted." Elyan says as he gets a hit in on Lancelot during sparring practice. He turns his head to check the direction of Lance's stare. Gwen and Morgana are sparring, and Merlin's fixing damaged links in mail coats and other bits of armour. Mostly due to the sheer amount of bruises she's managed to get and Arthur grudgingly giving her a break. Elyan grins. "Which one's caught your fancy?"

Lance looks sheepish as he brings the end of his staff up. "The dark-skinned one. I believe she's Princess Morgana's maid?"

"Good choice." Elyan says, smirking. Lance isn't quite sure why he's smirking, but he's new here. There are always jokes at the new one's expense. He'll figure them out in time.

Morgana notices the attention, and points in their direction. Gwen waves cheerfully, then suddenly looks embarrassed as she spots Lance. Lance returns the wave.

Elyan grins. "Don't mind the shyness, she's not used to attention. Not with hanging around those two."

Lance tilts his head. "Maybe I can rectify that."

"Braver men than you have tried. You'll have to pass the inspection from Morgana." Elyan says, trying for a low swipe to get them started again. "

The sparring session's called to a halt. Merlin finished the repairs and moved on to creating distractions around the field. Little bursts of fire from the ground, sharp winds, fog enveloping people. To keep them on their toes, she said. Leon said that although it was useful he didn't want too many twisted ankles, so could she please keep it to the more advanced sessions.

Lancelot drifts very pointedly over to the girls and stops in front of Gwen. "So how long have you been practising? You're very good."

"Um. Since childhood?" Gwen says, biting her lip nervously. "My father's the best smith in Camelot, so I was always around weapons."

"Well, clearly it paid off." Lancelot says. "Although you somehow ended up with dandelions in your hair."

"Morgana fights dirty." Gwen says dryly.

"May I?" Lance asks. She ducks her head, and he pulls a couple out, presenting them to her.

Morgana swipes her arm across her forehead to get the sweat that's threatening to trickle into her eyes. "Well, at least you're polite."

There's the sound of squabbling behind them. It's Merlin and Arthur, of course. Gwen brushes a bit of hair behind her ear as she turns back to Lance. "We're not always like this."

"I'd be glad to be proved wrong." Lance says.

Morgana sheaths her sword and straightens her gloves. "Come on, Gwen, we'd better get Merlin into a bath before she gets onto frogs."

Gwen nods, going to pick up their things. "Yes, my lady." She pauses when she's got everything in her arms in a neat bundle. "Oh, Elyan, before I go, can you pick up some lamp oil for Father?"

"Lamp oil and the thick twining. Was there anything else?" Elyan asks.

"No, that's it. I'll see you later." She nods to Elyan, then smiles at Lance, turning away quickly to follow Morgana and Merlin.

"...Father?" Lancelot asks, swallowing.

Elyan grins. "My sister's quite capable of taking care of herself. And I can't threaten you half so well as Morgana can." He smirks. "Still interested?"

Gwen and Morgana pull their armour off and put it on the rack to be cleaned.

"I don't understand how you two actually like this." Merlin groans as Gwen helps her off with her mail coat. "I want to sleep for a week and I feel like a walking bruise. Every time a bruise looks like it's nearly faded it gets replaced with a new one in the same spot. My entire body aches, and half of that's just from Arthur making me run sprints."

"It's a bit more fun if you have a talent for it." Gwen says, sympathising. "And honestly, it does get better and easier as you get used to it." She pauses. "Well, the running will at least."

Morgana pulls off her gloves to redo her plait. "Admittedly most people who do this probably learned form and got used to bruises from playing with sticks and toy swords."

Merlin groans again. "Don't talk about sticks, I had to do quarterstaff the other day. What's wrong with me just sitting on a horse on the side of the fight and zapping people who come too close to him?"

"I suspect this is at least partly so he has some idea what to do with you. He's used to knights trailing after him and ordering them about, so better that than a lady-in-waiting." Morgana says.

"Besides the fact that I refuse to be ordered about." Merlin says. "What with having to step in and do things when he can't."

"It's almost certainly to do with looks." Morgana continues. "Better an insubordinate knight than a completely disrespectful lady-in-waiting taking the piss out of him."

"It's horrible." Merlin says. "They've started forgetting I'm female. Not only am I having to get used to what men talk about when there's no women around and trying to impress one another, but there's everything else."

"Everything else?" Morgana asks, raising an eyebrow.

"The smell, Morgana, the smell." Merlin shudders.

Gwen grimaces in sympathy. "Too many years of living with Elyan, I can sympathise. I can give you tips on how to deflate their idiotic boasting, by the way. And a few tips on what herbs to stuff in corners to get rid of the smell."

"All gratefully received." Merlin says.

Morning. Merlin gets up, opens the curtains and eyes the rain coming down in buckets. At which point she feels the need to bounce slightly, since there's no way they can do training in this, the ground'll be a swamp. And Arthur hates fighting in the mud unless he has to. She's heard enough of the complaints over the years. She pulls on a dress and goes to get a pot from the kitchens, passing George on the way with some laundry.

"Anything you need from the kitchens?" Merlin asks.

"No, just the water. Has he said if he had any plans today?" George says.

"Not that I heard, but given the rain..." Merlin trails off.

George nods. "I suspect more formal."

Arthur gets up, and blearily makes his way through breakfast. "You're really not awake, are you." Merlin says, resting her chin on her hand as she takes another piece of black pudding from under his knife. He doesn't even notice, which is how bleary he is. "So no training, right?"

"What're you talking about, Merlin?" Arthur asks.

"It's bucketing it down. The training ground'll be a swamp." She bites off a bit of black pudding, chews, and swallows. "So no training."

"I... suppose not." Arthur says, glancing at the window and the sheets of rain, then down at his plate. "...Merlin, where is half my breakfast?"

Merlin nibbles at the black pudding in her fingers. "You didn't object so I kept taking bits. The black pudding is really good this morning. And it's not like half, it's more like a quarter."

Arthur glares at his plate. "No-one said anything about bodyguards stealing your breakfast."

Merlin shrugs. "To be fair, you're one of the few who has one around here. It's a learning experience for both of us."

Arthur finally wakes up enough to get dressed. Merlin's sitting with a book when Arthur comes to stand over her. "Who're you going to harass this morning?" Merlin asks, looking up at him.

"I'm not harassing anyone, but you're changing into breeches." Arthur says.

Merlin raises her eyebrows. "Are you insane? There's no way we can go outside for training in this muck."

"We're not. However, we are going down to the armoury." He turns his head. "George, if you can come with us."

George clicks his heels and bows his head slightly. "Of course, your highness."

Merlin glares at him as she goes to change. "Traitor."

"Merlin, you can't call him a traitor for doing his job." Arthur says.

"Yes I can, he's betraying his entire class by going along with your schemes." Merlin says as she pulls out her breeches and tunic.

"Merlin, they're not schemes." Arthur says.

"Yes they are. And a form of torture." Merlin says. When she comes out, George has a padded coat folded over one arm. "Do I want to know?"

"You'd only pout." Arthur says cheerfully.

In the armoury., Merlin pulls on the padded coat that George hands her, then the mail coat and coif. And the gloves. And then George fastens a red cloak around her shoulders, standing on his tip toes to do it as he's shorter than her. The red cloak has the Pendragon gold dragon crest on it. It's a bit distinctive.

Merlin pokes it. "Why am I wearing this?"

"You do remember that I told you you were joining the knights of Camelot to better do your duties as a bodyguard." Arthur says, folding his arms and looking slightly smug in that 'thinks he's had a clever idea' way. "I'm quite sure you heard that one, given how much you complain about it."

"Yes, but it doesn't explain why I'm wearing the bloody heavy armour if we're not training. You're not, you're just wearing a jacket." Merlin points out as George buckles a sword on her. "This is getting a bit ridiculous."

"Oh, that. If you're going to be guarding me and be a knight of Camelot, you might as well wear the outfit if you're on duty like the rest of them do." Arthur explains. "Which you are right now."

Merlin looks at him like he's gone insane. "You’ve finally lost it, pratface. Seriously. You do remember how I'm still crap with a sword? Why do you want me to walk around the castle looking like I know how to use it?"

"Well, you don't trip over it any more, which is a big improvement." Arthur says. "It's quite simple. when you're on duty, you're going to dress like all the other knights. That's an end of it."

"I like my dresses." Merlin mutters. "Morgana was right, you just don't want people to think you're being guarded by a lady-in-waiting."

"Ah, but you're not a lady-in-waiting any more, you're a bodyguard and technically a knight of Camelot." Arthur says.

"Only because you shoved me into the armour." Merlin says. "I'm going to fall over with exhaustion from wearing the stuff all day and then where are you going to be when some nutter sorcerer decides to take a pop at the prince of Camelot with his stupidly shiny hair and no brain beneath it?"

"I doubt that''s going to happen." Arthur says, looking a bit smug. "You're far less out of breath at the end of training sessions recently."

Elyan and Pellinore see her after lunch. "Very dashing."

Merlin pokes at the badge on the shoulder. "I feel like I might as well have 'Property of Arthur Pendragon' tattooed on my arm."

"Nah, that's been tattooed on your forehead for years, just ask the court." Elyan grins. "Mind you, it's not like he hasn't got yours on his forehead too for all the world to see."

Merlin eyes him. "Elyan, you're deeply disturbed."

Pellinore shrugs. "It's not like it isn't true."

"Which bit?" Merlin asks.

"Both." Pellinore says. "But mostly Elyan being disturbed."

---

Gwen's on her way to the market to pick up a few things for Morgana when she sees Lancelot coming the other way. "Oh, hello."

Lance grins. "Good morning yourself. Running errands?"

Gwen hefts her basket. "Off to the market to get some things for Morgana. What about you?"

"We're running formation drills this morning." Lance says. "It involves a lot of crouching and presenting shields on command."

Gwen wrinkles her nose. "That sounds ... um ..."

"Very boring, but necessary for fighting as a group." Lance says. "It's all right, I knew it would involve this kind of thing when I applied. It's the young squires and nobles' sons who complain the most. They seem to think it's all glory and fighting and sword play, being a knight."

Gwen bites her lip. "Unlike those of us who grew up watching the knights being yelled at by whoever was training them." She tilts her head. "So what made you want to become a knight?"

Lance shrugs. "They saved my village and I wanted to get the chance to do that myself one day. Help people."

"That's a very worthwhile reason." Gwen says. "It's nice to hear that people want to make a difference. My brother was just at a loose end."

"But channelled his energies into a worthwhile pursuit." Lancelot says. "Not everyone has ambitions from an early age. Did you have any?"

Gwen shrugs. "I went into service at a young age and was lucky enough to win the position of Princess Morgana's maid."

"And a very well spoken of one." Lance says.

Gwen colours slightly. "Well, anyone could do it if they applied themselves." She looks down at the basket. "Um. Anyway, I need to get to the market. I'll see you later."

Pellinore and Owain are waiting for him when he comes through the gate of the castle.

Pellinore claps him on the shoulder. "Good taste there."

Lance quirks a smile. "She's nice."

"Saying Gwen's nice is an understatement." Pellinore says, grinning. "Good to see you getting in there, though. And Morgana's not attempted to kill you, so you're doing something right."

"Imagine if he'd decided to fancy Merlin." Owain chirps. "Wouldn't fancy his chances at all there."

"True." Pellinore says. "There should be a warning when it comes to Merlin."

Lance frowns. "Is there a problem with fancying Merlin? I know she's a bit mouthy, but she's pretty and a good friend."

Pellinore looks at Owain, and makes an aborted gesture. "Merlin's technically off limits." Owain says.

"Well, not really." Pellinore adds.

"But best not to." Owain says.

Lance pushes a bit of hair back. "I'm confused. Is it the dragonlord part? I don't know what their exact status is, is there something against them getting involved with nobility?"

"Oh, nothing to do with that." Owain says.

Pellinore frowns. "There might be something against them becoming kings, though. You'd have to ask Geoffrey."

"It's Arthur." Owain provides.

"Because she's his bodyguard?" Lance says. "No distractions, I take it."

"...just best not to." Owain says.

Pellinore shakes his head ruefully. "You'll see why when you've been around them for long enough."

Lance thinks over all the interactions he's seen between the prince and his incredibly reluctant bodyguard who won't stop bickering. And winces. "They're that couple?" There's always one.

"Fraid so." Owain says.

"Won't stop calling each other names long enough to take notice of anyone else." Pellinore says. Well, that explains a lot.

----

Leon sits down next to Merlin, who's taking the breather to get some dings out of her shield. "You're taking all the work away from the squires and the armourers."

"haven't heard them complaining." Merlin says. "Still got the rest of your lot's repairs to do. I'm only doing dings and scrapes and a few links on the mail here and there. I'm not touching the weapons or anything serious, I had that hammered into me when I asked Gwen about repairing one of her practice swords when we were younger. Nearly took my head off and then gave me a lecture about how brittle the metal gets if you manipulate it too much in the wrong way whilst cold. Which includes magic, not just hitting it with a bloody great hammer."

"Elyan's never said much about that." Leon says, thoughtful.

"Elyan avoids the forge as much possible." Merlin says, examining one scratch before running her finger along it to smooth the metal out. It looks for all the world like someone smoothing a scratch in a wax tablet. "Remember he ran off for a few years before coming back with all that sword fighting experience? As Gwen always puts it, what a coincidence that it coincided with when he'd be due to start his apprenticeship proper. Gwen could make a fairly good living as a smith if she quit being a maid and started work."

There's a howl of outrage from across the field. Which sounds rather like it's coming from a certain blond prince.

Leon purses his lips. "Merlin."

"Yes?" Merlin asks, still bent over the shield.

"Why does Arthur suddenly have asses ears?" Leon asks.

"No idea." She shrugs.

Leon scratches his beard."Is it anything to do with what he called you earlier?"

"Don’t know what you mean." Merlin says, flipping the shield over and examining the same spot on the other side.

"Might he lose them if he apologised?" Leon offers.

"Wouldn't improve his character." She shrugs.

Morgana takes that exact moment to walk onto the field. "Hello, Leon."

"Your highness." Leon says.

"Merlin, do you know what happened to that book that talked about the uses of plants in weather magic?" She asks. "Geoffrey doesn't have it in the library and Gaius says he saw you with it last."

Merlin thinks for a minute. "I know I've seen it recently..." She pauses. "Oh, I know. It's on the shelf in my room."

"Thank you, I'll go and fetch it." Morgana looks over the field. "How's training going?"

"Tiring and exhausting and pointless." Merlin says.

Leon rubs his beard. "She's determined not to enjoy it."

"I enjoy things that don’t give me bruises and exhaust me." Merlin says. "There's a few bright spots, though."

Morgana smiles. "I seem to remember a similar sentiment during early magic lessons when you actually had to learn things instead of just relying on natural talent." Then she pauses, catching sight of something across the field. "Is Arthur sporting asses ears?"

Leon makes a rueful expression. "Seems so."

"Merlin?" Morgana asks her.

Merlin shrugs. "He's a tosser."

"Oh dear." Morgana raises her voice. "Arthur, you only have yourself to blame, you know Merlin lashes out in petty ways when she's tired."

"I have asses ears, Morgana!" Arthur yells.

"And he looks all the better for it!" Merlin yells back.

"Asses ears, Merlin! You're going to regret this!" Arthur yells back.

"Merlin, give him back his normal ears, he has to be at least vaguely presentable later." Morgana says, trying not to grin too much.

Merlin looks mulish. "He looks presentable now. It's not like they're deformed or anything. George can groom the fur so it's in really good condition."

Leon looks thoughtful. "I suppose it could be a talking point." He shakes himself. "The problem is that they'd not fit under the helmet."

Merlin makes a thoughtful noise. "Suppose so. Still, it's not like he'll need them until then. He can keep them for a bit."

Morgana gives Leon a disbelieving look. "I can't believe that you got through to her by reasoning about armour."

Merlin hefts it. "Sadly intimately acquainted with it these days."

The first few weeks of the red cloak are sort of fun when she's not having to follow Arthur around, normally when she's off to run an errand or get something from the healers. Mostly for the whiplash reactions. They see the cloak first, then you see the moment when they realise the face isn't angular enough, and register her long plait. A girl in a knight's - oh, that's Merlin. Then they still look a bit disturbed.

Even Arthur does it for a bit if she's hurrying on her way somewhere. "Should've known, only you could sound that clumsy." He says when she turns around.

"Hmph. You know perfectly well I'm not clumsy when I'm out of it." Merlin retorts. "And some of us remember you trying to get used to your first set of plate armour. You walked like you'd pulled something in your groin."

And after those few weeks, court and Camelot people see her, and either they see just another knight, like a girl is of as little notice as Leon's beard or Elyan's dark skin, or they nod and say 'Merlin'. Everyone knows Arthur's guard's name, and a girl with a long plait dressed as a knight stands out more than a lady-in-waiting. If it's a girl in a knight's armour it has to be Merlin.

The prince and Merlin go by, bickering. Judging by the amount they're waving their hands about, they appear to be trying to explain the mechanics of something. "Maybe it's a catapult?" Gwen muses.

"Could be." Elyan says, then chuckles.

"What?" Gwen asks, then says suspiciously. "Do I want to know or is it something to do with the knights you wouldn't dare repeat in public?"

"It's clean." He reassures her. "You've got a very dim view of how filthy my mind is."

"It's not your mind, it's how bad your sense of humour is." Gwen says in a long suffering fashion. "I grew up with you, and it didn't get any better when you came back. So what was it?"

"I was just thinking about sticking Morgana in Merlin's armour and seeing how long it would take people to notice who weren't the knights." Elyan grins. "You know, similar height, colouring..."

Gwen blinks, then giggles, then says in dawning horror. "We are never telling Morgana. Ever."

----

Saddling up for patrol. George is bringing the last of the panniers while the squires and knights and other servants affix things to their saddles. They'll be away about a week. Merlin and a few of the others with magic are casting waterproofing spells on the saddle bags, and food preservation ones on the food bags.

Arthur claps a hand on her shoulder. "Looking forward to your first patrol, Merlin?"

"No." She grumbles. "It's days in the saddle, it's October and it's cold and wet. Why are we doing this?"

"Cheer up, there's no ice on the ponds just yet." he grins. Clearly enjoying her grumpiness. Bastard. "And because bandits happen when it's cold and the harvest is in, so we have to go out and investigate the reports and put the fear of Camelot into them. It's part of the knights' duty. Oh, and take stock of how the kingdom's doing."

"Have you heard of scrying?" Merlin asks. "Scrying can be done from the comfort of indoors."

"Scrying's no substitute for actually talking to people." Arthur says. "Besides, I don't think bandits would be that discouraged by scrying."

Merlin comes back from taking a piss before rolling up for bed. And is greeted with a horrendous sight. Everyone - well, everyone who's not Elyan, who drew the short straw for first watch - has picked their spot and left one free. One. Out of the whole glade. She can't pick anywhere else, everything else is tree roots. Or horses.

"You. Bastards." She spits. "Why is the last bedroll spot left next to pratface?"

"He kicks." Elyan says cheerfully, giving her a shove into the bedroll area, so she stumbles over a good few legs. "Plus you're his bodyguard, you're the one that's got to stick to him and protect him. We felt this should extend to making sure he's protected even in his sleep."

"If he actually kicks me, you're all getting nettle rash." Merlin says. "Right in your arse cracks and up behind your bollocks."

"Why, Merlin. Such indelicate language for the attendant to a princess." Pellinore says.

"You forget I have to listen to you lot all day." Merlin says. "You're all to blame that I know your most tender points, you complain about them enough."

"A well bred lady ought not to listen." Pellinore sniffs.

"Well bred?" Merlin snorts. "I'm dragonlord blood, we've got as much noble in us as the next peasant."

"Speak for yourself, some of the peasants I know definitely have some noble in them..." Geraint leers.

"You mean that half-blind and deaf one two villages over?" Dagonet asks. "She's the only way you'd get any, and then you had to pay her."

"Fuck off, Dag." Geraint says, chucking something at him.

Merlin gets her bedroll from the pile and picks her way back over the minefield of legs. When she gets to the space next to Arthur, she puts her bedroll down, untying and spreading it out, putting her pack and cloak underneath one end in a sad imitation of a pillow.

She sits down next to Arthur, knocks the dirt off her boots and flips the blanket and her cloak over her legs. "If you snore, I kill you." Merlin says cheerfully.

"You know I don't, you'd have heard me and definitely killed me before now." Arthur says. "And complained. Loudly." He tucks his blanket around himself a bit tighter. "Now go to sleep, Merlin."

"There are stones sticking into me." She mutters. "I'm being forced to sleep out in the open and it's freezing."

"Welcome to being a knight." Arthur replies. "You have to give up ordinary comforts on a regular basis in defence of your king."

"At no point did I ever express any desire to be a knight. Ever." Merlin says. "You're confusing me with your sister. Who actually likes playing with swords."

"Morgana's significantly politer." Arthur says.

"In public." Merlin says. "Ow."

"Anyway, if you don't want to be a knight, you could be a druid, they sleep in the woods." Arthur suggests.

Merlin pokes him. "Wash your mouth out with soap. You know they're nutters who think not having a proper roof over their heads somehow makes them closer to magic. If we were meant to sleep in a tent out of doors, we'd have fur coats."

"Tell that to cats." Pellinore says.

A balled up sock bounces off Merlin's head from an unseen direction. "Shut up, some of us are trying to sleep! Count dragons or something, Merlin."

"All right, all right." She mutters.

After a bit, Arthur says quietly "Merlin."

"Mmm?" Merlin asks.

"He didn't mean for the little dragons to dance in front of *my* face." Arthur says, a bit pained.

"Spoilsport." She mutters, making the little golden dragons parading in front of Arthur's face breathe flame and then disappear.

They wake up to see Leon leaning over them, grinning. "Very cosy." Merlin and Arthur have managed to snuggle together in the night. And yes, the best descriptive term is snuggled.

"Fuck off, Leon, she's warm." Arthur yawns. "Must be the magic."

"Oh, that's what it is." Leon grins and goes back to the fire.

Merlin inserts a hand between them so she can rub her eye. her head's tucked against Arthur's chest. "For such an honourable man he's got a horribly insinuating tone of voice."

"The man's brain is filth all the way down." Arthur says, carefully pulling back and making sure her hair isn't caught. "Come on, you, up. Might even be some hot food left."

Merlin yawns. "If Dag's up, fat chance. Eats like a horse, that man."

"At least he doesn't steal other peoples' breakfast right off their plates." Arthur says as they get to their feet.

"Who steals breakfast?" Lance asks, holding out a couple of plates. "Here, I saved you some."

"You're a wonderful friend and a lovely person, Lance." Merlin grins, taking one of the plates. "Too good for this world."

"Glad to be of service." Lance says, handing the other to Arthur. "So who steals breakfast?"

Arthur points at Merlin, who's tucking into the porridge like substance. "Her. Fully fledged breakfast thief. Your bacon isn't safe."

"Lies." Merlin says, swallowing her mouthful. "He's never awake properly so imagines it."

"Merlin, George told me that he very specifically added extra to my breakfast plate to compensate for you stealing it." Arthur replies.

"Must've imagined it." Merlin says. "Pity, that, a prince going soft in the head at such a young age. Must be all the knocks to the head."

"You two get more like a married couple every day, I swear." Elyan says.

They make camp the next evening, having glared at some bandits and checked up on a couple of villages. making themselves known as being present.

Everyone's sitting around the campsite doing repairs. Merlin's muttering and making the fire turn blue and green instead. Leon stops by her. "Merlin, aren't you at least going to check your saddlebag straps?"

"No servants or squires around to do the work on this trip." Elyan says. "Pity."

Merlin raises an eyebrow. "You do remember I have magic, right? I checked, one was coming loose. The sewing's already done."

"What'll it take to do ours?" Elyan asks.

"Builds character." Merlin says, pulling a tendril of flame out of the fire and making it dance and form shapes. "It's what pratface says about me when I collect bruises."

Once they've had a meal, Leon taps her on the shoulder. "Come on, your turn for first watch. Wake Geraint up when you're done."

"This comes under bodyguarding?" Merlin asks.

"It comes under being a knight." He says, then grins. "We've all got to do it, and we all hate it. Shared experiences that we all hate bond us together into a strong group." He pauses. "Except Dagonet, he likes it. But then you know he's got strange tastes."

Merlin has a very boring watch. It mostly consists of listening to owls and watching animals go by. And occasionally kill things. Foxes aren't half noisy. Absolutely no sign of anything that even looks or sounds even faintly human, let alone one that'd be stupid enough to go anywhere near a bunch of snoring heavily armed and well trained knights. Besides the fact that Merlin would be able to set any attackers on fire the moment they got anywhere near the camp. Still, at least with the magic she's able to keep warm.

When the night's gone half way through, she gets up from where she's been sitting and goes and nudges Geraint in the side with her boot. "Rise and shine, you." She says quietly.

"Wstfgl." He says, shifting a bit. Merlin shrugs and prods him more firmly. "All right, all right, I'm getting up." He yawns, pushing his blanket back.

"Good. That's my duties done for the night, I'm going to try and get some sleep." Merlin says.

"Anything out there?" He asks, scratching his stubble.

"Not unless you count foxes and owls." Merlin says.

"What sort of owls?" He asks.

"Don't ask me, I grew up in Camelot. They're birds flying around at night hunting small rodents and going 'too wit too whoo'." Merlin says. "Owls."

"So definitely not screech owls." Geraint says. "You'd know if you heard one of those."

"I am going to bed." Merlin says. "Go and commune with the owls on your own."

"Night, Merlin." he says, getting to his feet as she picks her way across the slumbering knights, using a werelight to see her way and not stand on anyone, finally getting to her bedroll and Arthur.

She lies down, puts the blanket over her, and shifts a bit, tucking in against Arthur, closing her eyes.

In the morning, Merlin wakes up to find herself not only snuggled against Arthur, but with his arm around her waist. Above them, Lance says "Arthur's cuddling is getting worse, I see."

Merlin elbows Arthur gently. Ish. "Rise and shine, pratface." She says.

Arthur grumbles into her hair, raises his head, sees Lance, then very slowly removes his arm from around her waist. Lance looks like he's trying to keep a straight face. "You can share both blankets if you're cold, you know."

"Funny, Lance." Arthur says, sitting up and scrubbing at his face.

That day, they don't see anyone that even looks like anything like a bandit. Just travellers. Most of whom keep their heads very firmly down when confronted with a bunch of armoured men on horses. Aside from the one who asked if they wanted to buy some apples and managed to get rid of a sackful and probably got a better price than he would've at market.

"I'm sure the one with a lute on his back could've had a cousin who was a bandit." Dagonet says.

"A cousin, maybe." Arthur says. "We didn't hear how badly he played, that could've been criminal."

"Didn't see you asking him to audition." Merlin says, munching on her apple.

Fourth night. Merlin rolls over, out from under Arthur’s arm. "Everything aches. I quit, I'm running away to join the druids." She groans. "They probably at least have camp beds. Or decently padded pallets. And they have tents. That keep off the drizzle."

"So what you're saying is that the way to get you to change you mind about, I quote, 'nutters who won't stop going on about bloody stupid prophecies, I'm not even fucking called Emrys' is to offer a comfortable bed." Arthur says, amused.

"Right now anything that doesn’t involve rocks will make me call them my best friend forever." Merlin says. "I have bruises in places I didn't want to know about, and that's on top of the bruises I have from training. Ow."

Arthur sits up, combing his hair back with his fingers, still horrendously amused. "I hate to say this, but you've got a lot of this to look forward to."

"What's wrong with inns?" Merlin asks. "They have beds! Lumpy, probably flea ridden beds, but I can get rid of the fleas and at least I won't get bruises and a crick in my back from just sleeping in them."

"In case you hadn't noticed, there aren't many inns out here." Leon sighs. "Else I'd be with you on this one. I'm sure several of the inns would pay a pretty penny for you to delouse their beds, mind. You'd think more would get it done. Is there a spell for it?"

"Must be." Dagonet says. "The master of hounds gets someone in to do it for the dogs. useful skill, that spell."

-----

End of the day. Dagonet puts his sword back in the rack, lining it up with the others. "Who's for a drink? I really fancy a drink tonight."

Lance nods. "I could go for a drink. Anyone else?"

There's a general chorus of 'ayes'. "How about you, your highness?" Dagonet asks cheerily. "Up for a drink?"

Arthur grins. "If only to lend some sort of order and respectability to you reprobates."

Merlin fastens her cloak. "You do know he's not going to pay for it, right?"

"Nah, we all know he's tight fisted." Dagonet says. "The question is whether you can keep your drink."

Merlin folds her arms and looks at Arthur. "Depends on how much I'm allowed. Am I on duty, your highness?"

Arthur rubs his chin thoughtfully. "I'm not sure, I think you should stand sentinel at all times, in armour, not touching a drop -" He ducks the glove she throws at him. "Yes, Merlin, you're allowed and you're not really on duty. Just don't start singing."

"She's better than Owain." Pellinore says.

"That's like saying she's better than Geraint." Owain says, cuffing him on the arm. "I sound like a crow got lost in a barrel, and Geraint's not much better."

"They really should warn applicants precisely how tone deaf some of you are." Lance says. "It's shocking. You could use some of you as a weapon."

"It's not all bad." Pellinore says. "Leon's got a nice voice."

"Problem is getting him to start." Dagonet says. "How many pints did it take last time, Leon?"

"Enough to make me ignore how bad the people around me were." Leon says.

Merlin pulls off the padded coat she's been wearing most of the time during the day and evenings. "Oh, dresses, I've missed you..." She croons, opening her wardrobe.

"You're not wearing a dress, Merlin." Arthur says, leaning on the doorpost, the tapestry pulled aside like it is most of the time.

Merlin gives him a look. "Why not? I'm not on duty."

"Your dresses are a bit too nice for the inn we're going to, and you'll get ale spilled on them by the others." Arthur says. "Just put your spare breeches and a jacket on. You'll fit in better too."

"You do know I can clean my clothes with a word, right?" Merlin says, very pointedly pulling out one of her day dresses. "And you'd think you were trying to hide that one of your knights is actually a girl. I'm wearing a dress, Arthur. I miss wearing dresses."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "Have it your way."

"You are honestly very weird about this." Merlin says. Arthur rolls his eyes again, levering himself off the doorpost and returning to his room. Not that there's really much of a boundary between the rooms any more. For a room that Arthur actually ignored the existence of until Merlin moved into it, he came to regard it as an extension of his room very quickly, meandering in and out of it as he chooses. Occasionally Merlin finds George picking things up that Arthur's left in there. And she spends most of her time in Arthur's room, so she can't talk.

In the inn the knights are mid-pint when they get there. Fortunately no-one takes a blind bit of notice when Arthur enters, aside from looking up to check that it's not a bruiser or trouble. Leon's bigger as it is, and Arthur's not obviously carrying a bloody great sword.

Arthur looks down at Merlin with amusement. "What?" Merlin asks, giving him a look.

Arthur purses his lips in that way he does when he thinks something's funny but not quite laugh worthy. "You do realise you're scanning the crowd."

"That's normal." Merlin replies.

"You're assessing it, Merlin." Arthur says, drawing her name out. "For threats. I've been a soldier half my life, I'm quite familiar with the look. For someone who complains so much about being made to be my bodyguard, you're settling into the demands of the role quite well."

"Oh, fuck off." Merlin grumbles. "I've also picked up the habit of checking my sword for nicks, it happens."

The knights spot them from their place in the corner and cheer. "See you managed to drag him out, Merlin." Elyan says. "Nice dress, by the way."

"He was objecting to it." Merlin says.

"She looks nice in a dress." Elyan says to Arthur. "No sense of taste, some princes."

They settle in, and the story trading starts. "So let me get this straight, you've known the prince since you were, what, five?" Owain says. Being the youngest, he's only been in Camelot since he became a squire. "You must have some stories."

"Not so much stories as tales of an all out war." Merlin says, taking a mouthful of very cheap ale. "And it's not so much five as toddlers. The king thought his son might need some company, and one of the healers had a baby who was only a couple of years younger who might be a civilising influence."

"And how'd that work out?" Owain asks.

"Don't listen to her, Merlin could never be a civilising influence on anyone." Arthur says, leaning in from his seat.

"You mean certain princes are completely resistant to any civilising influences whatsoever." Merlin retorts.

"How anyone could call the wildcat that you were as a toddler civilised is beyond me." Arthur says.

"Merlin." Lance says in disbelief. "A wildcat. Morgana perhaps, but I really couldn't imagine Merlin being described as one."

"Complete with spitting and snarling." Arthur smirks.

"Amazing what happens when certain little blond brats thought playing keepaway and stealing toys was fun." Merlin says. "Turns out no-one had ever told him no because he was the prince."

"I was four!" Arthur says. "Of course I was a brat!"

"Not that he's changed." Merlin says, smirking. She picks a bit of dirt out of her nails. "At least he knows not to steal toys any more."

Arthur sighs. "You'll be glad to know that Merlin has always lashed out with magic when she's having a tantrum. Since birth."

Owain whistles. "I thought people had to learn magic."

Elyan shrugs. "Some people are born with it. Princess Morgana's the same, but her natural magic manifests mostly as visions."

Later. "So Gareth was still yelling, while his horse -" Leon says.

"And he's still hanging from the tree by his belt!" Pellinore laughs.

"Okay, stupidest scar time." Elyan says, rolling up his sleeve. "Fell over on the ice and skidded into a duck. Who was really pissed off about being rammed by someone, so took a chunk out of my arm."

"Ducks." Pellinore snorts. "That's impressive, but I can beat it. Turns out fruit stalls are really fucking dangerous."

Arthur comes back from taking a piss. "What's the competition this time? Biggest strength feat?"

"Stupidest scar." Dagonet says. "You've fought in enough battles, Arthur, what's yours? Fell over in mud?"

Arthur picks up his mug. "Well, there's one on my leg that has a story..."

Merlin snorts. "Bollocks. You want stupid scars, tell them how you got the one under your chin." Arthur blanches slightly and takes a glug of ale. "You haven't told them?" She asks innocently.

Leon frowns. "I thought that was from the excursion to Lot's kingdom when you were young."

"Nope." Merlin says, drawing out the word and popping the 'p'. She smirks. "Do you want to tell them or shall I?"

"Since you're so determined, Merlin, you can tell them." Arthur says, stiffly.

"Oh, this definitely sounds good." Elyan grins. "How'd he get it?"

"Remember I told you that he tried to steal my toys?" Merlin says. "I hit him with my toy dragon."

"And for some godforsaken reason someone gave a toddler a dragon toy with claws." Arthur mutters, rubbing the scar under his chin.

"Didn't even bleed very much." Merlin shrugs. "I remember he cried for ages, though."

"I hurt and I was in shock." Arthur retorts. "Of course I cried."

A few more rounds go by, and Merlin nods off on Elyan's shoulder. "Looks like someone can't hold their drink too well." Elyan says.

"She's half your size, Elyan." Arthur says. "It could be worse, she could get belligerent like some people. Do you want a belligerent Merlin? Half the inn would be sporting tails or something." He makes a beckoning gesture. "Pass her over, I'll keep an eye on her."

"You sure?" Elyan asks.

Arthur shrugs. "She's my bodyguard." They pass her over and Arthur hooks an arm round her, moving her around a bit so she's tucked into his side, head resting on his shoulder. "There we go. So what were you saying about the Fisher King story?"

Dagonet's in the middle of telling a story about a pig when a yelling match starts up a few tables away. The knights look over, interested, and then a bread roll hits Lance in the face. "Ow." Lance complains, rubbing where it hit, then picking up the roll and tapping it. "Either this is a very stale roll or the baker uses granite for flour."

"I know some drop scones my nan used to make that could be used for weapons. Was a truly fucking awful baker. Good with a stew, just did things with dough that had to be seen to be believed." Elyan says, leaning over to take the roll so he can have a look. He weighs it thoughtfully in his hand. "It's definitely dense. probably the flour."

"Are you proposing we track down the baker and commission him to make stealth weapons?" Arthur asks.

"Might be good in a siege when we need to arm the citizens." Leon says. he takes another drink. "How hard do you suppose you'd have to throw them to knock someone out?"

Lance rubs his forehead. "Speaking as the person who was hit by this bready menace, we'll see if I have a bruise tomorrow morning." Then his eyes widen. "Pellinore, duck!"

A tankard comes winging its way out of the now slightly more airborne nature of the fight a few tables over. It just misses Pellinore's head as he ducked on command, but it's heading straight for Arthur's chest. It's a bit difficult to miss things heading for your chest when you're sitting down.

Except. it doesn't actually hit Arthur. It hits thin air about an inch from his chest, the air shimmers gold in front of him, and it... bounces off the shimmer? As though it hit a spider web and bounced off it rather than stuck, then plopped harmlessly into his lap. All the knights who'd been ready to wince when it looked like it'd hit him stare at him, then the tankard, which Arthur's staring at as well.

He puts down his mug and picks the tankard up, examining it. "What just happened?"

"Some sort of gold shimmery stuff appeared in front of you." Pellinore says as Leon pokes Arthur's shoulder cautiously. The gold shimmer doesn't appear again, and his finger touches the leather of Arthur's jacket without a problem. "Any luck, Leon?"

"Not a thing." Leon says. "Sire, are you wearing any sort of amulet?"

"The most I wear is my ring, and I've been wearing that for years." Arthur says, lifting his hand from where it's round Merlin and waggling his finger to show it off. he looks down at Merlin. "You don't think she's cast any spells on me, has she?"

"Considering you got hit by that ball last week and it definitely hit you, I don't think so." Leon says. "Merlin couldn't stop laughing at you, if you remember. Something about your vaunted reflexes."

"It hit me in the back of the head." Arthur says. "Explain how my reflexes were supposed to kick in."

Leon rubs his beard. "Do you think there's any way to test it?"

"I am not about to be used for target practice." Arthur says, picking up his mug again.

Lance's eyes widen. "Bread roll incoming."

This one hits Arthur in the face. Or rather, it would have if the gold shimmer hadn't appeared again. Merlin shifts a bit in her sleep and grumbles. Pellinore points at her. "Her eyes flared. she's doing magic." Arthur turns round to get a look, jostling her in the process, but she stays asleep. "Still asleep, sire."

Arthur stares at her still very much dead to the world face. "Are you telling me Merlin is defending me in her sleep?" He demands.

Elyan shrugs. "Good trick for a bodyguard to have."

"I didn't even know Merlin could do magic in her sleep." Arthur says, shocked. "Do you think my sister and yours know?"

"If anyone would, they would." Elyan says. He raises his mug, toasting Arthur with it. "New rule. If it looks like you're going to be hit by falling rocks, grab a sleeping Merlin."

"Doesn't sound like very practical advice." Lance says.

"Any port in a storm." Elyan says, then pauses mid about to take a drink. "Besides, it's not like Morgana doesn't get visions in her sleep all the time, so doing magic in your sleep isn't that far a stretch for Merlin."

Chapter Text

Merlin shifts a bit while Gwen inspects the dress that they've judged is most appropriate for her to wear during the royal visit. Well, not so much visit as delegation. with bells on. King Bayard and his entourage from Mercia are coming to Camelot to sign the peace treaty that the messengers have been going back and forth with variations of between the two kingdoms for the last few months. the war ended nearly four months ago and only lasted three weeks, but the various codicils of the treaty have taken what seems like forever to get hammered out.

"Gives everyone's tempers time to cool down." Morgana says, turning a necklace over in her fingers. "At least so Father and Bayard can be genial and civil at each other without too much snarling."

"People died. there were pitched battles." Gwen says, shaking her head. "And it comes down to a piece of paper with a few wax impressions on it and a royal visit. I ask you. Do they even care what it was about?"

Merlin doesn't shrug. She knows not to move much when Gwen's anywhere near her with a dress that may or may not need fitting. Even if she's not actually wearing the dress itself, there may be measurements or assessments being made as Gwen judges you. You never know. "It was a border skirmish that got out of hand, so probably not. Someone rattled a sword, someone else trespassed, a few people started yelling and a farm got burned. and when they tried to talk about it, some idiot lunged the wrong way, they pulled daggers and a fight started." She pokes the ground with her toe. "Essentially it's really stupid, several people got killed, a few fields got completely churned up and a few of the knights got some scars to show for it. Pratface has a tiny one where someone's spear caught on his mail and slipped inside his gauntlet. The scar's from the mail, not the spear. Leon's got a tiny one on his hairline where his helmet got bashed against his skull and broke the skin."

"Do they have any opinions about it?" Gwen asks. "Since they fought in it. Elyan just shrugs. When the fighting was over - while the fighting was still going on, the battles - he just wanted to sleep when he was at home."

Merlin shrugs. "Haven't really asked. They don't talk about it so I don't ask. I don't really think about it to ask. I think they just think of it as one more battle. They're trained to fight, it wasn't a bad one..."

Morgana raises a very sceptical eyebrow. "Two of the knights died, Merlin."

Merlin winces. "Knights get killed and maimed a lot, Morgana. You don't like it but get used to it if you're one of them. So a war where they only lost two is still better than a really bad one." She sighs. "I mean, Pellinore would be an absolute wreck if Owain died, he dotes on him, but anyone else? They're friends, or maybe they can barely stand them, but the reality is that they're quite aware that they might die. My entire role is to make sure Arthur doesn't die, and give the others that little bit more safety. Theirs is to protect and sometimes die to make sure the rest of the kingdom doesn't."

"Oh." Gwen frowns. "I never really thought of it like that. Elyan never talks about it apart from talking about ridiculous things that happened in training or on patrol, or strange and amazing feats that him and the others achieved."

"Trust me, they'd all like their very own personal balladeer." Morgana says. "I've been around knights long enough for that. Agreed, Merlin?"

"Oh, very definitely agreed." Merlin says. "Pratface most of all."

Gwen lifts the dress. "Anyway. Back to the dress. Morgana, you'll be wearing the blue one with the underlay as a sign of conviviality."

"And a gesture of respect towards Bayard." Morgana says. "Really, people do put too much stock in these things."

Gwen and Merlin turn to stare at her. "Did Morgana just say that?" Merlin says to Gwen. "Morgana with the very, very many pretty dresses that she chooses to make the absolutely perfect impact for every occasion."

"Can't have." Gwen says, shaking her head. "I mean, that would mean that she hadn't wavered between two with only slightly different lines because of who she was meeting with. That would never happen." Gwen wrinkles her nose. "It definitely doesn't sound like the princess Morgana of Camelot that we've served since we were ten, does it Merlin?"

Merlin shakes her head. "Very definitely not. Do you think it's a magic twin?"

"Obviously." Gwen says.

"oh, very funny, you two." Morgana snorts. "Now get on with Merlin's dress, that's what we're here for."

Merlin tilts her head on one side to look at the dress. "I don't even know why we're making such a fuss about it. I'm wearing it for the feast, but I'm wearing my armour for the big reception and welcoming because I'm doing that whole united force thing front thing with the others."

"It's a feast, the king wants you to make a good impression on everyone else." Gwen says, scolding slightly. "And not intimidate them. The boys aren't on duty, so you're not. Which means you're able to wear one of your better dresses again."

Merlin sighs. "I don't see why we're making such a fuss about it, though."

Gwen actually facepalms. "Merlin, if you hadn't noticed, you've changed shape with all the training. your best dresses don't fit the way they used to."

Merlin blinks. "I have? I mean, I know I can run longer and lift more without magic, and my waist's a bit slimmer, but-"

Morgana gets up and walks over, squeezing her arm. "Your arms are a lot firmer and have muscle, Merlin. You may not notice in the shirts and breeches and day dresses you're wearing most of the time now, but it would be really quite noticeable in your better dresses."

"You'd split the arms on that copper one you wore for Michaelmas last year." Gwen says. "Any time you tried to bend your arms I'd fear for the stitching." She pauses, casting a beady eye over Merlin's frame. "You've more muscle in your back, your shoulders are broader, your legs are very noticeably more toned and your thighs are bigger, though that won't matter very much in skirts, and your chest... well, it's not really smaller but it's not as bouncy. You developed the chest muscles."

Merlin takes that as a sign that she can move. At least a bit. She plucks at the front of her dress to stare down the front of it. "They don't look that different from here. It's only been three months of exercise, my body can't have changed that much."

"It's changed enough, and it'll probably change some more as you get fitter." Gwen states. "hence why I need to figure out how much I need to let the seams out in some places and take it in in others to readjust it to fit you."

"I'm facing an army of pins, aren't I." Merlin sighs. "Can I get out of it by using the excuse that pratface needs me?"

Gwen holds up the dress against her back and pulls a few pins out of her pouch, sticking most of them in her mouth and making a mark on the dress with another. "No. If he knows what's good for him he'll be in here."

"And he has to be in the castle anyway discussing with father what they'll be doing during the talks and what they'll let the guests see." Morgana adds. "He can bring the notes in here."

"I wonder if I can get George to assist me." Gwen frowns. "How precise is he with adjustments?"

Merlin thinks. And then thinks a bit more. "I don't think he actually does any, he gets the seamstresses to make repairs to clothing and cushions. Sends them all out. Might even be a bit cack handed with a needle."

Gwen grins and then crows. "Finally, I beat him on something!" Then she realises what she's done and coughs, face flaming. "Um. that is. It's nice to know he's not totally perfect. My lady."

Morgana's completely failing to keep a straight face and chuckling. She waves a hand. "Oh no, you go on, Gwen. Be smug for once, it's a very good look on you. pride in your work is a natural and beneficial thing."

Merlin grins. "Just think, you can hold it over him and make little comments about it."

Gwen grins. "Ooo, I can, can't I. Maybe even at the feast." She muses. "Just in his hearing."

"Talking of the feast, is there a reason for the red?" Merlin asks, back to being still, as the pins are now in and she doesn't want to get stabbed. Gwen has never been averse to 'accidental' encouragement to make her models stay still or shut up. She was taught very well by Camelot's best seamstresses.

Morgana picks up a sleeve of the dress, running her fingers over the material. "It matches your cloak, so you'll look like a matched set with Arthur. Visibly by his side and of Camelot."

Merlin makes a face. "Matched set just makes me think of those times mistresses dress to complement their lovers. Or that time Lady Cerys did it to show that she'd very publicly made up with Bors and forgiven him."

"Because no-one's ever thought of you and my brother that way, of course." Morgana says dryly.

"So why are we encouraging it now?" Merlin asks.

"Hopefully this time they'll still be thinking bodyguard and power not mistress like they used to." Morgana says. "Of course, there's some that still think it since you're constantly stuck to his side these days, but it's almost constantly in armour, so they tend to think bodyguard first."

Merlin hmphs. "I still get the 'sharing his rooms' remarks."

Gwen pokes her. With her finger, fortunately, not a pin. "You'll always get those. Learn to live with them." She pauses. "On the subject, what's this about Owain and Pellinore? I hadn't heard anything about those two. I thought it was just Pellinore looking out for him since he was still so green. Owain's not even been in a proper skirmish yet. At least not one where he's been in danger of fighting for his life."

"And how do you know that?" Morgana asks.

"My brother." Gwen shrugs. "If it involves training and achievements, we hear about it at home. And he's a complete gossip, I can't believe he didn't pass that one on about the two of them." She pauses. "I mean, they are definitely like that, aren't they? Not just sees him as little brother."

"I don't think someone you feel like a brother about tends to go around sporting the love bite that Owain had on the crease of his neck last week." Merlin snorts. "Got the piss taken out of him completely, too."

"Owain or Pellinore?" Morgana asks, interested.

"Varied." Merlin says. "Pellinore got all the elbows and ravening beast jokes, though."

"So how'd it start?" Gwen asks, putting another carefully judged pin in the dress.

"Way things usually do, I suppose. Staring at his arse, thinking his grin's nice." Merlin says. "Then got pissed in an inn and started snogging, or got their blood up on a training session and started eyeing each other up, then one of them crowded the other up against the wall once they were getting their armour off... you know. the usual." She notes Morgana staring at her. "What?"

"Your usual is quite clearly getting to be very different from what it used to be." Morgana says. "Let's hope you remember how to behave like a lady-in-waiting."

"I promise to kick Arthur under the table at the most embarrassing time possible." Merlin says promptly.

"I'm sure other ladies in waiting aren't encouraged to kick princes under the table to make them react and humiliate themselves." Gwen says.

"Clearly they just aren't trying." Morgana sniffs.

It's been a week of fittings. The Mercians are arriving tomorrow. Arthur's been locked in meetings for most of it, and is currently lounging in the corner of Morgana's rooms while Gwen makes the last adjustments.

Merlin twitches her skirts so they fall right as Gwen circles her, critical expression on her face. "Stand up straight, you're not wearing a sword on your hip."

Merlin makes a face. "I think I've forgotten how to wear a nice dress or anything that's not designed to take wear and tear."

Gwen inserts a few more pins in the appropriate places. "As long as you stand up straight, you shouldn't disgrace yourself."

"Merlin will always disgrace herself, it's as natural a progression as the sun rising." Arthur drawls, twiddling with a piece of worsted.

"Shut up, brother, this is nothing to do with you." Morgana says. "Do you actually know anything about clothes aside from 'it's red and looks vaguely like it fits'?"

"Well, actually -" Arthur says before he's ignored.

"And remember, you're not allowed to get into shoving matches with the knights. This is a formal court event, and appearances matter." Morgana says, tweaking her hair. "Merlin, have you even brushed this properly in the last week? There's so much dirt in it I wouldn't be surprised to find twigs." She sighs. "There's nothing for it, we're going to have to wash it."

Merlin makes a face. "Really? It'll take forever to dry, and you remember what happened last time."

Gwen grins. "It was almost as bad as when we washed Morgana's. Don't worry, we'll put a bit of oil in it to compensate since you do need to look presentable."

Morgana lifts a lock. "What did you do to it, out of curiosity?"

"We went for a ride this morning to escape the castle." Arthur says. "Her horse was surprised by a pheasant and she fell into a leaf pile."

"Not that any princes were doing anything but hanging around laughing." Merlin says, rolling her eyes.

Arthur sniffs. "I was keeping an eye out for more pheasants."

"Whilst laughing." Merlin points out.

"It was funny, Merlin." Arthur says. "But they're right, I can't have my bodyguard looking a disgrace and showing me up, you're going to need to wash your hair."

Merlin facepalms. "I'm going to be a decorative accessory to Prince Arthur. Kill me now."

"Think of it more as being in disguise." Gwen says. "And pretend you're Morgana's lady-in-waiting again. Unless, of course, there's a threat, in which case you go into bodyguard mode. Now hold still."

----

"Merlin, stop fidgeting." Arthur says. "You'd think you'd never done a court appearance."

"Not in armour I haven't." Merlin says, keeping her serene expression in place. "There's too many layers, it's boiling and really heavy. And the sword belt's digging in."

"I thought you were used to it now." Arthur says.

"To wear, not to stand stock still for sodding ages. It digs in a lot." Merlin says, trying to lift her belt fractionally by magic. There's a pinch to her side under the mail, directly on her skin, so it's not from Arthur. She knows that pinch. It's Morgana, telling her to shut up right now, there's something coming.

The doors open, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets, and the blue of Mercia sweeps in, King Bayard at their head, half a head taller than nearly everyone in his entourage. Uther and Arthur and all the knights straighten, puffing up slightly, and Merlin does it too. It's definitely an 'I am wearing god knows how many pounds of armour' motion, as she's discovered. Like giving your muscles a tiny bit of a push. She's been through plenty of receptions and official welcomings in her life at Morgana's side, but normally you just straighten fractionally. Not this puff up and hold it. It's odd to say the least.

Bayard clasps hands with Uther in their official 'officially friends again now' gesture, never mind that trifling little war. Then comes the welcoming noises, a speech from Uther, and a declaration back from Bayard. While they're doing that, Merlin reaches out with her magic, feeling for any spells being cast, and watching for odd behaviour.

Arthur glances at her as she murmurs under her breath, raising an eyebrow and twitching his fingers in an abbreviated version of his sign for magic. "Anything?" He asks.

Merlin bites her lip slightly, still searching. She draws a circle with one finger, a 'wait I'm working' gesture that she developed for while she's casting spells. Knight finger sign is weird. There's a lot that are all about which way to go and how many when you want to be quiet, for hunting around castles, which make no sense whatsoever. Merlin, Morgana and Gwen developed a combined eye brow raise mouth twitch tapping language for court. When you're supposed to smile and look pretty in front of the entire court, it's a way to pass the time and communicate. However, bodyguard sign they had to develop all on their own because Camelot has guards, not bodyguards, and they don't really need a quiet language.

Arthur nods. "Let me know."

Merlin keeps looking. There's magic being cast, but... no, that's someone trying to hear what Uther and Bayard are saying near the back, and no-one's getting out knives. Someone just cast a pain soothing spell on themselves. She wonders if it's a headache or their knees from having to stand around. After a bit more, she relaxes. "Finished."

"Anything?" Arthur asks.

"Not a sausage." She grins slightly. "Cheer up, they might try and attack when everyone's guard's down."

A servant comes forward with a case - two goblets for a gift, heavy and expensively worked. Arthur and Uther glance at Merlin, who shakes her head fractionally. Nothing ever stops the king being a paranoid bastard. She wonders if Bayard noticed their gesture, and then notes his sharp gaze and a smirk directly at her. It's definitely an 'I see you' look. He saw all right. And Uther's nod back to Bayard means that ... he meant Bayard to see. Great. She's the latest new power symbol for Camelot, thank you so much Uther.

"I heard that your son had a new bodyguard." Bayard says. "An interesting move."

"Camelot had a series of incidents and Arthur isn't equipped to handle magical attacks." Uther says. "it took a little convincing, but it appears to be working."

"Convincing?" Bayard asks. "The knights or the council?"

"Arthur, actually." Uther says, smirking slightly. "He refuses to believe that he isn't equipped for all eventualities."

Bayard smiles in return as they watch Arthur and his bodyguard glare at each other about something. "Ah, youth and its ego. I remember when you and I believed that once."

"Mm. There were some interesting incidents that we both went crashing into." Uther says. "It's a miracle we survived."

"Is it true that she's the dragonlord's daughter?" Bayard asks.

"Indeed." Uther replies.

"I applaud your sneakiness in tying a dragonlord to the throne." Bayard says. "I'll have to look into that. The family is one thing, but how much influence does she show over the dragons already?"

"Some." Uther says. "Kilgarrah is convinced that she is afflicted by prophecy, especially as regards her and Arthur as a force, and trumpeted it from the towers of the castle when I appointed her as his bodyguard. He seems to view an alliance with Camelot as beneficial as long as she's associated with it." He smiles. "Who knows. So far she's defeated several attacks, so is quite an asset in herself."

"An advantage indeed." Bayard says. "Perhaps I ought to encourage a dragonlord to settle near us."

"The family certainly helps." Uther says. "A man may leave with few repercussions, but ask them to uproot their wife and children from their life and employment..."

"Indeed." Bayard says. "The ones in Mercia appear to be more interested in hermitry."

"Distract them with women and they may settle." Uther says.

At the feast, there are speeches made and jugglers and fire breathers and magicians. Everyone cheers and claps. Bayard takes the opportunity to assess the court of Camelot as they perform for each other. Princess Morgana is infinitely self-possessed, watching everyone else and smoothing feathers. As he'd thought when he'd seen her last, a consummate politician born. Her beauty is almost inconsequential aside from the way she uses it as one extra tool to get people to pay attention or calm egos. As it is, she seems to be mostly watching her brother and his bodyguard. Perhaps something to be wary of? Propriety, perhaps?

He follows her gaze. Arthur and his knights are laughing and joking, as young men full of themselves do. Shoving and playing tricks and laughing and jostling. In amongst them is Arthur's bodyguard, the dragonlord's girl - some sort of bird, wasn't she? Ah yes, that was it. Merlin. A small hawk. Interesting choice of name. She's changed into a red dress for the feast, and stands out amongst the knights in a way she hadn't in armour, but it's clear that she's one of them, shoving and taunting right alongside the young men, as though she was a sister in a rough and tumble set of brothers. She spends much of the time as close as possible to Arthur, jostling and teasing him - and yes, she did actually just flick him in the head while he teases back, one arm around her shoulder. Merlin's constantly watching and keeping an eye out as befits a bodyguard, but at the moment, she appears to be mostly concerned with squabbling with Arthur. As it is, Arthur really does seem more concerned with keeping her attention as he runs herd on his brother knights. Even with the bodyguard part, it certainly looks as though she's his mistress. Yet another way to tie the dragonlords to the Pendragon line.

Uther leans over. "You seem rather interested in the knights."

"I see that it's not just the bodyguard part that's tying young Merlin to Arthur." Bayard comments. "Intended, I take it."

"Quite." Uther says. "Worked out quite well, I feel."

Bayard takes a piece of bread and chews on it thoughtfully. "How's that mistress of his reacting? Morgana's lady-in-waiting, wasn't it?" It seems Arthur's attracted to the same kind of woman. The last time he was at Camelot, he distinctly remembers hearing yelling in a corridor and someone reassuring him that it was Arthur and his mistress who'd fought like cats and dogs the entire time they'd known the other. "I wouldn't have thought she'd take being replaced very well. Especially so publicly."

Uther smirks as he picks up a piece of meat. "Look closer. That is Morgana's old lady-in-waiting. It mollified Balinor somewhat when I mooted the bodyguard role."

"Make it respectable." Balinor says. "Not a bad move. So she's more concerned for him than most. What if they fall out?"

Uther raises an eyebrow. "They've been fighting since they were toddlers. I have less fear of them falling out than most marriages."

On the other side of Uther, Morgana's internally groaning. Gwen says quietly. "Bayard seems to be taking an interest."

"He's congratulating Uther for deploying a mistress so well and tying a dragonlord even further to the Pendragon line." Morgana winces. "Honestly, we'd just got to the point where the gossip was dying down and now they do this. It's as though she's forgotten a lifetime's court training in three months."

"Clearly the knights bad influence is more than we thought." Gwen says sympathetically. "I know that my brother forgets half his manners the minute he's with them."

Morgana covers her eyes. "Did I really just see her elbow my brother?"

Gwen bites her lip. "He's just thrown his arm around her shoulders and laughed in retaliation. Do you think he's forgotten that Merlin's female?"

"I think he's forgotten that she's not in armour right now and that the entire court is looking at them." Morgana sighs, refusing to uncover her eyes. "I assume the king is still distinctly smug."

"Very much so, my lady." Gwen sighs. "It could be worse, they.. oh no."

"What?" Morgana asks, lowering her hand. "She didn't just flick him in the head. She didn't. Has she learnt nothing?"

Gwen tsks. "Always kick them under the table or pinch them in the thigh below the table. She's let us down."

----

Arthur rolls his wrist to get the ache out of it from where Lance parried, hard, and comments "Are you ever going to talk to that girl or are you just going to stare shyly at each other for eternity?"

Lance flushes. "Gwen is not staring at me."

Arthur squints, shading his eyes against the sun at where the girls are taking their turn at teaching Merlin to not get her legs tangled when avoiding a blow. "No, she's looking embarrassed because Merlin's teasing her about you."

Merlin notices him looking, grins and waves. Gwen looks like she wants to disappear into the ground.

---

Morgana's eyeing the newcomers who've been presented at court after being rescued from bandits by Arthur and Merlin. Arthur was out hunting, Merlin accompanying them, when they heard screams and went to rescue them. They're well dressed, and claim to be travelling through the lands of Camelot to relatives after their home was destroyed. Arthur insisted on them seeking shelter at the castle for a few days before they continued their journey. According to Merlin, Arthur's been mooning over the girl since they put their swords down. she's pretty in a red-cheeked way.

"My lady, you're glaring." Gwen murmurs as the father and daughter leave the court.

"I don't trust her." Morgana says. "I'm sure she's the same girl I dreamt was drowning Arthur."

"It could be a general warning." Gwen says thoughtfully. "Are you quite sure?"

"Quite sure about what?" Merlin asks as she comes to their side, formalities over. "Pratface is doing his impression of hit in the face with a haddock. How long do you think this infatuation's going to last? Pellinore put in three days, and Elyan went for a whole week."

"Morgana says she dreamt the lady Sophia was drowning Prince Arthur." Gwen says, and pauses. "And that was a very specific way to describe his expression."

"There was an incident in the kitchens when we were little." Morgana says, smirking.

"It was a thing of beauty and you really need to repeat it at the next feast for the education of others." Merlin says. "Are you sure he wasn't definitely drowned?"

"Being drowned, Merlin." Morgana says. "There's something not quite right about her and Aulfric, though. She just happens to get ambushed as the prince is walking by? And she's batting her eyes enough to get a convulsion."

"Girls have done stranger things to get attention." Gwen says.

"Precisely." Morgana says. "Keep your eyes open."

Arthur smiles as they walk out of the throne room and down the corridor. "Sophia really is quite something, isn't she?"

Merlin eyes him. "Are you sure you're not coming down with something? You're smiling far too much for you."

"I'm smiling because I've finally seen something worth smiling about." Arthur retorts. "Now come on, we've got that inspection to do."

"You mean you have that inspection." Merlin replies, adjusting her sword belt. "I'm just tagging along to make sure you don't trip over your own feet."

"Merlin, I have never tripped over my own feet." Arthur says, offended.

She raises an eyebrow. "I don't remember you being a particularly graceful child, pratface."

"Very funny." Arthur says. Then muses "Girls like flowers, don't they. Sophia definitely does, she was wearing them in her hair."

Merlin turns to look at him. "Are you sure you didn't get a ding to your head from one of the bandits?"

"I'm just wondering if she'd like some flowers." Arthur protests.

"So send some to her room." Merlin replies.

----

Merlin walks in pulling at her belt, and pauses at the sight of Arthur still in his shirtsleeves. "Do I want to know why you're not getting ready for this patrol with the king?" She turns to George, who's looking disgruntled and not a little pained. "George, why's he not dressed?"

"He insisted he wasn't going on patrol." George says, in the tone of an intensely aggrieved yet polite servant who's been prevented from doing his job.

"I'm going out for a walk with Sophia." Arthur says, grinning cheerfully. "Cover for me, would you Merlin?"

"Clearly you have a brain injury if you think I'm dodging the king." Merlin says. "And I would be remiss in my duty as your bodyguard if I wasn't protecting your virtue by preventing you from being alone with strange women. George, I'll hold him, you get his padded coat." She flicks her fingers, eyes glowing.

"Merlin!" Arthur protests as he suddenly finds out he can't move. "What are you doing?"

"Making sure you get dressed." Merlin says, folding her arms. "George?" George nods and goes to get Arthur's padded coat for under his mail.

"Merlin, I order you to-" Arthur yells, good mood gone.

Merlin taps her fingers on her forearm. "Seriously, Arthur, you tell me how you want to explain to the king your father that you're dodging a patrol he's been planning for a good fortnight to go for a walk with a girl you met a day ago." She pauses. "And I might consider it."

"Sophia's wonderful." Arthur says, even as George puts the coat over his head, and manipulates his arms into the sleeves. "Why wouldn't I want to dodge a boring patrol to spend time with her?"

"Not that I'm not agreeing with you about patrol being boring and wanting to dodge it, but this is really dense behaviour, even for you." Merlin says, fetching his mail and helping George to put him into it.

----

Arthur's been restless for the last hour, tapping his fingers and completely failing to look over the reports he's supposed to be looking at. George is doing a bit of tidying up, getting every last inch of dust out of the really difficult to reach corners. Merlin is pretty sure Gaius could use the angles of the furniture to calibrate his scientific measuring instruments.

Merlin's paging through one of her mum's medical books looking at behaviour after head injuries. She thinks this is looking more and more likely to be spell related. Except it doesn't seem to fit a spell. You hear about people trying to do love spells to land themselves a prince, but it's nearly always a story and it doesn't work. It wears off too fast for anything to come of it and the behaviour is always too ridiculously out of character for anyone to think they're not under a spell. Oh, and the girl and or her father normally end up in prison. The problem is Arthur's mostly just a bit distracted and snippy and trying to get time alone with Sophia. Which isn't exactly out of character when it comes to Arthur and girls. Or any boys and the object of their affection, actually. Lance and Gwen are still mooning over each other but mostly stuttering and talking about the weather, and Pellinore and Owain were apparently ridiculous until they started shagging.

Arthur stands up. "Get up, Merlin. I have an audience with my father."

"Since when?" Merlin asks.

"Since lunchtime." Arthur says. "I arranged it and it's very important, so we need to be early."

"How important are we talking?" Merlin asks, putting her book down and going to get her cloak.

"Incredibly important. It may impact my future life." Arthur says portentously, except he's grinning.

"You're really starting to act oddly, Arthur." Merlin says, pulling her cloak on and getting her fingers tangled up with the buckle. "Your future life? Are you applying for fostering in Eire? Because you're a bit old for that now."

"I'm not acting oddly, I'm perfectly reasonable." Arthur sniffs.

They get to the throne room, and Sophia's there. Merlin catches eyes with Morgana and mouths 'what?' at her. Morgana just does her 'I have no idea' look. This is distinctly odd.

And then Sophia steps forward and Arthur asks for her hand. Uther laughs in his face, as you'd expect, given that Arthur's only known her for a day or so and she's not got titles, land, money or any connections. Even Merlin would be more eligible for Arthur's hand than Sophia due to her dragonlord status. Dragonlords are at least strategically important and a power base. Aulfric himself said they were fleeing to throw themselves on the mercy of relatives after their home was destroyed. Refugees. Not a good match whatsoever, unless you think prettiness and the ability to smile winsomely is the be all and end all of a decent royal match. If she'd just been his mistress for a year or so, that would be something and possibly a case for leniency and Uther not actually outright laughing in his face.

The really weird thing is that the entire court turned to look at Merlin while they're whispering. And are still staring at her. Seriously, she has no idea why. She may be his bodyguard and should probably have had some more inkling of this - she's suspecting notes of some sort to arrange this when she'd left to get the books from her mum - but why would this concern her? Arthur getting a wife is not news in the slightest, it's not her concern unless they're trying to kill him. And depending on the circumstances, she may be entirely in support of whoever the wife will be's actions. It depends on how much of a wanker Arthur's been. She'll definitely try as hard as she can to discourage Arthur from marrying someone really annoying, though she'll almost certainly have back up on that from Morgana. And it's not really like Arthur'll have all that much choice in who he marries if there's a kingdom alliance at stake. So why on earth is everyone looking at her? She's not Arthur's mistress.

Sophia and Aulfric leave. Rather quickly. Merlin doesn't know what they were hoping for, but she can't see them sticking around for very long after that. Sophia doesn't look too upset, but she did look a bit mortified. Good. She expects Morgana's smirking fit to burst. She really didn't like Sophia. Something about her batting her eyelashes too much and being far too honey sweet to be trusted.

However, as they're leaving, the knights surround her, cutting her off from Arthur and the rest of the court streaming out into the corridor. Merlin looks up. "All right, what did I do?"

Leon says in a reassuring tone. "It's all right, just making sure you're okay."

"Okay?" Merlin asks. "Why would I not be all right? Are you sure you're not going to check on Arthur?"

"Well... we're more concerned about you. And what you might do." Leon says. "You've been known to lash out when you're pissed off. Plus what he did was pretty awful given that you looked as surprised as the rest of us. Did he give you any inkling that he was thinking of proposing to her?"

"No, complete surprise." Merlin shrugs. "he's been acting a bit odd, but not that much different than when he had that crush on that earl's daughter when he was seventeen. I didn't think he was about to propose marriage. I only found out when he opened his mouth in front of the king, same as the rest of you."

The knights exchange glances. Pellinore actually winces. "Arthur's going to die. Are you sure you're okay? That was a complete bastard thing to do to you. It's okay if you need a bit of a break from him, I'm sure Uther would understand if we point out what you've done to him just when you're pissed off after a long day of training and he's been more of a wanker than usual. None of us have magic, but some of the squires do and they can work as a substitute while we cover the body guarding."

Merlin gives them a look. A proper one. They're all looking worried. And sympathetic. Why on earth are they looking sympathetic? What do they think is going on? "I... I'm not sure what you think Arthur did to me aside from not saying he was thinking of getting married."

Dagonet looks worried. And sympathetic. Which just looks bloody weird on Dagonet of all people. "You and Arthur are a bit.." He makes a hand gesture of spectacular cack handedness that's clearly supposed to mean something but just looks like he's got his fingers tangled. "Well." He coughs, looking embarrassed. "You two have a thing. You're involved a bit more than most people. Got an understanding. It's a bit of a bastard thing to spring on you out of nowhere. You can understand why we might be worried that the prince'll be going round looking a bit singed."

"...Involved?" Merlin asks, then realises what end of the stick they've somehow managed to get. You'd think they of all people aside from Morgana and Gwen would know not to be taken in by the gossip. She buries her face in her hands. "We are not together. At all. in any way. We don't have an understanding. We never did. Squabbling does not mean attraction, you idiots, this is not a sodding humorous actors skit. I'm a bit more comfortable around him these days but I have absolutely no desire to share his bed whatsoever. At all. The most I'm feeling about him suddenly wanting to be married to Sophia is that he could've given me a clue so I wouldn't be interrogated by Uther."

They all exchange more sympathetic worried glances. Including Lance. She's really got every right to pick them up and dunk them in the moat, she really does. Maybe even leave them there until they beg for mercy.

"Are you sure you're not jealous? He did ask for her hand." Owain asks. "We did think that was some part of the deal Uther made with your father..."

Merlin has no choice. Whatsoever. She extends her arm and cuffs Owain around the back of the head. "You do remember how dragonlords aren't eligible for marrying into the throne, right? There's some codicil in the laws somewhere to discourage it because of the whole suspect loyalty to the dragons and not the kingdom we live in bit."

Owain rubs the back of his head sheepishly. Good. "Well yeah, but maybe it was an arrangement to make your thing look a bit more respectable given that you can't marry him. It did look that way. So you could be noble about it when he did get married."

"Oh my god, I am not jealous, being noble or resigning myself!" Merlin says. Possibly a bit loud.

At which point Morgana smoothly cuts through the knights defensive group, links her arm with Merlin's arm and pulls her out of the group.

"This is getting ridiculous." Morgana says, as though she hadn't heard a single word of the knights overly concerned ridiculous solicitousness. "I honestly thinking he's been possessed."

"You have no idea how much I love you for talking sense." Merlin says fervently. "Given his level of obsession I think you're right. I was looking through mum's books on head injuries and there's no mention of this kind of thing. Love spells make people act stupidly out of character, so it's not that."

"Precisely. The problem is figuring out what it is she's doing. I assume George would have told you if he'd suddenly started wearing or carrying a token." Morgana says.

"No tokens." Merlin says. "I checked for that. His normal jewellery's all fine too."

"Hmm. So possession, presumably topped up by regular contact with Sophia." Morgana says. "I assume she'll try again given that Uther scuppered the marriage idea."

"Or..." Gwen says, then stops. "No, Arthur wouldn't do that."

"Wouldn't do what?" Morgana asks.

Gwen bites her lip and twists her fingers together. "I was thinking what happens sometimes when two young people are forbidden from marrying. They elope. only Arthur wouldn't be that stupid."

Morgana winces. "He is possessed. Or something like it."

Merlin takes a deep breath. "I'll go check."
----
Morgana slaps her awake. "Merlin, come on, you have to wake up -"

"I'm awake, I'm - my head is killing me -" Merlin moans, then her eyes slam open. "Where's Aulfric and Sophia?"

"Not here. Did you see them?" Morgana says, alarmed.

"The last I remember was I looked in here and then Aulfric came in and -" Merlin stops. "Red eyes. They had red eyes. They're not human."

"So finding them right now would probably be a brilliant thing." Morgana says. "And they probably have Arthur, if it's him they wanted all along."

"Horses, and I can track Arthur." Merlin says, staggering to her feet even as her head aches like mad.

"You can?" Morgana asks.

"Too much time spent with him, I could track that idiot anywhere. Same as I could track you and Gwen." Merlin replies as they make for the stables.

They race through the forest, Morgana following Merlin as she guides her horse in the direction of the lodestar that's Arthur. They can't have gotten that far ahead if they're on foot. No other horses were gone from the stables.

When they catch up, the lake is so lousy in otherworldly magic that Morgana reels back a step. Aulfric's chanting as music swims through what looks like a portal to another land, and Sophia's waist deep in the water, dunking Arthur. In full mail. "I - staff?" Merlin says, pointing at Sophia's staff that's abandoned on the shore.

Morgana nods, and dives for it, while Merlin just throws her magic at Aulfric, anything to get him to stop. Stopping chanting tends to disrupt the spell, whatever it is he's doing.

Morgana manages to get the staff to blast a beam of pure blue, and there's fairies screaming at them and voices and Aulfric firing magic back and Sophia screaming. Morgana and Merlin blast magic and channelled blue magic at Aulfric together, and he bursts into sparkles and muck. Sophia screams, crying and raging at what they've done to her father, and Merlin honestly cannot give a toss as she tries to fire some sort of spell at them, deflecting her magic in a shield as Morgana blasts her with the staff.

It's all sparkles in the air as the music dies down and the portal closes, and Merlin looks round. "Oh shit, where's Arthur?" She can't see him, Sophia was dunking him and his armour, he was still wearing his armour and he was under a spell - Merlin doesn't even think, she just dives, never mind that she's wearing her armour, doesn't even think to take it off these days during daylight unless it's training and everyone has to get clean.

She can hear Morgana yelling about something when she comes back up for air, but she can't even think, got to look for Arthur some more, that stupid, idiot, hare brained prat she's been forced into serving, that faint twinge of light. The lake's too deep, Sophia was only at waist height, surely - there. Merlin swims, her lungs burning, grabbing at him with her magic and pulling, pulling so hard and there, that's mail under her hand and in her grip, and she gives one last burst of magic to get them to the surface, desperate for breath. Morgana wades in, grabbing and pulling at Arthur. and scolding Merlin for nearly drowning herself, what was she thinking diving in with her armour still on.

When they're on the shore, they both grab the water out of his lungs and shove air back in, the way it says to in the medical journals. Alice said something about people drowning on dry land because the water wasn't fully out of their lungs, and the girls had nightmares about it for days.

Arthur finally takes a breath of his own, retching, and Merlin can't stop herself, she hugs him in relief. "Idiot, I was so bloody worried, that'll teach you about strange women hanging around in ponds -"

"Ow." Arthur says. "Merlin, what happened? And why are you hugging me?"

"She's taken leave of her senses because she nearly drowned herself trying to get you out of the water after Sophia nearly drowned you." Morgana says archly in the background. And then hugs Arthur and Merlin, so she can't talk.

"Sophia nearly drowned me?" Arthur frowns. "But she's tiny."

"You were possessed." Merlin says, still holding on tightly. "We think they were sidhe. There were loads of fairies around and a portal. Plus one prince to be sacrificed."

"I was possessed?" Arthur blinks, patting Merlin's back gingerly. Then the events of the past couple of days catch up with him. "...Did I ask for her hand in front of the court?"

"You did." Morgana says. "You're never going to live that one down. Even if we do tell them you were possessed."

Merlin rubs the back of her head as they ride back to the castle, Morgana and Merlin one horse, Arthur on the other. "My head still hurts. Me getting hurt whilst trying to stop you getting kidnapped was not in the job description."

Arthur grimaces. Riding in wet clothing is not comfortable. Riding in wet mail is worse. "It's part of being a knight, Merlin. At least Morgana woke you up in time."

"And now we have some very nice new staffs." Morgana says brightly. "But getting kidnapped by fairies, Arthur? Really? This'll teach you to stop talking to strange women."

"I still don't see why you're dry and I'm wet if you went into the lake too." Arthur grumbles.

"The drying spell is limited to those I feel like drying." Merlin says, then probes the back of her head gingerly. "I'm going to see Alice as soon as I get back, my vision's still a bit fuzzy at the edges."

Chapter Text

It's the day of Arthur's investiture as Crown Prince. Merlin's standing with the knights, watching as the circlet is put on his head. They're grinning fit to burst, proud of their leader. Merlin's sort of proud. he's made it this far, and he's getting to be a bit less of a complete twerp. He cares about the people of Camelot when he remembers, and his knights love him to pieces, so there's got to be something under the blond handsome arrogant veneer. The longer Merlin serves as his bodyguard, and spends nearly every waking moment with him, she's sure he's basically made of eighteen layers of varnish with a few odd cracks in unexpected places. She's gotten used to him being there every time she turns around, though. However, as it's a court occasion, she's got to keep an eye out for anyone who decides to try their luck at killing the Crown Prince of Camelot at his most important occasion so far. So far, so good. Just nobles congratulating themselves on being present and a bit smug and a bit pleased for Arthur. or vaguely resentful but not quite feeling the need to hire sorcerers to kill him.

Once Arthur gets up and the official cheers are over, the knights pounce, clapping him on the back and shoving him. Merlin's caught up in it and may possibly have been seen nudging Arthur in the side and grinning. You can't prove anything, even if Morgana's very clearly doing her internal groan at how Merlin's behaviour's degenerated since she started hanging around with these idiots who think with their muscles. She can't help it. shoving is the way they communicate, and it becomes a bit second nature when she's with them. Plus she's at least now got the muscles and is able to take the friendly punches these days without getting bruises. She's never telling Gwen and Morgana that a bunch of hand to hand is standing there while people hit you. Morgana would crucify Arthur without stopping to ask. Merlin nearly killed Arthur for that one herself, until Lance and Leon took her aside and explained that they'd all done it, although maybe not as concentrated as she's had it, since most people spend years learning how to fight and defend themselves. It's how you toughen your muscles and learn how not to react when someone hits you so you don't come out of a normal training session black and blue, like her first month.

Arthur's grinning so hard that he actually looks like a golden fairytale prince, the torches making his hair glow, and Uther's smiling benevolently at the reception of his son, so of course that's the moment when the knight crashes through the window. Merlin instantly throws up a barrier between the knight and Arthur. Normally attackers aren’t so obvious. This one at least isn't shy about stating his intentions. Crashing through a giant stained glass window on a horse doesn't tend to be a statement of friendly intentions. He's wearing black painted armour, though it's a bit worn at the edges, as though it hasn't been refreshed in some time. All the knights are fumbling for their swords, all the courtiers who aren't armed are shrieking and retreating, and Merlin's ready to blast him out into the darkness he came from the second he so much as lays a finger near Arthur, but then he does something completely unexpected.

He doesn't attack. There's no throwing of spears, swords, or charging them as you might expect. Instead, the black knight throws down a gauntlet and challenges someone - anyone - to single combat. Uther grabs Arthur's arm to stop him going forward, which is more effective than you'd think, as the king is built more like an oak beam. The ancient type that hold up inn roofs and seem to have hardened into granite. Old bones but a real physical threat. The other knights jostle, not really wanting to pick it up and take up the challenge because the black knight screams threat and death, but their stupid honour and training tell them that they're supposed to take the challenge of anyone throwing a glove on the floor. Honestly, if the apprentices decided that dropping a glove meant that you had to start a fight, they'd be chucked in the stocks and had rotten vegetables thrown at them until they realised that it was an unbelievably stupid idea. But no, because it's nobles in heavy armour, it's fine and a matter of honour Which is basically them egging each other on while some other idiot yells 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'. And then Owain scurries forward, brave, stupid, ever so young Owain, and takes the challenge.

The knight nods, states a time - tomorrow - and leaves the hall. Not back through the window but out the doors. like sensible people would, but still just as much an overly dramatic exit as entrance.

At which point the court explodes into noise. Who was that. how, when, where... Merlin catches Morgana's gaze. She's wincing whilst looking vaguely horrified. Merlin makes a 'talk later' gesture, and Morgana nods. The princess knows she's got to attend on Arthur first.

Arthur's in the middle of berating Owain for being such an idiot when Merlin turns back to them. "Of all the stupid, reckless things, Owain - that challenge was clearly meant for me!"

Owain sets his jaw into his classic mulish face when he thinks he's being condescended to. To be fair, he often is since he's one of the youngest and most inexperienced of the knights. All he's really done is patrols and tournaments, and most of those don't really involve much blood as such. Merlin's got more experience in killing people than Owain has. Admittedly not with a sword, more ... chandeliers and magic staffs, but still. Stupid, idiot *boy*.

"I took the challenge. Someone had to." Owain says.

"Only because my father held me back!" Arthur says.

"Owain, you stupid, idiot -" Pellinore says in despair. He knows how impulsive and desperate to prove himself Owain is.

"Owain, let one of us sub in for you." Lance says calmly. "He doesn't care who he fights, only that he fights. It's a statement meant to disrupt the prince's investiture, not a test of skill or honour. There would be no dishonour in letting one of us take your place. You've never fought in a proper fight, only to yielding or first blood. Let someone more experienced take your place."

"No better time to prove myself or get experience." Owain says. Even if he's looking more trepidatious, his stupid stubborn pride of all things is stopping him giving in.

Merlin buries her face in her palms at the infinite stupidity of men. No, boys. Definitely boys. Mum always said the true test of how to separate the men from the boys was to see which one was the most responsible and recognise what actually needs doing and how to protect people, not take stupid dares and let concepts like honour and pride blind them into walking straight into the jaws of death and injury. She should know, she has to patch them up. Better to prove your mettle by defending your home and loved ones and staying alive than going off on some godforsaken stupid quest because it promised riches and a glorious death. There's nothing glorious about death. Merlin and Morgana spent half their childhood in and out of the healers' chambers, seeing supposedly brave men bleed out and cough their last on the table. Or die of fever, raving as the infection took them, breath and wounds stinking of poison. Slow deaths after they'd taken one through the gut, Gaius and Alice and Hunith explaining that there was poison in the gut, your body took all the food and strained out the goodness that let you build muscle and bone, just leaving the bad stuff that you ended up shitting down the privy. That was good for plants and tanners and dyers, but not for humans. You couldn't eat it, you got disease. Only it was done slowly, the straining. it took a whole day and night if you ate a marble for it to come out the other end. By the time it got to your gut it was mostly the bad stuff, so if you got a wound in your stomach that went through your muscle and fat and pierced the gut, all the bad stuff went into your blood. And it poisoned you, the way bad stuff does. Only slowly. Hours of getting sicker and the poison spreading through your body. Bad as getting cramp colic, where the side of your stomach gets hard out of nowhere and you're in so much pain for hours as you die. Gaius thinks cramp colic is when a weak point in your gut is infected by ill humours to the point that it bursts and releases a giant glut of poison.

Merlin speaks up. "Owain, if there's anyone who should be taking up the challenge it's me."

Arthur's head whips round. "Oh no it's not, Merlin."

Merlin glares at him, before putting a hand on Owain's arm gently. "Owain, I'm pratface's bodyguard. I’m the one who protects him from threats. Magical threats. And if someone leaping a horse through a glass window and coming away completely uninjured doesn't scream magic, I don't know what does. Look at the floor. By all rights the horse's legs should be lacerated and bleeding everywhere, all over the floor. Ever seen someone who's gone through glass? I have. Glass is sharp as buggery, and there should be slices all over its legs at the very least. You can't fight magic with a sodding sword, you twerp."

Arthur glares at her. "For starters, you are not taking Owain's place. For second - what were you doing, precisely?"

Merlin cocks her head and uses her 'are you stupid' tone. Specialised and honed for one idiot prince with no sense of self preservation. "There was a shield between him and everyone. If he'd tried to fire or chuck anything at you, or made a thrust, it would've rebounded on him."

"Sensible." Arthur says grudgingly. Despite all of it, how much they dislike each other and how much in contempt he holds her knightly fighting skills, he's willing to concede that she does know what she's doing when it comes to magic and defending people, especially him. And she's getting better, practising the spells and studying things to help in her role. Help protect her charges. "But you still shouldn't be taking up the challenge."

"If it's targeted at you and it's a magical threat, I bloody should be. It's my job." Merlin argues. Then pauses. "Although I would just pick the gauntlet up, throw it back in his face and then set him on fire."

"Which is why you definitely shouldn't, you clearly have no concept of honour." Arthur says, rolling his eyes.

Merlin rolls hers back and gestures at herself. "Bodyguard, Pratface. Not compatible with the job." She sighs. "Anyway, it's not the point. Owain, you shouldn't be doing this. You need to step down."

Owain just gets mulish as they try to talk him out of it. Dagonet tries to bully him out of it. Elyan tries to argue it, jolly him out of it, the sheer ridiculousness of going up against some stranger you have no idea about. They don't even know that the challenger is a knight beyond his battered armour. Leon tries reason. Pellinore... Pellinore doesn't say anything. He just looks at him. Sad and lost and resigned, like he doesn't have the words, even less than the rest of them do. One thing that's certain is that no-one's got any confidence in Owain winning the match. He's just too green, and the black knight, at least by his armour, looked like a survivor of many battles. Owain might win. He might. But he's never had to fight for his life. Bandits on patrol don't really count. Owain's a decent swordsman. He's not Arthur, and he's not Lancelot, both of whom you'd put money on having a decent chance if they went up against any opponent. And Owain's never killed anyone. Fought other knights to the blood, or to a standstill, yes, but not killed anyone. Never had to fight for his life. No experience of mortal combat.

Eventually Pellinore pulls Owain off to bed to hopefully get some rest before the morning. The rest of the knights stand around awkwardly for a bit before Arthur rubs his forehead. "All right, fuck off, all of you. You can't do anything, I'll try to persuade him out of it again in the morning."

Merlin grabs his arm after they scatter. "That includes you too, pratface."

"We don't even know who he was." Arthur says.

"Still might not." Merlin says as they walk back to Arthur's chambers. "Maybe he won't even turn up and this was all to make a show and disrupt your celebrations." she pauses. "Though it is an awful lot to do just to spoil a feast."

the morning dawns bright and clear. Everyone's gathered in the stands for the duel. Not so much excitement as nervousness. no-one knows anything about this challenger. There's no supporters, nothing to give anyone any idea what to cheer for, even if it's just just to boo the villain. The whole way there, Arthur tries to dissuade Owain, telling him it's no dishonour to have someone take his place. Pellinore shadows him, helped put his armour on this morning. As they get closer, the dull roar of the crowd gets louder, and even though they're not cheering, it's still loud. And then they get to the arena, and the black knight's standing there, stock still in the centre.

"Last chance." Arthur says. "Owain."

Owain firms his jaw. "I took up the challenge." Arthur lets out a breath and claps him on the shoulder, solemn. Respecting his decision. If Merlin was prince she'd chuck him in the gaol and let the challenger leave. they'll get bored eventually. Pellinore hugs him, burying his face in his neck, tucking something - a handkerchief, maybe, some scrap of cloth - into his hauberk, next to the skin. A token. Hope that maybe he'll make it through without being too injured. That the black knight won't hurt him too much.

And then Owain takes a deep breath and puts his helmet on, going out into the bright light of the arena to face his challenger, and they go take their place in the stands, by Morgana and Gwen and the king.

Owain tries for the first hit. The black knight blocks it with relative ease. And then the fight's on. parry and thrust and hit and it's so obvious to anyone who's the one with acres of battle experience. No flourishes, nothing messy, just relentless battering, most of them hitting Owain. Owain does fight back. he tries his best. a few of his hits make contact. He manages a lucky thrust through the black knight's guard. But that's it. The knight beats him into the ground. he'd been toying with him all along. Some of the audience hide their faces, unable to look. Maybe the black knight will be merciful. Maybe. But his anonymity doesn't give them any hope. There's no face to show emotions, nothing to appeal to. Owain's hit this way and that, and then he lands on the ground. He's not given time to scramble to his feet. No quarter. The black knight beats him bloody on the floor of the arena. And then rears back. maybe he'll be merciful, got his taste for blood and humiliating one of Camelot's famed knights so publicly. But then he reverses his grip, raises his hands above his head and thrusts his blade straight through Owain's chest.

The entire crowd groans. Owain's dead. Dead instantly, his helmet long gone under the battering, blood dark on his face under the bright sun. The black knight rears back, victorious. He doesn't raise his arms or make any triumphant gesture. Instead, he sheaths his sword in an efficient motion, striding forward to the royal part of the stand, and surveys them.

And then he removes his glove and throws the gauntlet down again. Arthur half raises in his seat, but Uther clamps his hand down on Arthur's shoulder, stopping him taking up the challenge. Even so, Arthur would never have got to it. Not before Pellinore. Pellinore scrambled over the stands and picked it up, accepting the challenge, out of his seat and over the barrier before Arthur would've managed to stand fully upright, even if he hadn't been stopped by his father.

"I accept." Pellinore says, and then raises his voice so it's heard across the arena. "I accept your challenge."

No-one cheers. No-one wants to. This isn't entertainment. Even the ones who don't know the players - most of the assembled crowd, in fact - knows that this one is for revenge and grief. It's not the brashness and bravado of a boy who thinks of honour. Pellinore takes the challenge because he wants revenge for Owain's death. Some chance of killing him. Not honour.

Looking around, across the knights and Pendragons, everyone's just got their hands to their mouths. some in resignation. Some in grief. But not saying anything.

None of the knights tries to dissuade Pellinore in the way they so desperately did Owain. Instead they talk about Owain. try to keep his memory. Try to get Pellinore talking about him and get rid of that half stony faced half far away look he's had since they carried Owain's body away from the arena, just leaving a small blood stain, which had sawdust thrown over it to soak up the blood.

Merlin comes back from checking on Morgana to see Arthur sitting on the step, elbows on his knees and lips pursed. Which means he's not exactly thinking, but he might be a bit reflective, so Merlin sits down, sweeping her cloak out of the way. "What're you thinking about?" Merlin asks after a few minutes go by of prolonged silence, the view only broken by a cat crossing the yard and a couple of servants with baskets of firewood on their backs a little while later, gossiping about the new girl at the tavern.

Arthur lifts his hands to his chin, tapping his lips with his knuckles. "Pellinore's still got wounds from Athanden."

"The skirmish outside the woods there?" Merlin asks. The skirmish had got a bit nasty, with a few wounded. Merlin and the squires had bound them up. they could still ride. It wasn't too serious, just lay off the full scale training and patrols for a few weeks to give them a chance to heal.

Arthur nods. "It'll slow him up. he shouldn't be fighting."

Merlin bites her lip. "Don't think we could stop him. Same way there's no way you would've made it to the gauntlet before him. Pellinore would've knocked you down and grabbed it out of your hand." It's the problem with spending too much time with these idiots. You get to know them a little too well. Lance wouldn't seek revenge. Dagonet would just go mad and then burn it out. Pellinore, on the other hand - he'd probably have done this even if Owain had just been a treasured friend. First to volunteer to avenge his loved ones, and an eye for an eye is the best way to do that.

"I know." Arthur says, sighing. "I just wish - what if the black knight wins again? How many more will it take?"

Merlin rolls her eyes. "It's a bit obvious, pratface. He made the big entrance at your investiture. he wants the Crown Prince of Camelot to fight him. It doesn't matter what his grudge is. I say we boot him out of the castle now. I could still set him on fire and make an end to it." she pauses, tracing a line on her knee. "Let Pellinore wail out his grief but continue living. At least until the next time he wants to avenge himself on someone."

"You're really fond of this idea of setting this man on fire." Arthur says, glancing at her. Possibly a little concerned. "Should I be worried about your arsonist tendencies?"

"Fire is very final." Merlin says. "You don't come back from it." She pauses. "Does anyone know who he even is? The armour's not new, but he fights like someone who practices. He had a sigil on his chest." She pauses. "Do you think your father might know, at least? Cross reference the sigil with those who bear a grudge."

"It's worth a try." Arthur says. And might stop him thinking about Pellinore and Owain, Merlin doesn't say.

Uther's in the council rooms, looking tired. With Gaius and some of his other courtiers. Tired and troubled. he looks up when Arthur enters, though. "Yes, my son? Was there something you wanted?"

Arthur hesitates for a moment, then comes out with it. "I was wondering if you recognised the sigil on the knight's armour. The armour looked old, but perhaps it was that of someone you once fought against in my youth?"

Uther rubs his hand over his chin. Looking even more tired. And glances at Gaius, who nods faintly, hands linked together in front of him. "Yes, we recognised it."

"And...?" Arthur prompts.

"It's Tristan Du Bois." Uther sighs. Like he desperately doesn't want to say it. Didn't even want to think about it. What happened to the knight? If the king had defeated him, he'd be crowing, or regaling tales of how he'd achieved it. This hesitancy is odd for Uther. Gaius catches her eye and looks troubled. And a bit hunted. Normally the only people who can make him look like that are Alice and Merlin's mother. Hmm.

"Who is..." Arthur prompts again.

"Your mother's brother." Gaius says.

"Why have I never heard of him, then?" Arthur says, puzzled. "He looked like a very skilled knight of many battles." And if he'd been in a lot of battles, Arthur would've heard of him. He can be made to study. occasionally. with the right subject matter.

Uther sighs, placing his hand on the back of a nearby chair, lost in thought. "When your mother died from the effort of childbirth, Tristan blamed me and my desire for a child. he said that that was what had killed his sister. Never mind that your mother had been desperate for you, and so happy when the pregnancy had been confirmed. She'd even sought Nimueh's help, and Nimueh had said that she could carry to term without too many problems. I refused to go through with it unless Nimueh could be sure that the pregnancy wouldn't hurt her. There'd been miscarriages." He rubs a weary hand over his face. "But something went wrong during the birth. An infection, and your mother died a few days later from fever. But Tristan still blamed me for it. So he challenged me and I killed him in single combat."

Merlin and Arthur are gaping a little. Merlin doesn't know if Arthur knew the full details of how his mother died - Merlin certainly did, because Alice and her mother were midwives on that birth and Merlin and Morgana and Gwen got all the details on pregnancy. But blaming the husband when the pregnancy had gone reasonably? That's insane. You might as well have blamed the magical assistance. Maybe if Nimueh had guaranteed that Igraine wouldn't have survived the pregnancy, there are dark and horrible spells that demand a life for a life, and she's certainly heard of women foolish enough to try for that, too stupid to think of what it would be like for the child to grow up without a mother. But on something that went wrong during the birth? Perfectly healthy women, strong as an ox, die from infections caught during the birth all the time. They die when something tears and the midwives can't stop the bleeding. They die when the afterbirth won't come and gets lodged and rots.

Arthur's forehead creases. "So is that someone who's stolen his armour?" He pauses. "Leaving aside the fact that my uncle was clearly insane to blame you for my mother's death."

Gaius sighs. "That, prince Arthur, is what we're trying to figure out. Tristan had no heirs and was by all reports buried in his armour. The black knight refuses to remove his helmet or speak or partake in anything while he waits, so unless we tackle him where he stands..."

Merlin scratches her neck. "Is there a spell that'll let us see through the helmet?"

"Not that I've found, Merlin." Gaius says. "You're welcome to try."

The next day dawns, and everyone turns up at the arena. Pellinore looks grim. Utterly grim. Avenge Owain or die trying. Arthur doesn't even say anything more than "Good luck." as Pellinore sets foot into the arena and they depart for the stands.

The crowd starts off silent, in dread of the slaughter they saw yesterday. The fighters circle each other, and then Pellinore attacks. Parry and thrust and defend, and they seem at least evenly matched at this moment as they test the others' weaknesses. Pellinore's favouring his left side from his previous wounds, Merlin can tell after months of watching knights fighting. he's covering it well, but he's still favouring it. And then Pellinore gradually starts to get the upper hand as they whirl steel around, knocking the black knight (possibly Tristan Du Bois under there) back a few paces. The crowd start to cheer and clap, glad for a fight that seems more evenly matched and the knight of Camelot getting some hits in. The black knight recovers quickly, advancing back into the fight, but Pellinore quickly establishes superiority and that it wasn't a fluke, getting hit after hit in and driving the black knight back until there's a gap in his defences and Pellinore drives the sword into his gut. the assembled crowd whoops in celebration, glad to see someone they're familiar with winning. Because that's surely a mortal blow. There a pause, Pellinore keeping his shield up, too aware of the potential for a retaliatory blow. Too many soldiers get killed or very badly injured by their opponent lashing out just as they go down. The black knight falls to his knees, it's definitely a kill - and by some impossibility staggers to his feet and stabs Pellinore under the ribs, breaking through his defences with sheer brute force and the element of surprise. Pellinore staggers as the knight pulls his blade out, and then collapses on the ground. It's definitely a mortal wound and he's dead soon enough. An audible groan goes up from the crowd, accompanied this time by booing and hissing, because it hadn't been slaughter this time. For a long moment it looked like Pellinore was going to win.

The black knight steps away from the body, seemingly shaking off all sign that he'd sustained an injury, and strides over to the stand. This time he's not even dropped the gauntlet when Arthur's goes whizzing through the air and hits the ground between the black knight's feet. Arthur stands.

"I, Arthur Pendragon, Crown Prince of Camelot, challenge you to mortal combat. Here at noon tomorrow." Arthur says , tones ringing out across the arena.

Merlin buries her face in her hands, not even able to look at the looks everyone's giving him. She can hear Morgana and Gwen's shocked gasps. She's going to kill the idiotic, hare brained twerp. She really is. The black knight's not even going to get a chance to land a blow.

Merlin grabs Arthur's arm and drags him from the stands as soon as everyone starts to disperse. "Do I want to know what you're thinking?" She hisses. "No, you're not fucking thinking, are you? You never fucking think, you're a dense, meatheaded, pretty faced waste of space who only thinks with his sodding muscles!"

Arthur, still pale faced, says dryly "You don't approve, I take it."

"What gave you that impression?" Merlin says. "I ought to turn you into a sodding frog to stop you ever trying that again, and then turn back time and do it earlier to stop you - what possessed you?"

"Merlin, I know the concept of honour is alien to you, but -" Arthur starts.

"Of course it is, because my sodding job is to keep you alive, and I can't do that because you've just thrown yourself into a fight that's going to get you killed!" Merlin says, voice getting louder. "Owain took up the gauntlet because he was young and stupid, Pellinore took it up to avenge Owain out of grief, and you? What're you taking it up for? He wants you dead, Arthur, that's the entire reason for his presence, and he's goaded you into a fight that's going to kill you! What good does that do you? What good does that do anyone, never mind your precious kingdom?"

"I have to." Arthur says, looking grim. And noble. Which Merlin knows is just another world for spectacularly stupid. "He might not kill me. I might win."

"Really." Merlin says. "Pellinore stabbed him in the gut, and it slowed him down for two seconds. He's not like other men, no matter how skilfully you fight, he'll just wear you down until you leave a gap and then you'll be dead. just like them, and give him what he wants. Why are you so stupid that you're playing straight into his hands?"

"Merlin, I-" Arthur starts.

"Oh, fuck this." Merlin states, wheeling about and storming off.

"Merlin!" Arthur yells, but she doesn't stop.

After storming off, she winds up in the back yard. Which the black knight is standing in. Stock still, like he could stand there all day. Or has a broom handle going up his leg and back under the armour and that's holding him up. How he's not showing any exhaustion is beyond her. He took a stab to the gut and he's not sought medical attention. He's still standing. He's got to be powered by magic somehow. Merlin tilts her head, studying him. If he can take a stab to the gut, what else is he immune to? Merlin leans down and presses her finger to the ground, sending a trail of fire across the ground and around him. Just a little one, as though it was a dribble of cooking oil she'd set a spark to. He doesn't react. All animals react to fire. Even human idiots encased in metal react to fire. She flicks her fingers, telling the fire to go higher. it flares up, first to waist height, barely an inch from him - she's careful not to let the flames actually touch him - and there's no reaction. He has to be really warm. She raises the flames higher, until they're above his head. There's no movement from him that she can tell. She lets it burn at that height for a minute. Nothing. His armour should be red hot by now. And he himself should have at least a few burns. Be a bit toasty. She extinguishes the flames and... he's still standing there. Either his pain tolerance is incredible or there's no pain to feel. Merlin's really, really tempted to set him on fire. just get rid of him. Everything burns. Even stone burns, she's heard tales of mountains that exploded and spilled red hot liquid stone after smoking for days, taking villages and towns in their wake. Merlin conjures a burst of rain over him, resulting in a giant cloud of steam. He's definitely red hot then. And she can't smell burning, so maybe fire won't work properly.

Instead of setting him on fire to really test that theory, Merlin grits her teeth. She needs to find out what he is. And Tristan Du Bois is dead, dead these twenty years. She goes to find Gaius. he's normally the authority on magic matters. Eventually she finds him in the library, conferring with Geoffrey as they flick through piles of books.

"Merlin?" Gaius says as she enters. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be with Arthur?"

"he wants to commit suicide, I can't stop him." Merlin says shortly. "He clearly doesn’t need my services or protection by his side since he's so bloody determined to get himself killed." She shrugs. "So I went to see what would happen if I roasted him in his armour."

Geoffrey frowns at her. The librarian's eternal hatred of fire is a bit predictable. He'd probably kill for some form of light that could burn without flame, but for now he's stuck with lanterns. Light spells only last for so long and the magic user has to keep casting. They'd exhaust themselves too fast - the amount of people that it would take to just keep the library lit for a day, done in a relay, would be too many.

Gaius raises an eyebrow. "You are aware that that is expressly against the rules of combat."

Merlin shrugs. "I may look like a knight, I may train and ride alongside them, but I'm not one, Gaius." She pauses. "I didn't actually set him on fire. I put a high circle of flame around him to test if he could actually feel pain or if it would affect him, because he was only slowed down for a bit by having a sword thrust into his guts."

"Interesting." Gaius says, nodding in approval that she's following the scientific method that he loves so much. "And the results of your experiment?"

"Not a sausage." Merlin says. "His armour was boiling, but he didn't react. And you said that Tristan Du Bois was dead. So... what is there out there like that? Can corpses walk about and speak?"

Gaius nods. "We believe him to be a lich, or a ghoul. Raised by magic to do someone's bidding."

"So a walking talking corpse." Merlin makes a face. "How is it that he doesn't stink?"

"He's been dead too long." Gaius says. "What was left to rot rotted away long ago, so it's more like a tanners and a skeleton holding up the armour."

"Lovely." Merlin tries not to imagine that image. It's surprisingly easy, because trying to imagine it in the first place is really difficult. "So how do we kill it? Are there any spells for it?"

"Sadly, not that I've read of." Gaius says. "Normally they're set as an eternal guard, or to fall apart when their purpose is done."

"Said purpose being killing pratface." Merlin says, then mutters "I've half a mind to just let him do it, if he's so bloody determined to commit suicide."

Geoffrey clears his throat, reaching for a book in the pile and opening it, running his finger down a page with an illustration of a dragon. And a sword. "I have found tales of knights who vanquished liches."

"What did they do, wall them up in mountains?" Merlin asks. "I could do that."

"Hardly. they used a pure sword, burnished and bathed in dragonfire to slay the lich." Geoffrey says, looking at her disapprovingly for the sin of interrupting him and having no respect. As usual.

"A pure sword?" Merlin frowns. "Does that mean a blessed one?"

"Unblooded." Gaius provides. "It's occasionally a prerequisite for knives used in spells."

Merlin bites her lip. "Well, that's going to be a complete sod. I can probably get the dragonfire, but an unblooded sword? All the swords in Camelot are used. Even Morgana's has had blood on it, she cut herself testing the edge. Ceremonial swords are useless." She pauses. "Not to mention that it's got to be a decent sword that'll last a few rounds."

Merlin leaves the library, desperately thinking where she might have seen a sword that's been unused. She can't think of any. Surely there's got to be one in the castle somewhere. Then there's the problem of getting the dragon here, from wherever he is in the kingdom, and persuading him that he really needs to breathe fire on the sword.

She's been through the armoury, and is currently searching the walls for something that might have a chance of being made for the purpose of being decorative. Merlin's desperate, so sue her.

That's when Morgana and Gwen round the corner and spot her, hurrying toward her. Morgana grabs on to her arms, turning her round with the momentum. "Merlin! Where have you been? We've been looking everywhere for you. My idiot of a brother is just pacing and looking grim in that idiot way he thinks is noble and self-sacrificing, and he said that you yelled at him and disappeared, but that was hours ago."

Gwen adds "We thought you'd gone to try and set fire to the black knight, but he's just standing there and looking very unsinged, the burnishing would've at least changed colour if you'd tried to do that."

Merlin tries not to look too innocent, because Morgan and Gwen can read her like a book. Instead she goes for complaining and huffy. "Why does everyone think I'm going to do that?"

"Because it's your most favourite threat." Morgana says. "And you've set things on fire before."

"Contained things." Merlin says. "It's not like I set fire to a roof or anything."

"And one person." Gwen says. "The one who tried to use fire against you whilst trying to kill the prince."

"I mostly just pushed the fire back their way and ... aggravated it a bit." Merlin says.

Gwen gives her a look. "That bit of the castle smelt of burnt meat for a good day, Merlin. And they were very definitely very charred."

"Definitely stopped them very finally, though." Merlin says.

Morgana rolls her eyes. "Merlin, stop evading the subject. What are you doing here and why aren't you protecting my brother?"

Merlin sighs and tucks her thumbs into her swordbelt. "I can't protect him if he's so determined to commit suicide. I've been looking for ways to kill the black knight."

Morgana looks interested. "What have you found?"

"He doesn't feel pain." Merlin says. "He's basically a walking talking corpse. Broiling him in his armour didn't produce any reaction."

"What did I say about fire?" Gwen says disapprovingly.

"Try not to set anything else on fire except the thing you're trying to." Merlin replies. "Gaius and Geoffrey found a few legends that say that the only way to kill a ghoul is to use an unblooded sword bathed in dragon fire." She sighs, pushing her plait back over her shoulder. "I've spent the last couple of hours looking for any half decent sword that's never cut anyone. The only ones that aren't are a few crappy ones that would break and shatter as soon as you hit them against a cushion, never mind armour or a human body."

"What about those ones in the far tower?" Morgana asks. "They look like they've never been used."

Merlin rubs her eyes. "Very definitely used in a duel a hundred years ago. The winner killed his twin brother."

"So very, um, blooded." Gwen says. "Maybe the knights of old got them specially commissioned. Several days in advance."

"And the chances of getting a decent sword on this short notice are..." Merlin says, rubbing her eye again. She thinks she might be getting a twitch with the stress.

Morgana closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "There is a sword that's almost certainly ready." She pauses. "Made by Tom."

"Gwen's father Tom?" Merlin asks. "One of the best blacksmiths in Camelot Tom? How do you know that he'll have a sword at such short notice?"

"Because I commissioned it for my darling brother's investiture present." Morgana says.

Merlin eyes her. "Does he know it exists? And more importantly, was it absolutely necessary to get him a present?"

Morgana sighs. "It's a rather important occasion. The offence -"

Merlin takes her hand in both of hers gleefully. "Has probably been completely forgotten about in all the murderous duels that have been taking place since. I love you Morgana, you're wonderful."

"Of course." Morgana pauses. "How will you get Kilgarrah here? You can't call him, you're not a dragonlord yet."

"Yell. A lot." Merlin says. " And, um, my father."

Kilgarrah lands on the field outside Camelot. "Young witch. You are the one that summons me?" He booms as he arrives.

"I need your help." Merlin says. "I have a sword that needs burnishing with dragonfire."

The great dragon rears back. "You wish to create an object of power, young witch. This should not be undertaken lightly, if ever. Such objects were not meant for the touch of mortal man."

Balinor folds his arms. "We need to kill a lich, Kilgarrah. He is working his way through the knights of Camelot by challenging them to single combat."

"And what is this to me?" Kilgarrah asks. Supercilious and superior as ever. he could give Uther a run for his money sometimes.

Merlin grits her teeth. "Because pratface, the honourable idiot that he is, is in a duel with this lich tomorrow. All your prophecies about me and him bringing greatness to Camelot and Albion and being two sides of the same coin are going to die on their arse if he dies at the hands of that walking corpse. because he will. The lich will wear him down, no matter how well Arthur fights, and he will die. I can't save him, not with my magic. I already tried." She closes her eyes. "Please. I may not be able to stand him but I don't want him to die, Kilgarrah."

The dragon stares at her for what seems like forever, the minutes ticking by. "Very well. But you must not allow it to fall into any others' hands, or let its true nature be revealed. The risk is too great."

Merlin takes a deep breath. "Fine. I can do that. Not a problem. If they ask, I can say it was all spells that we dug out of the furthest corner of the library and only worked for that day. and then I will bury the damn thing in the deepest hole I can find. Will that satisfy you?"

"Yes." The dragon says. "Now hold it up."

Merlin takes a breath, holding out the sword between her hands and floating it up so it's in front of Kilgarrah's head. Kilgarrah takes a deep breath and something gurgles in his stomach. And then comes the dragon fire, right over her head, like being stuck in the forge but when the fire belches, only twenty times bigger. Along with the heat comes a massive rush of magic. Big enough to rock her and her father on their feet. behind her Morgana makes an involuntary noise. Merlin would probably join her but she's concentrating to keep the sword up in the face of the rush of dragon flame.

When the flame extinguishes, the sword floats back down to Merlin and Merlin grabs it by the handle. It's thrumming. Merlin hopes it stops thrumming by daylight. It might be a bit distracting to fight with. "There." Kilgarrah says. "Be careful, young witch. You are dangerously ambitious for one so young."

"Thank you, anyway." Merlin nods. the dragon nods back, and then takes to the air, wings flapping as it takes off into the night.

Morgana and Gwen are very whitefaced, even in the moonlight. Morgana hugs herself in the chill that's left behind after the heat of the dragon flame. "Let's hope it works, then."

"You and me both." Merlin says, taking one last look at it before sheathing it.

She goes back to Arthur's rooms. Well. Hers as well. Arthur looks up. "Where've you been?" He pauses, looking haunted. "Morgana was looking for you."

"Reading books." Merlin says, pulling at the buckle of her cloak. the one with the dragon on its shoulder. She takes it off and puts it on a chair, then undoes her belt, removing her sword and the new one that's tucked into it.

Arthur frowns. "Merlin, why are you carrying an extra sword?"

"Very odd magic reasons you don't want to know about." Merlin grimaces.

"Merlin, how odd are we talking?" Arthur says.

"Very odd. Incredibly odd." Merlin pauses. "Practically perverted."

"...I definitely don't want to know." Arthur says. He walks over to the window and stares out into the darkness.

Merlin pulls her armour off. George walks in and helps her off with the mail coat, carting it away to the place he stashes it. It magically appears each morning, as does Arthur's when he needs his first thing. That's kept in the armoury, though. Merlin's isn't because hers has to go on pretty much every morning.

She pulls off her coat and pulls the coat away from her skin. Going from the flame to the relative cool of the night gave her goosebumps, then she got warm again, and... well. she's got used to wearing her armour most of the time as it is. She'll die when summer comes, though.

"Off duty, Merlin?" Arthur asks, glancing round.

"Dunno." Merlin says, sitting down. "You're not bloody moving out of this room for the rest of the night, though."

"I'm not?" Arthur says.

"No." Merlin says. "You're getting some food and a decent night's sleep, even if I have to knock you out. You don't need any more strikes against you for committing suicide."

"It's nice that you're so concerned about my well being, Merlin." Arthur says. "Are you ever going to stop referring to this as committing suicide?"

"No." Merlin says. "because you are." She turns her head as George comes back from wherever he disappeared. "George, can you please get some food?"

"Of course." George says.

In the morning, Merlin helps Arthur on with his armour when they get to the armoury. "This isn't your usual duty, Merlin." Arthur says as she settles the pauldron into place.

"I know." Merlin says, biting her lip. "Still doing it, though."

She hands him the sword. Arthur examines it curiously. "This isn't my usual sword, Merlin."

"Full points for observation." Merlin says. She sighs. "Just... use this, all right?"

He turns it over. "It's a very fine sword. Brilliant balance. Where did you get it?"

"Tom made it." Merlin says. "It's Morgana's investiture present. She never got a chance to give it to you in all the people dying business of the past few days."

Arthur blinks. "Really?"

"Really." Merlin says.

"And it's not had anything done to it." Arthur says doubtfully.

"just luck charms." Merlin shrugs. "You could ask her yourself. Oh wait, you can't, because you're determined to go and commit suicide and it's getting on for noon."

Arthur sighs at the suicide comment. "It's not suicide, Merlin, how many times do I have to-"

"Every time." Merlin says.

The door opens and Uther steps in. "Ah, Arthur. I wanted to see how you were. It's not too late to change your mind."

"it really is, father." Arthur says.

"I've been trying to tell him that for the last day, sire." Merlin says.

"Ah well." Uther clasps him on the shoulder. "Just... fight well, Arthur. Good luck."

"Thank you, father." Arthur says, clasping his arm. He turns to Merlin. "Well. I-"

Merlin takes a deep breath, steps forward and hugs him. "Just - try your best to stay alive, all right?" She says into his neck.

he hugs her back, tight enough that she can feel it through the mail. "I promise." She can feel him bury his face in her hair. They stay like that for what seems like an eternity but probably isn't more than a few moments. Arthur, as ever, smells like armour and sweat and that rosemary George puts in the wardrobe. Not much different from her, probably. Still. He steps back from the hug, looks down at the floor and back at his father, before pulling up his hoods and putting on his helmet, walking out into the sun.

"You show extraordinary loyalty to someone you profess to dislike so much, Merlin." Uther says, clasping his hands behind his back as they walk.

"You're the one who put me in this position, sire. Just doing my job." Merlin says as they make their way to the dais.

"Gaius said that you tried to set Tristan on fire." Uther says, smiling slightly.

"I was taking precautions in trying to protect Arthur's life." Merlin says. "As per my job."

"You've shown great progress in becoming a knight of Camelot." Uther says. the bastard seems to find it terribly amusing.

"Under very great protest, your highness." Merlin says.

The sun's bright as Arthur strides into the arena and takes up position opposite Tristan du Bois, the black knight. Walking corpse and ghoul. The assembled crowd let up a cheer on seeing their prince and champion take the field. Hope. it's a nice balm. Merlin, Morgana and Gwen raise their left hands to their mouths and start trying not to nibble or gnaw on their knuckles. They picked up the nervous habit off of Gwen, and have spent the last several years trying to break themselves of it. Most of the time it merely manifests as them looking like they're just touching their mouths, but it's probable they'll end up with very deep tooth marks by the end of this. Even if by some miracle Arthur wins.

Arthur hefts his sword, but the black knight makes the first strike. Arthur parries, and then they go at it. Parry and thrust and - Arthur’s trying to pace himself. Clearly he absorbed her yelling about him being worn down. Miracles do happen. The black knight's that little bit slower, he's mostly going for big swings and power. Arthur keeps sliding in under his guard and getting good hits in, slowly driving him back. The crowd starts cheering, buoyed up by what looks like signs of their prince maybe winning. Then the black knight does some sort of twist and heave and the sword they went to utterly stupid lengths to get goes flying, landing with a clatter on the ground, several feet away and most importantly, out of reach.

The black knight brings his sword up over his head, bringing it down in what looks like a blow that could do some serious damage, maybe even disable. Arthur desperately brings his shield up to try and deflect some of the force of the blow. The knight's sword comes down, and it... doesn't land? Arthur felt the force of the blow through his shoulder, the black knight's strength is immense. Instead, the black knight's struggling to get his sword out Arthur's shield. The sword is stuck. Instead of shattering the shield and Arthur's arm, or driving the edge of the shield into Arthur's body, probably his collarbone or ribs, the black knight's sword hit the edge of the shield, cutting down through the shield and splintered - the wood probably had a knot - and the sword's stuck in it. The black knight pulls, trying to get the sword out, and it gives Arthur breathing space. He drops the shield, scrambling away, desperately lunging for the sword. He gets to it, just as the black knight decides to give up on getting his sword out of the shield and just break it with his foot instead. Arthur jumps to his feet, rearing back and thrusting for the black knight's chest, hoping to get a disabling blow in. Arthur manages a blow against his helmet, catching it at just the right angle to heave it off, revealing a head from a nightmare. Tanned leather skin shrunken over a skull, drawn and black and brown and looking like it's screaming in a permanent scream. The black knight grimaces, laughing. it looks obscene, and several people in the crowd scream. Arthur grits his teeth and takes advantage of the break in his composure, aiming a blow straight through his defences. His sword goes into the black knight's chest, cutting through the armour and sinking into his chest.

Everything stops for a long moment, Arthur gaping at the feel of the sword cutting through mail like it was cloth, the black knight throwing his head back in a scream, the crowd caught in a gasp, not knowing whether this will be another futile effort like Pellinore's. And in that long moment, the knight's chest starts to glow around the sword wound. Like there was an inner fire. Arthur jerks the sword out, and in that moment, the glow spreads and the knight simply... explodes. Like a pigs bladder full of pitch, or marsh oil.

Everyone stares, not quite able to believe what they've seen. Magic is one thing, but people don't tend to explode. Especially not after revealing themselves to have the head of a well-tanned corpse. Then the cheering sets in, and Arthur looks up, unable to stop himself from breaking into a relieved smile as he pulls off his helmet.

He comes over to the royal dais, and gets pulled in by Morgana and Uther, grabbing him over the barrier and hugging whatever they can get of him, so glad he survived. The crowd's gone mad, and the cheering is deafening. Gwen's got her hands clasped together in front of her face, blinking back tears in relief. Once Morgana and Uther have stopped hugging him to death, the knights pile in, slapping him on the back and cheering.

Eventually Arthur gets released from the mob of red cloaks, and Merlin's standing in front of him, looking sceptical. He's still grinning fit to burst, which is an unfortunate turn of phrase now that they all know exactly what that looks like. "We won, Merlin."

"Yes, you did." She says, reaching forward and picking something off his armour. "You have a bit of walking corpse on you."

"Delightful." Arthur frowns. "So. I think I owe you a debt of gratitude. For the sword."

"Just doing my job." Merlin says. "But yes, yes you do." They both stand there for a long moment, not knowing what to follow that up with. "Anyway. I think everyone's leaving, so..." She goes down the steps, and finds her way impeded by his arm blocking her way. "What?"

"Merlin." Arthur says, looking at her in fond exasperation. "Come here, will you?" He pulls her into a hug, and whispers "Thank you" against her hair.

Merlin denies that she might have hugged him a bit tightly back and, they might stand there for quite a while, just clinging onto each other.

They're interrupted by some very loud whispering. "Um. When do you think it's okay to interrupt? is there any real etiquette for interrupting hugs after death-defying feats?" Gwen whispers.

"I'm not sure, but perhaps we should allow them a few more minutes." Lance whispers back. "It was a little emotional."

"You're right. Then we can... cough or something." Gwen says.

Arthur raises his head. "Your whispers are loud enough to wake the dead, you know."

"Oh. Um." Gwen stutters. "Sorry, sire. Only your presence is requested by the king. I believe he might want to congratulate you?"

"And he asked for Merlin too." Lance adds.

Merlin sighs. "Fine." She pauses. "If this had been a normal piece of mortal combat, we'd at least get time for a bath."

They pull back, rearranging their sword belts and Merlin's cloak, Arthur tucking his helmet under his arm and running a hand through his hair. "Presentable?" He asks.

Merlin frowns, reaching up to shove his hair into place. "You don't look so much like a haystack now, at least." She pauses. "Also, no referring to loud enough to wake the dead or at least a week in my hearing."

"I'm the one who had to fight the thing, Merlin." Arthur points out as they leave the dais, Gwen and Lance following.

"And you'll probably have a swelled head for a week because of it, won't you." Merlin retorts.

Most of the way to the hall, Arthur gets distracted by George, who's caught up with them and produced a cloak to make Arthur look more presentable. Merlin drops back to talk to Gwen. "Why were you giving us a look earlier?"

"A look?" Lance asks innocently.

"You were doing it too." Merlin says. "It was speculative."

"Oh, nothing." Gwen says, then turns the corner of her mouth up. "The hugging is new."

"The hugging is definitely new." Lance agrees. "It went on for quite a long time, too." He pauses. "You two cuddle in your sleep, but hugging is a new phenomenon."

"Cuddle in their sleep?" Gwen asks. her eyebrows are nearing Gaius levels of highness. "When do they do that?"

"On patrol." Lance says. "See, they sleep next to each other and share blankets..."

"Go on. This sounds fascinating." Gwen says, eyeing Merlin even more speculatively. Merlin decides catching up with Arthur would be better for her ears.

Chapter Text

Merlin cricks her neck as they're coming up to the inn. "I need a drink. And a break from this horse."

Arthur smirks. "Saddle sore, Merlin?"

Merlin grimaces, rubbing her lower back. "Woman was not meant to sit on a horse for hours on end, Arthur. I am going to have sores, pratface."

"Are you saying man was?" Arthur asks.

"Man sitting on his horse like he's on a comfy couch has convinced himself he was." Merlin says. "I still don't think we needed to go on this trip. We didn't find anything."

"But if we had, we would definitely have cursed ourselves for not having advance warning." Arthur says.

"Could, would and should are very overrated words and cause a lot more discomfort than they're worth." Merlin mutters.

"But rather necessary when you're a soldier and actively involved in the defence of this kingdom." Arthur says, then notes the way her attention's drifted, her gaze in the direction of the inn. "Let me guess, Merlin, in a moment you're going to make more very pointed comments about how you desperately need a rest and a drink again."

"Hmm?" Merlin says. "Don't know where you'd get that idea."

"As it happens, I'm sure the horses would appreciate the rest and some water, so I'll do it for their sake." Arthur says, turning his horse towards the inn.

In the inn, they get a seat and the barmaid comes over to see what they want. She eyes Merlin. "Oh, you're a pretty one. Fancy a nice time?"

Merlin picks up her plait and toys with the end. "Depends if you like girls."

"Girls?" The barmaid says, confused. Then properly looks at Merlin. "Well, that's what I get for not looking too close." She says ruefully. "You made a pretty lad, lass."

"Thanks for the compliment, anyway." Merlin says. "Hope you get better luck."

"What're you doing travelling around with blondie, anyway?" The barmaid asks.

"Blondie is paying for the drinks, thank you." Arthur huffs, ego somewhat bruised that she's not interested in him at all. Merlin can't stop grinning. What growing up rich and a prince does to what level of attention you expect. She's wondered if he'd get half as much attention if he'd been born a peasant but stayed just as handsome.

"What he said." Merlin says.

They get a few mouthfuls in when some idiots swagger into the inn, demanding drink and looking to cause trouble. Arthur eyes them. Merlin sighs. "Arthur, you're not seriously going to start a fight."

"No, but I can't sit by if they start hurting people." Arthur says.

And that's when one of them throws something at the barmaid, knocking her off balance and one of the spoons hits Arthur in the back of the head.

"Sorry, sorry -" She stammers, trying to duck a couple more things and not dump any half-eaten food on people.

"Excuse me." Arthur says, getting to his feet. "I think you'll find that people do not appreciate your presence. It would be better if you left."

"Really? Who's going to make me? You?" One of them asks. And then Merlin sees the exact moment Arthur realises that he's not in Camelot, these two are really rather big, and he's not wearing armour or on a horse or backed up by several knights.

"Well, I-" And then Arthur has to duck as a punch is swung straight at him. Merlin sighs, and watches as the fight unfolds from that point as the entire pub gets drawn into the fight, one badly aimed punch or spilled pint at a time. She personally decides to take up position behind the bar and avoid all possible punches and as much thrown beer and tables as possible. The barmaid's cheerfully chucking everything that comes their way back. Merlin puts up the occasional shield to make sure they don't get a stool or mug in the face.

"Oh, you're a magic user?" the barmaid says as she chucks a plate at someone. It bounces off his head with a really impressive 'boing' noise.

"Yes, medium-ish." Merlin says, stopping a mug in its tracks as it describes a really impressive arc of beer across the room. "Not a fan of fights."

"They're a hazard of the trade." the barmaid grins. "Bit costly, but I normally make it back fairly fast and get everyone to pitch in on repairs because they all want a place to drink."

A few more tables get smashed. There's a cry of "Merlin!" from the middle of a pile.

Merlin rolls her eyes. "This is ridiculous and has gone on far too long, it really has." She waves her hand and floats everyone who's fighting to the ceiling, striding out from behind the bar and looking for Arthur, piling up the remaining furniture as she goes. She finds him in a knot of people, most of whom are now clinging onto each other from fear. She's found that very few full-grown men like being floated. Children love it, and most women are reasonably fine with it. It's something to do with having your control and strength taken away, according to Gaius. Poor babies.

Arthur looks down. "Merlin, let us down."

"Depends." Merlin says, putting her hands on her hips. "Do you all promise to stop beating the shit out of each other and will the people who started it promise to leave and never come back because this is frankly ridiculous?"

There's a lot of frantic nodding of heads and 'yes, oh god yes, please let me down'.

"I think that settled it." Arthur says. "Now will you let us down?"

Merlin shrugs, then points to the idiot who actually started it. "I didn't hear him say please."

The man who's wearing a horrendous eye watering combination of leather armour, bits of fur, studs and scars, gulps a bit. "...Please?"

"And you promise to never come back to this inn or steal the takings." Merlin adds.

"I promise." He nods frantically. "Can you please let us down now?"

Merlin tilts her head thoughtfully, considering. "I suppose so." She waves her hand, and everyone comes down to the floor with a bump. Relatively gently, but she made sure to bounce them. Most of them hug the floor a bit and gibber.

Arthur gets up almost immediately. Sadly, floating him has practically no effect as he's used to it. Mostly he just gets irritated. Merlin's fine with that. He brushes the dust off, strides over to the troublemakers, and with the help of one handsome bloke with really shiny hair and one man mountain, physically chucks them out the door. "And don't bother this area again." Arthur states.

The one with the really shiny hair brushes off his hands. "That was a pretty good fight, I'll give you that. So where are you two headed?"

"Going back to Camelot." Merlin says.

"Thanks for the help, by the way." Arthur says.

"Not a problem." He grins. "I'm Gwaine and this is Percival. We'll join you - we were on our way to Camelot ourselves."

It turns out Gwaine is very chatty and practically the personification of 'charming flirt'. Percival the man mountain - Percy - is more the silent type, who seems content to listen to Gwaine joke, only occasionally injecting a comment.

"So what takes you to Camelot?" Arthur asks after a few miles.

Gwaine grins. "Going to try my luck at joining the knights."

"Oh?" Arthur asks, intrigued. "You're noble?"

"Son of a knight." Gwaine shrugs. "He was killed when I was a baby, but I learned to fight under his lord, and thought I'd try for Camelot. They're said to be the best."

"That they are." Arthur says, somewhat smug. "The very best."

"Percy's the same." Gwaine says, then turns to Merlin and grins. "Tell me, it is true that the prince is an arrogant air-brained pretty boy? You look like you'd know."

Arthur starts sputtering as Merlin grins, as wide as possible. "It's the absolute truth. Complete truth."

"Merlin!" Arthur says, scandalised.

"Pratface, it sounds like you're taking it personally." Merlin says, pushing a bit of her fringe back. "Do you know the prince?"

"I -" Arthur clamps his mouth shut. He can't very well admit to being the crown prince of Camelot, in disguise at that, in another country. Especially not when he's brought along one of his knights, because technically that's the type of trespassing that can be seen as a fairly valid charge of invasion or provocation, no matter how small a force they are. It'd actually be better if they were wearing their livery, since at least then they could fudge it as being envoys. "We're changing the subject."

Merlin and Gwaine just grin at him. Percy looks away and starts whistling a jaunty tune.

After a day's ride, they stop and bed down for the night, Arthur leaning against Merlin. "You and Gwaine are clearly a force for evil. I thought you and my sister together were bad, but no, you've actually found someone you're even more in tune with." Arthur says after they've split some of the food each pair was carrying between them.

"He's got a brain and he's funny. It happens." Merlin says. "Unlike some blondes I could mention."

"And yet, no mention of my dashing good looks." Gwaine says from the other side of the fire.

Percy gives Arthur a sympathetic grimace. "Finally, someone who understands."

Arthur grimaces back. "That depends, you could probably dump Gwaine tomorrow. I can't do that with Merlin."

Merlin coughs. "Other way round. I'm the one who's not allowed to dump you in a nest of vipers, remember?" She pauses. "Much as I would like to."

Arthur sighs. "Does your friend never shut up too?"

Percy shakes his head. "Never."

They get ready for the night, Merlin and Gwaine setting a few traps up in case of intruders. He stretches out a snare, and she adds an alarm on them if they get tripped.

"Not bad." Gwaine says. "I like the magic alarm idea. What does it do?"

"This spell makes the sound of really big bells if the wrong person touches it." Merlin says. "I've heard some cooks do that to feast food in big kitchens so it doesn't get touched. But it's mostly for far fences when you've got possible raiders or spies." She frowns. "I mean, you could use something like a cock crow, but you don't want anything that could be mistaken for anything else."

Gwaine nods. "Makes sense."

Percy and Arthur have tamped down the fire and laid out the bedrolls by the time they've got back.

Merlin yawns. Loudly. "Um. I'm not that tired, honest." She says, blinking and looking a bit embarrassed.

Arthur rolls his eyes. "This is what all day in the saddle does, Merlin. I tell you again and again and you're always surprised. Come and get some sleep." he says, taking her arm.

"Just this once I hear and obey." She says, yawning again as he tugs her over to their bedroll, laying down and curling round her, putting his arm round her as she floats the blanket up over them.

Merlin yawns and shifts his arm into a more comfortable position. "Dragons?"

"No, Merlin." Arthur says firmly.

"Does it always hit her that hard?" Gwaine asks, amused, pulling off his jacket as he sits on his own set of blankets.

"Not always." Arthur says as Merlin dozes off. "It's mostly a good few days in the saddle thing."

"And the magic alarms will definitely work." Gwaine says.

"You can always test them in the middle of the night yourself." Arthur says.

 

Once they get to Camelot, Gwaine stops. "Well, that's us. We're off to find an inn for the night."

Merlin wrinkles her nose. "Nah, come on, we can get you rooms."

Percy frowns. "Are you sure?"

"Definitely." Merlin says. "Come on, boys." She says, touching her heels to her horse's sides to get it to start moving again, and they go through the gate.

"Do I get any say in this?" Arthur asks.

"Don't be silly." Merlin says, even as they get nods from the guards as they go in.

Then it's off the horses to go through the marketplace. "We're not staying on the horses?" Gwaine asks.

"It's not polite unless you're a grand person wearing fine clothing." Merlin says. "Besides, I need to pick up some things for a friend from one of the stalls and it's easier to choose things from a stall when you can see the goods properly."

Arthur looks at her as he dismounts. "What friend?"

"Well, a few things for your sister, and George was pouting a bit because there was a merchant due in today that he said was famed for very high quality beeswax products, and he was going to be off seeing his sister, remember?" Merlin sighs. "Honestly, you'd think you'd remember that he was taking some time off because you were going to be out of Camelot for a few days."

"Who's George?" Percy asks. He's nearly as big as a horse, and anything that even resembles a crowd is parting before him instinctively.

"Pratface here's servant." Merlin says.

"What does he need beeswax for?" Arthur asks, perplexed.

"Polishing, unguents, bath stuff, there's a few things you do to clothes..." Merlin replies. She shares a glance with Percy. "Guess who's never really had to pay attention to this kind of thing."

"Since when does George of all people use any expression aside from faint disapproval and disturbing cheerfulness?" Arthur demands.

"There's a slight moue when he's sulking and not in your presence." Merlin replies. "It's almost entirely to do with not getting things as shiny as they could possibly be. Like when both of us had to admit defeat over that tunic of yours."

"I thought you weren't his servant?" Percy says. "Not with the way you talk to him."

"No, but I help George out with stains he can't remove." Merlin says. "Makes for an easier life."

Percy nods. "Suppose you could probably do it the other way round. You'd probably make a good living as a dyer with the right spells. You could even do patterns."

Merlin looks thoughtful. "Sounds like a good idea. Certainly less in the way of riding long distances and having to play with swords."

Arthur snorts as they lead their horses along the stalls, as Merlin looks for the stalls selling the goods she wants. "I'm afraid you're stuck with that particular curse, Merlin." He says, drawing out her name in that really annoying way he does to piss her off. He's been doing it since he stopped lisping. It's never stopped pissing her off.

"One day I'm going to get my revenge in a really specific, horrible and humiliating fashion." She swears.

"Promises, promises." Arthur smirks.

Once they're through the market and Merlin's picked up some ribbons, a pair of gloves, a small box, and an entire bag of beeswax products, they get back on the horses and wend their way to the castle. Arthur's got hold of the bag and is peering into it. "What even are half these things?" He reaches in and pulls out a small jar of a viscous lavender coloured substance, holding it up the light. "This looks like something that Gaius would siphon off a cauldron he'd been simmering for days."

"Ours not to reason why." Merlin says. "George had a list, George asked for it, you're paying for it, and your best jacket will no doubt look amazing for the effort he'll put in. Now put it back."

When they enter the castle, and Arthur has had several more nods from guards, Leon meets them and tucks a hand into the bridle of Arthur's horse. "Your father wants to see you."

Merlin winces. "We can't get a wash and change first?" She asks. "We've been on the road for nearly a week."

Leon tilts his head and hides his smile. "Well, I suppose I could tell him that you'll be an hour."

"An hour is good." Merlin says. "Though I don't know if it's enough time for him to do his hair."

Leon looks at Gwaine and Percy, who're looking on, not quite sure what to do. "Dare I ask who these two are?"

"Pratface has a thing for waifs and strays, you know him." Merlin says, getting off her horse.

"No I don't, Merlin." Arthur objects as he gets off his.

"Don't lie, pratface, your heart goes out to those in need." Merlin says, slinging the bag containing the stuff for George and Morgana over her shoulder. "Especially the ones who've backed you up in a bar fight you couldn't get yourself out of."

Gwaine flashes a grin. "We did do that. We're very helpful." He pauses. "And useful. We're here to try out for the knights."

Leon gives Percy a once over. And again to try and take it all in. and then stares at the size of his biceps. And Leon is one of the biggest knights of Camelot. "I have to ask, is your friend trying out for three positions at once?"

Percy leans forward. "Just the one."

Merlin waves. "Anyway, we're going to go clean up, so see you later?"

Gwaine waves back. "Will do."

Arthur eyes her as they go off towards their chambers. "Did you have to be so utterly ridiculous?"

Merlin smiles sweetly. "Well, I couldn't acknowledge that you were the prince of Camelot, now could I? Just a normal pair of knights travelling through the countryside." She pauses. "Very normal. Definitely normal. no slips allowed that you might answer to 'your highness'."

Arthur sighs. "That's when I'd know you'd truly lost your mind. I don't think you've ever called me that without meaning it to be an insult."

Merlin claps her hands. "I'm so pleased that all my efforts haven't gone in vain."

"...Shut *up*, Merlin." Arthur says.

----

"So what do you do?" Gwaine asks later, after Merlin and Arthur've got back from reporting to the king and seek Gwaine and Percy out in the castle grounds. It's not that difficult to find them. Just ask which way the man mountain went.

"Forcibly inducted into the knights." Merlin says, face turned up to the sun as she leans against the parapet. They found them on the walls, taking in the view over Camelot. Well. Percy was taking in the view, Gwaine was pointing out pretty people and accidents waiting to happen.

Gwaine raises an eyebrow. "Camelot recruits girls now? Would've made my way here earlier."

"A fascinating reason to choose a kingdom to pledge your loyalty to." Arthur drawls.

Gwaine shrugs. "Knights in ballads do it all the time. You've got no romance in your soul."

Merlin nods. "True. He hasn't got a romantic bone in his body."

Arthur scratches his jaw. "For once I'm agreeing with Merlin. We've got some romantics in the knights."

"Prime candidate : Lancelot." Merlin supplies. "If he came out with flowers, poetry and a harp tomorrow no-one would bat an eye."

"I take it I'll meet him tomorrow." Gwaine says, then turns back to her. "So why would you get forcibly inducted into the knights of Camelot?"

"I'm the prince's bodyguard." Merlin shrugs, pointing at Arthur. "He thought I should be by his side on the battlefield too. Never mind that at the time I could barely hold a sword without dropping it on my foot."

Arthur looks pained. "That would be someone else's foot, not your own." He scratches his jaw again. "At least now she's vaguely competent and not a constant danger to anyone else around her."

Gwaine turns to look at Arthur, grinning hugely. "Now why would the prince of Camelot need a bodyguard? I've heard you're supposed to one of the best fighters in the land."

Arthur scowls at him. "She's a guard against magical threats, not physical ones."

"Does that include fights where you're outnumbered twelve to one?" Gwaine asks. "Because that didn't look like anything to do with magic to me."

"That comes under defence of the realm. The Crown Prince isn't supposed to get beaten to a pulp when I can potentially save him." Merlin says. She pauses. "Also future blackmail. I've got a lot of that. It keeps me warm on cold nights."

"What, not being wrapped around the princess here?" Gwaine asks, grinning. No, it's not grinning, it's very definitely shading into grinning with raised eyebrows. Not quite leering.

Arthur sighs and folds his arms, looking skywards. "You know, for someone who's trying out for the knights tomorrow, you're doing a fantastic job of scuppering your chances. You do remember that I'm the one who's judging your trials, don't you?"

"Haven't thrown me out of Camelot yet, princess." Gwaine grins. "I think I'm doing fairly well."

"I'm coming close." Arthur says.

Percy raises his hand. "Understand that I'm willing to cut all ties with him if he does get thrown out."

The next day, Arthur puts them through their paces, putting them through the training of the other knights. Except they throw in extras, Leon and Arthur directing everyone to do hand to hand and sword, and of course, not give the new candidates an inch.

Occasionally Merlin waves at them. "You're the ones who decided to apply, you brought this on yourselves." She says, leaning on her staff.

"You're better than the princess said you were." Gwaine says. "Not a half bad fighter."

"That's called day in day out training for six months with a sadistic prince." Merlin retorts. "You try not learning to duck under those circumstances."

End of training. Gwaine rolls his shoulders and lets out a breath. Percy comes up and claps him on the shoulder. "Not a bad first day." Percy says, grinning.

"I think the Princess has plans to use you as a battering ram even if they don't let you join." Gwaine says.

Over in the corner, there's yelling. Lots of yelling. Elyan, who's been tasked with attacking them and has some moves that looked suspiciously like he spent some time in the mercenary quarter of armed fighters, winces.

"Sorry." He apologises. "It's one of the hazards of the job. This happens fairly regularly."

Percy looks over and looks impressed. "They're really going at it hammer and tongs. And you say this is a fairly frequent event?"

Gwaine cranes his head. "Who's fighting?"

"Merlin and Arthur." Elyan sighs. "According to princess Morgana they've been doing it since they were tiny."

"Huh." Gwaine says. "I knew they constantly squabbled, but I didn't see yelling." He pauses. "Does anything happen to people who get in their way?"

Elyan looks thoughtful. "I'm trying to think of the last time someone did. Wouldn't hurt to try."

Percy puts a cautionary hand on Gwaine's arm. "You do remember she's a powerful sorceress, right?"

"I'm too pretty to die or be maimed by accident." Gwaine grins, tossing his hair as he goes to intervene.

Merlin's yelling something about birds. Gwaine learned a very long time ago not to even make sense of couples' arguments or what started them if he walked in and missed the beginning of them.

Gwaine slings an arm around her shoulders. "So, you said you were going to show me the best place to get a decent sweet roll around here."

Merlin stops mid yell to look at him. Arthur eyes him. "You do know that she has to accompany me most of the time, right?"

Gwaine grins. "Well, there's nothing stopping you coming along, princess." He wavers a hand. "You could let her off duty for a bit."

Merlin snorts. "I've heard of off duty, I've yet to see if it exists or if pratface here believes in it."

"That's not true, George gets time off each day." Arthur points out. "You're not a servant, so I'm allowed to torture you."

Gwaine turns his head to look at Merlin. "he does know that the person most likely to kill him in his sleep is probably you, right?"

Merlin grins. "Of course. I protect my rights of first dibs on murdering him in his sleep jealously."

Arthur grimaces. "Sadly she actually did once do that."

"We try not to talk about it in polite company." Merlin adds, looking a bit guilty. Gwaine makes a note to get that story out of her.

"I'm not polite company." Gwaine grins.

Arthur eyes him and Merlin. "I think I've gathered that."

After a few days of getting put through their paces, Arthur and Leon decide that their fighting skills are good enough to gain them entry into the knights of Camelot, and they end up having a sword lain across their shoulders and given the red cloak with a golden dragon stitched on the shoulder.

Merlin pokes the stitched bit, before clapping Gwaine on the shoulder, grinning fit to burst. her grin really is incredibly adorable. "Congratulations and welcome to having to do what pratface tells you to. You'll love it."

Gwaine elbows her. "You owe me a drink, remember?"

"Lies." Merlin says. "But we'll haul you down the inn anyway as a welcome, will that do?"

"Depends if you’re the one buying the drink." Gwaine says, grinning back.

From behind her, he can see Arthur eyeing them. "And that does not mean nicking my purse, Merlin."

"He's so mean." Merlin says.

In the inn that evening, the conversation has turned to girls after Elyan got really impressively turned down by the new barmaid.

He shrugs. "I'll wear her down."

Dagonet takes a mouthful of ale. "You've been here a few days now, so that's been enough time to have a good look around. Got your eye on anyone?"

Gwaine automatically names one of the prettiest girls in Camelot. "Gwen's pretty." She occasionally comes around to talk to Merlin. From what he's gathered, they used to serve Princess Morgana together. Morgana and Merlin together are really impressive.

Dagonet looks sympathetic. "You're out of luck there. Gwen has a thing with Lancelot."

"Tall, dark and honourable?" Gwaine asks, tilting his head in Lance's direction. Very charming, great company, amazing with a sword. You can't really argue with a girl going for that.

"That's him." Dagonet nods.

Gwaine's eyes stray in Merlin's direction, who's in the middle of helping Leon argue a point about the stars by providing a miniature star map to illustrate his argument. Truth be told, she's probably the girl he's most interested in here. Gawky and silly and argumentative. "Her friend's not bad either."

Dagonet coughs, attempting it discreetly but he's had too much ale for that. "Merlin's taken too."

Gwaine rolls his eyes, taking a sip of his own ale. "Given that she was sharing the princess's bedroll on the first night we met them, I hadn't realised."

He does make it his mission to flirt with Merlin, though, since it's fun and it makes her grin and laugh, so he goes for even more ridiculous. the glares they're starting to get from the prince are a pretty good reward too.

Elyan pulls his helmet off. "You do know you're headed for the stocks if you keep this up, don't you?"

Gwaine puts a hand on his chest and pretends to swoon a bit. "Ah, but what a way to go."

"Are you normally this ridiculous?" Elyan asks even as Merlin sees the swooning and snorts.

"What I'm doing is pissing off the princess." Gwaine says cheerily. "have you seen his face? Never had to fight for her attention before, has he?"

"That's because she spent too much time arguing with him to pay attention to anyone else." Elyan says.

"So now he's got to make an effort." Gwaine says. "It'll do him a world of good." He pauses. "That is if I don't steal her away and we have lots of adorable high cheekboned babies."

Elyan rolls his eyes. "You are patently ridiculous."

 

Gwen appears to berate Elyan about something partway through practice, and Lance drifts over. Gwaine narrows his eyes as they pause to watch the incredibly shy and polite version of flirtation that's become a regular event. "Has he even tried to sneak a kiss with her yet?" He asks. Princess Morgana's maid and Lance may have a thing, but they've not done a bloody thing about it as far as he or anyone else can tell.

"Not that I know of." Merlin says.

"Bloody hell. There's being honourable and proper and there's being a monk." Gwaine shakes his head in disgust. "I think his honourableness doesn't know where his cock is."

"Unlike some people who mostly think with theirs." Merlin says, poking him in the side.

"I could trip him into her cleavage." Gwaine muses.

"You wouldn't." Merlin replies.

"Try me." Gwaine says.

Merlin looks thoughtful. "You'd get more red-faced stammering than anything."

"From her or him?" Gwaine smirks.

Arthur insists that being attacked by full-grown knights who've had years of fighting experience is a wonderful way to learn to wield a sword. And builds character. Gwaine promptly put a hand over her mouth to prevent another yelling match about precisely how much character Merlin already had.

"Mostly it's the noise, if you must know." Gwaine apologised once Leon had pulled Arthur away for his own safety. "That and both of you're in a temper for a while, which means we get more bruises *and* there's more chance that you'll light something on fire or conjure up pixies to trip us up."

"I have never conjured pixies in my life." Merlin says, offended.

"No, but there's still the chance that one day you'll do it." Gwaine says. "Just because you're a pretty face doesn't mean you're not possessed of a mean streak."

"It's like you've never met Morgana." Merlin says.

Gwaine slings an arm round her shoulders. "Nah, Morgana's not pretty, Morgana's frightening. Besides, she's nearly got as good hair as me."

"A capital offence." Merlin grins, tugging on the hand draped over her shoulder.

----

Gwen and Merlin are helping Morgana get ready for the feast that evening. Merlin runs her fingers down Morgana's new dress and sighs. "I really do miss wearing dresses most of the time."

Morgana smiles. "Well, you get to wear one tonight. I like what you've done with your hair."

"Weaved it with ribbons and thanked my lucky stars for not needing eight hands to do it." Merlin says, then grins. "At one point I looked like Medusa, according to pratface. So my work here is done."

Morgana looks thoughtful. "Could you actually give yourself snakes for hair?"

"Don't see why not." Merlin says. "There's that spell Valiant used to animate the snakes on his shield, so if you adapted that. it should be easier to do it with something that was already solid and bendy like hair."

Gwen makes a thoughtful noise. "The problem is what state it'd be in after you turned it back into hair. magic's not very kind to what the base was. The individual locks would probably get horrendously tangled."

Morgana and Merlin wince and shudder. "All right, never doing that." Merlin says. "My hair is bad enough when it's had mud in it."

"Or when Gwen teases mine." Morgana adds.

"Speaking of hair." Gwen starts, then grins. "What is it you're doing with Gwaine?"

Merlin looks at her. "Talking to him? Being friends? He's a lot of fun."

"So not flirting up a storm." Morgana says.

Merlin shrugs. "I don't think he knows how not to flirt. it's the hair. it swooshes too much for its own good."

Morgana and Gwen exchange glances. "He spends an awful lot of time with you and constantly makes suggestive comments."

Merlin grins. "You do know that he's not being serious."

"Merlin, there's jokey and there's jokey whilst watching you as you walk away." Morgana says. "Do you think you'll take him up on it one day?"

Merlin scratches her ear. "I haven't really thought about it. He's very good looking and a very good friend, but he's never actually been serious about it because he very firmly believes I'm bedding Arthur."

"Even though you've told him a thousand times that you're not." Gwen says.

"He mostly laughs at us when we say we're not." Merlin sighs. "There's also the problem that I know every single one of his bad habits."

Gwen wrinkles her nose. "I always heard that not even married couples knew all of those."

"Well, at least Lance is being so gentlemanly that the rate you're going you'll never find out if he has any bad habits before you're old and grey." Merlin says. "Seriously, at this rate I think Gwaine may offer to trip Lance into your cleavage."

"At this rate, I'm thinking he has my permission." Gwen huffs, then flushes. "I. Um. I just meant because he's not even - um -"

"Gwen, I'm impressed." Morgana says admiringly.

Chapter Text

"So what exactly are we investigating here?" Merlin asks as they come out of the trees and into view of the castle. Said castle is looking not in the best of health. It's deserted, the moat's not brackish and green, it's silted up with leaves and brambles and nettles are growing out of the leaf mould. You'd probably only sink up to your ankles, and even then only when it'd been raining heavily for weeks. Ivy and old man's beard are growing up parts of the walls, and young trees are growing where it's sheltered. At least one wall has enough stones missing that it's starting to collapse, and it's probably only the wisteria and ivy holding it together. "Forgive me for pointing this out, but I don't think this place really poses all that much of a threat."

Arthur shades his eyes against the sun. "It's been used on and off as a base for bandits since it was abandoned, but there have been stories of disappearances around this area. they're all centred on this castle."

Merlin looks at him. "So what, you think there's some sort of monster in there eating humans?"

Lance grins behind them. "Don't worry, Merlin, no-one's accusing a dragon of being in there."

Merlin shrugs. "dragons probably could eat humans, but they prefer sheep and cows. Cloth would get caught in their teeth." She pauses. "Like wolves. Wolves don't go after humans unless there's absolutely nothing else to eat and the winter's killed off most of the deer and small animals in the woods."

Arthur turns in his saddle to look at her. "How on earth would you know how wolves act? You were born and raised in a town."

"I know this is a big surprise to you, pratface, but I do this thing called talking to people who aren't nobles." She pauses. "A lot of the servants are from the country, and then there's the traders in the market. The rest of the population does this thing called buying things on their own instead of getting servants to do it, and surprisingly, we like to engage in these things called conversations to make the transactions go more pleasantly. Or just to chat or find out what's going on in the outside world."

Gwaine grimaces. "Talk to people? What kind of perverted notion is that? Who would count that as a pleasant pasttime?"

Arthur rolls his eyes. "Talk to, Gwaine, not at. There's a difference."

"Ah, I knew I'd been doing something wrong all these years." Gwaine says. "So what's the plan, park the horses and investigate in a cautious and sensible manner?"

"Pretty much." Leon says. "We'll split up and investigate the ground floor, regroup and then look through the upper levels."

The castle is... mostly dusty. They poke through the corridors and rooms of the ground floor. The old guard house, the main halls, the kitchens.

"It's a bit weird." Percy says as he moves aside a ragged banner that's fallen across a door. It's rotting and discoloured, nibbled by rodents and stained with water.

"Weird how?" Arthur asks.

"When you think of abandoned castles, you hear think of stone and spiders and maybe some bats and birds." Percy says. "Not the bits of furniture and rotting tapestries."

Arthur frowns "I think my nurse told me about a castle that fell asleep for a hundred years due to a curse. The story had it all over grown with ivy and brambles and cobwebs. I don't think she thought to mention the foxes setting up home in the fireplaces."

In the next room, there's definite signs that someone used this place for shelter, judging by the husks of apples and picked clean bones in a pile in the corner and the charred circle on the floor.

Merlin crouches and pokes at the sooty remains. "They couldn't just use the fireplace? And what's wrong with using the midden or chucking their meal remains in the moat?"

Arthur folds his arms. "Sadly bandits don't tend to be civilised people, Merlin. And they don't tend to stay long. they're more like bears in caves."

Merlin glares at him. "I did not sign up for bears, pratface. You aren't allowed to stray near bears while you're on my watch. There will be no looking for them, investigating reports of them, or taking parts in hunts of them while I'm your bodyguard."

Percy turns to Arthur as some pigeons in the rafters start cooing. They've been very carefully noting exactly where the falls of bird shit are and walking around those patches of stone. " She's afraid of bears?"

"It's a perfectly healthy fear." Merlin mutters, pushing open a door that's stuck closed. The wood's fine, it's hard enough and smoked that it's like iron. The problem is the hinges. They've rusted it shut. She'd had to push them until they snapped, then push the door open. "They're bigger than you, pack even more muscle under the furry coat, can run as fast as a horse, and have these big teeth and claws that no sane person would go near. They're the reason crossbows were invented."

Percy walks through the door and into an incredibly cobwebbed room hung about with shields and rusted pikes, swords in racks and ancient armour on stands. There's bird shit in here too, and the only light's coming from high up windows and Merlin's werelights. "Must be the armoury. You'd think the bandits would raid this first. Or at least that whoever used to live here would take all this with them."

"Think the hinges must've rusted before the bandits got here." Merlin says. "And they probably got out in a hurry."

"The story I heard was that they cut off supplies during a siege, forcing those inside to surrender." Arthur says, pulling a handful of cobwebs off a shield to see the design. "The army slaughtered the inhabitants and dumped their bodies in the moat, but before they could ransack it properly, a messenger brought word that the army was need to face an army coming in from the east who'd thought it was an excellent time to attack the lands no longer defended. The piles of bodies were enough to start a superstition that it was cursed, and that kept most out except the morbidly curious out for decades." he pauses. "The piles of corpses in the moat were enough to keep any passers by away for the years directly after the siege."

Merlin makes a face. "Lovely."

"Explains why no-one came for the weapons cache, at least." Percy says. he pauses and looks at Merlin. "Is it cursed?"

Merlin sighs. "I can detect magic and spells, I can't actually detect curses. And there's no real magic left over in these rooms. Not more than old traces, like you'd get in any where people lived." She looks up at one of the high windows. "You'd probably find more in the kitchen than here."

Arthur frowns, having been tracing his fingers over all the old swords in fascination. "Why would you find more in the kitchen?"

"You have no idea how much magic gets used for heating things, moving hot things and stirring pots when you've not got enough hands. Also see the laundry." Merlin says. "We've gone as far as we can in this bit of the castle and not found anything. Back to the starting point to meet the others?"

Meeting back up with the other groups, it turned out they didn't find anything either. "We found the kitchens." Lance says. "They had a surprisingly large store of salt. And a lot of jugs that still stank of rotten fish paste when we opened them."

"How can you tell it was rotten?" Percy frowns. "Wouldn't it rot on its own?"

Elyan grimaces. "I made it to Rome on my travels. They use rotten fish paste like our cooks use herbs and stock to add flavour to food. it makes the dishes taste amazing, but it stinks so you have to keep it in a sealed jar. You have to ferment it like beer and cider to get it do that, it won't do it on its own."

Lance grimaces. "We had no idea what the smell was until Elyan told us. Leon was gagging."

Leon shakes his head. "It really was that bad."

Percy scratches his jaw. "Learned something new in our bit. Merlin's afraid of bears."

Lance turns to look at her in amazement. "You have absolutely no fear of a giant fire breathing winged lizard that's thirty feet high with claws half as big as a man and more teeth than a pack of wolves and you're afraid of bears."

Merlin puts her hands on her hips. "You do remember how the dragon listens to me and is really unlikely to kill or eat me? I can't talk to bears and persuade them not to attack me." She pauses. "Also see chimeras, griffins and really big sea monsters."

Lance shakes his head. "You actually killed a griffin, though."

"With your help." She points out. "Doesn't mean I wasn't really scared of it."

Leon rubs his beard. "Fascinating as this, we could be having this discussion as we investigate upstairs."

"Lead on." Merlin says, gesturing gracefully.

The stairs have stayed reasonably intact and have a few weeds growing out of the cracks and their fair share of rodent droppings. Nothing that a broom couldn't fix. When they get to the top of the stairs, there's more rotting tapestries and banners and furniture and cobwebs, but something is very distinctly wrong.

Gwaine draws his sword as they get further down the main corridor. "I don't like this."

Lance frowns. "There's definitely something wrong."

Elyan bites his lip. "Is it me or is there no sign of humans?"

Arthur glances at him. "You missed all the furniture and tapestries?"

Elyan waves his hand. "No, I mean... There were signs of people all over the ground floor. People using it *after* the castle was abandoned. The soot on the floor, the rubbish, tapestries pulled down for bedding, furniture broken up for fires, drawings of cocks on the walls. None of this is touched. The only things that have been living on this floor are birds and rodents. You might find footprints, but nothing else."

Arthur frowns. "That's ... worrying." He purses his lips. "All right. Keep an eye out for anything that might look like signs of recent habitation."

Merlin puts out a few more werelights, frowning. "I'll keep an eye out for traps."

"And I really would not recommend splitting up unless we absolutely have to." Elyan says.

They walk through the rooms more cautiously after that, the sheer emptiness of each room raising more hairs on the back of their necks, all of them with their swords out aside from Merlin, who's got her hand resting on the hilt of hers. Untouched bedrooms with drapes rotting off their poles to reveal the bed behind, with tables covered in brushes and bottles, inkpots on writing desks and pieces of half written on vellum next to them. The knights all silently agree not to touch anything. Not even the jewellery. There's some very expensive stuff under the dust, but as anyone who's ever listened to a ghost story knows, you don't ever touch the gold.

It's room after room with not even footprints in the dust, and in one room, surprising a family of mice, who skitter out of the way, squeaking indignantly at the sudden appearance of giants.

"Where are the people?" Gwaine asks. "I can't even see any sign of traps. You'd think the bandits would at least be curious and see if the beds worked. I would. It's not as though the roof's caved in in this bit of the castle. There's another few floors above this bit before you even get to the roof."

"Maybe the bandits had more of a sense of self-preservation than you do." Leon says.

And then it's one more room that should lead towards the battlements, judging by the layout, and they enter it cautiously, Leon taking point and checking for anything around the corners waiting to leap out. It's only when the last of them has crossed the threshold that the glittering rain falls over the doorway and the flame bursts out in a ring in the centre of the floor.

Merlin gapes. "Um. It's a ring of flame."

Arthur hefts his sword. It probably won't do anything to a ring of flame, but it makes him feel better. "I can see that, Merlin."

"And it's green." She says.

Arthur grits his teeth. "I can see that, Merlin. Could you kindly see your way to doing something about it?"

Merlin tilts her head and brings her hands up, stepping slightly forward, eyes affixed on the ring of flame that's climbed higher and is now casting a sickly green light over them.

Percy puts his sword away and puts a hand to the glittering rain that fills the door way. He shivers, then shoves against it. It doesn't budge. "Merlin! We're locked in!"

"Do you suppose everyone who disappeared got drawn up here and ..." Elyan pauses. "I don't see any skeletons."

"That's easy." Merlin says. "The ring of fire is widening." She pulls a nut out of a pouch and tosses it at the fire. It burns into nothing in seconds. "I think we may be talking hotter than the actual fires of hell here."

"It doesn't feel warm." Arthur says.

"That's the thing with magic." Merlin says wryly. "It can burn without heat if you get the right spell. Someone set a trap up here - maybe there was something they wanted to protect on the upper floors - before they left the castle. And then they got killed outside. It probably killed any bandits who came up here, so they decided not to go up after the first couple disappeared."

"What do you suppose it's protecting?" Elyan asks.

"I'm personally more for getting out of here without being burned alive." Arthur says. "So Merlin, if you could possibly get on with doing something about it?"

"Fire or glittery wall?" She asks, holding up a hand in the direction of the fire, concentrating.

"Glittery wall." Percy says, still making a valiant attempt to shoulder-barge his way through it. He's not getting bruises, more.. bouncing off it. "If we can get out of here, we won't get burned alive."

"All right." she nods, moving by him and placing her hands on it. "The rest of you - some of you keep an eye on the ring, everyone else look for a way out, and Percy, search around the door for anything that could look like a trigger or trip wire. It only set off the instant the last of us had crossed the threshold."

Percy starts pressing the stones while Merlin presses her hands to the glittering wall that's keeping them trapped in with the fire. "Are you sure that's wise?" Leon asks.

"It's not taking anything from me." Merlin says, frowning. "Now shush. Working."

Percy keeps pressing the stones around her and her feet until one of the stones gives him a very slight shock. "Ow." he comments, looking up at her. "Think this might be it?"

Merlin grins, pausing in her concentration and whispering. "That'll be the one. Just got to establish its connection and break it now." She renews her concentration and whispering of glottal syllables.

"Er, Merlin, faster?" Leon asks as Merlin chants. Her hands are now sunk all the way into the glittering wall.

"I don't think she can hear you." Percy says. Merlin pulls one hand out of the wall, making a rude gesture.

Leon looks at Percy. "I think she heard me." The fire gradually gets closer, the knights moving closer to the wall and doorway. "Er, not to rush you, but -"

Suddenly the doorway lets off a shower of sparks around the edge. "Everyone out, sharpish!" Merlin says.

They go for the door, and the green fire suddenly flares and hits the ceiling. Arthur glances up. "I think that hit the ceiling -" A stone falls on the other side of the room. "That hit the ceiling."

"I'll hold it, you get out." Merlin says, frowning. "Bloody death traps."

The knights scurry out. There's a yell from Gwaine out in the corridor. "It's falling out here too!"

"Do I have to do everything?" Merlin asks, rolling her eyes. She extends the reach of the shield that's keeping the ceiling in the fire room out to the ceiling of the corridor, keeping the supporting rafters in place and the stones between them up. Once all the knights are out, she goes into the corridor.

From ahead, there's the curse and yell of "Fuck, fuck, it's blocked!"

Merlin says something that sounds like a boar with stomach issues, eyes flaring, and the stones ahead crumble. "And now it's not. Come on!"

They keep going. "It looks like disabling the trap set off the back up trap." Arthur says. "This was a very vindictive curse."

"Be clever enough to set yourself free and we'll ensure your death by falling masonry?" Merlin asks. "We're talking a really vindictive bastard. At least the green fire would just reduce you to ash in moments. Death by falling rock's mean and would take a while."

"You'd probably be unconscious so wouldn't feel being steadily crushed." Lance says. "head injury's the most likely first."

"It's always nice the way you think about the details and feel the need to tell us." Arthur says.

"Merlin! Out here too!" Leon yells from in front before she can respond. Merlin sighs and extends the ceiling support, and muttering the disintegrate rock spell.

Arthur grabs her shoulder. "Can you keep the ceiling up back here if you go forward?"

"Yes, but-" She says.

"Go to the front." Arthur states. "You'll be able to clear the fallen stones and we'll move faster." He releases her shoulder and gives her a light shove. "Go!"

"A… All right." She nods, a bit torn by the habit she's gained of sticking to Arthur's side like glue during danger. And gets another light shove from Lance.

"I'll get her to the front." Lance says to Arthur. "Even if I have to keep shoving."

She gets to the front and Leon points forward a the next set of rubble. "If you hold the ceiling and aim forwards -"

"I'm not a fucking battering ram." Merlin says, catching another chunk of ceiling halfway down its fall and shoving it back into place in the ceiling rather than disintegrating it.

"You're doing a good impression of one." Leon says, having followed the stone up.

"Your wish is my command." Merlin says.

They keep moving forward, faster now that Merlin's clearing rock and debris at the front. They get to the stairs and Lance looks down. "It looks stable." That's when the top step shifts and he falls against the side, crashing into the wall in an attempt to not fall down the stairs and risk greater injury. "Fuck." He whispers as he attempts to get upright again.

"You all right?" Merlin asks as she extends the protection down the entire stairwell, holding the entire thing in place rather than bits. Easier to not take any chances.

"Can't - leg's killing me and I can't put weight on it." Lance grimaces. "Think it's my ankle."

"Great." Merlin says, making sure she's finished securing it, then yells "Everyone fucking get down the stairs, they're safe and holding up."

Arthur brings up the rear. "I thought I said to take the front."

"Lance can't walk." Merlin says. Lance is sitting on the top step, looking like he's seriously contemplating sliding down the stairs on his bum. "I was going to float him."

"Too many things at once." Arthur says. "Lance can go down on his bum and I'll help him once we get to the bottom."

"Entrance to the stairwell's blocked!" Comes the call from the bottom.

Merlin shakes her head. "Are you sure?" She asks, giving them an anxious glance.

"As long as you keep the ceiling and stairs stable, I can drag him." Arthur says. "Go, Merlin."

"Dignity, always dignity." Lance says, then winces as he goes down the first of the stairs and doesn't put his weight right so it jostles his ankle.

Merlin runs down the stairs as fast as she can, the knights all against the wall near the bottom as they let her down, At the bottom the stairwell's nearly fully blocked with stone. "They really didn't want anyone to get out." She says, more than a little peeved.

"Good tactical mind." Leon offers, obviously impressed even as he's being targeted by the old spells.

"Wonderful as that is..." Merlin says, bringing her hands up and blasting the stone outwards, not bothering with the disintegration spell this time, just using force, keeping in the back of the mind the structure of the floor behind them, keeping the ceiling and stairwell in place. If those rafters and ceilings go, it'll hit the lower ones, and... She dimly remembers paging through a book of building sketches for masons when she was younger, struck by how all the weight of one bit pressed against the other and stopped the next wall falling down. She tells herself to keep that in mind as a way of keeping her attention spread. One bit goes, the weight shifts and down goes the next supporting wall and that'll break the floor, which is the ceiling below. And she doesn't know how far back Arthur and Lance are.

The knights rush down the last bit of the stairs and Merlin follows, pausing in the arch to yell "Are you still there?"

"Stop pausing and keep the roof up!" Arthur yells back from above, his voice echoing down the stairwell.

Leon pulls at her arm. "The roof's falling here too."

"Why am I not surprised." Merlin says, waving a hand and muttering, ceiling pieces disintegrating into gravel before they hit the ground and anyone else.

Now they're in the hall and it's a clear stretch, and the knights break into a run, Merlin holding the roof as the birds in the rafters make a break for it as this section starts to go. it's going room by room, the back up traps woven throughout the castle somehow one step ahead of them but no more, mindful of collapsing the roof too early and maybe missing killing them by giant piece of stone rather than just trapping them and killing them by starvation.

And then they're out, through the gate and over the drawbridge turned just plain bridge. The knights stream out, collapsing on the ground once they've reached a point that's far enough away that falling stone won't get them. Merlin can't catch a breath, she's still holding it all together, and it's like her head is one giant castle in the back, her magic's so woven through it, holding it together against the old spells that destroyed its supports.

Percy runs out last. Merlin blinks. "Where's Arthur?"

Percy takes in a breath. "Not far behind, he's still got lance. I saw them behind me, Merlin." he reaches out tentatively, almost like he's afraid to touch her, and puts his big hand on her shoulder. "You're fine, Merlin."

"Arthur's not out yet, he was getting Lance -" Merlin says.

"Merlin, you can't -" Percy says.

"Try me." Merlin says, narrowing her eyes.

"Right then." Percy says, moving so he's next to her rather than in front of her so he's facing the castle too, keeping her hand on his shoulder. "You've just got to hold it up long enough then for them to get clear of the gate, Merlin. Just another couple of minutes, all right?"

"All right." Merlin says, bringing her hands up to help her concentrate. She can feel some sort of breeze, since her hair's whipping around her face, tendrils that've broken free of her plait, but she can't see the leaves of the trees or the grass blowing in it. Then Percy squeezes her shoulder, pressure on the edge of her concentration. "There, Merlin, they're at the gate. Over the drawbridge. Lance is injured and Arthur's near carrying him, but they're out. you can stop now."

"Really?" Merlin asks. She follows his pointing arm, and there's the familiar sight of a blond prat, supporting a dark haired man.

"He's clear!" Gwaine yells.

"Took their time." Merlin mutters. She lets out a breath, relieved. She doesn't have to concentrate on supports and walls and ceilings any more, whispers a release spell under her breath and lets go, and the weight just... goes.

Arthur emerges from the castle, practically carrying Lancelot even though he's been struggling along himself with grim determination through the useless ankle he can't put weight on. They're out in the daylight, blinking in it. In front of them, the knights are all gathered just out of range of the walls, and Percy's looming over Merlin, one hand on her shoulder. Which is odd. It looks like he's acting as an anchor and focus, like you see other magicians use. Except Merlin and Morgana never needed focuses beyond a bowl of water for scrying. He focuses properly on Merlin and... uh. She looks unearthly, eyes glowing gold, hair whipping around her face in a sorcerous wind on this calm day. Percy points at them, saying something they can't hear from here, and suddenly it's like her strings are cut. Her eyes stop glowing, she lets herself relax, and then she collapses, Percy catching her. It wasn't an anchor. He was there to catch her if this happened. What did she do?

A few moments later from behind them, there's the sound of grinding stone. On a massive scale. Creaking and groaning. Stone on stone, like a million millstones all at once, combined with the crashing of a rockfall, as though a cliff had started to collapse. The noise if deafening, and the other knights shout and point behind them at the castle. Arthur and Lance turn to see the entire castle collapse in on itself.

Lance's grip tighten on his collar, and he says in awe "Merlin was holding that entire castle up. Just her."

Gwaine comes forward to take Lance from him, pulling him back a bit and lowering him to the ground and straightening, looking up at the giant pile of rubble that was until a few moments ago recognisably a castle. "She was holding all of that up by herself? How powerful is she?" He asks in disbelief.

"I don't think I want to know." Lance says.

Arthur reaches the spot they've been watching from, and stops by Merlin, unconscious on the ground, propped up by Percy. "What happened to Merlin?" He demands. "Why is she unconscious?"

"Exhaustion." Percy says. "She was holding the castle up until you made it out. Turned out to be a bit of a big job."

"Never bloody fails." Arthur says, sighing and pushing the hair that escaped from her plait back off her face. "She's never had any idea of her limits.”

Merlin wakes up with her head on Arthur's shoulder, his arm round her waist. Not that unusual. Except from the jolting, which indicates they're very definitely on a horse. "Mmph?"

"oh, you're finally awake." Arthur says. "Wasn’t sure when you'd eventually wake up, so we decided to get a move on with getting back.”

"Why'm I on your horse?" Merlin asks.

"You collapsed once you stopped holding the castle up." Arthur says, then says more quietly. "You're not supposed to do that kind of thing."

"Was only waiting til Lance got free." Merlin says. "Gwen would kill me if I'd let him die. Then Morgana would resurrect and kill me again for making Gwen cry."

"So nothing to do with me." Arthur says. "I see how it is."

"Nope. Would've let it collapse on your head." Merlin yawns. She aches all over from holding the castle up with magic for so long, and her head feels like it's still full of echoing stone rooms "You're expendable."

"Really." Arthur says dryly.

"Yeah, your father's got another heir." Merlin points out. "And I like your sister better. plus she's better at politics."

"Thank you so much, Merlin, it's nice to now how much I'm valued." Arthur says. "Feel free to go back to sleep so I don't have to suffer any more delirious babble."

"Not delirious." Merlin yawns. "Tired, though."

"I'd never have guessed." Arthur says. There a pause, and his arm tightens around her, squeezing. "Don't do that again. We were worried."

"Don't bloody take us to investigate crumbling castles littered with death traps, then." Merlin says. She can feel herself drifting off again. She's so tired. "Twerp."

Chapter Text

It's court audience day. The assembled nobles are here variously with petitions and to make contacts. Leon casts an eye over the crowd. "Interesting mix. How many of them do you suppose have border disputes?"

"I'm betting a fifth." Uther says. "And requests for wills?"

"Hmm." Leon taps his fingers against the hilt of his sword. "I'd say three today."

"I'll take that bet." Uther says.

Halfway through, Uther calls for a drink. He leans on his elbow, rubbing his chin. "Interesting."

"Oh?" Leon asks.

"One after the next one." Uther observes. Earl Haraldsen and Lord Tamesis are waiting with their daughters, but together. Presenting their petition together.

Leon examines them. "It's not often those two agree on anything. What do you suppose it is?"

"And their lands aren't anywhere near each others." Uther says. "The presence of their daughters is interesting. One's the younger since Haraldsen's eldest is lately married, but I believe that's Tamesis' eldest. There was a ten year gap between his first and second if I remember rightly."

"Your guess is as good as mine." Leon says. "They look a bit nervous, though."

"That could just be their bladders." Uther replies.

As they surmised, Haraldsen and Tamesis step forward as one. "Your highness." Earl Haraldsen says. "May we present our daughters."

"And I'm glad to meet them." Uther says. "But might I ask for what purpose you present them so formally?"

"Indeed." Lord Tamesis says. "For many years we have sorrowed that we have not been able to contribute to the kingdom's premier defence source as we were not blessed with sons, instead happy to contribute by sponsoring those not of noble birth but blessed with immense talent who made it through the trials."

Uther leans back in his chair, interested to see where this is going. "Go on."

"However, we have noted that your majesty has since opened the admissions field in the last year with taking on the Lady Merlin to serve as a knight. Thus we are grateful to serve and contribute, and present our daughters for admission to train for the knights." There's several gasps around the room when people take that sentence in, and with good reason. However, Tamesis keeps on as though he hadn't heard it, though of course he can't have missed it. "Both are healthy and fit and show some talent in the art of swords and staff already." Tamesis continues. "Sir Leon himself can vouch for my daughter Angharad's skill with the sword."

"Oh?" Uther murmurs.

Leon leans in, murmuring back. "Attacked on the roads. She killed one."

"Impressive indeed." Uther says back to Leon. He straightens. He might be slightly taken aback by the request, but he's certainly not going to let it show. "Your point is a fair one, since I myself set precedent. Your observation is most timely, and I am glad to accept your daughters for training to the knights. However, they should be aware that it is a long and arduous process and that several do not make it. Many knights do not enjoy a long lifespan as their duties are fraught with danger, and some do not even live to see their knighting. I wish to make them cognisant of this fact before they are sworn in for training."

Angharad steps forward, head bowed and hands clasped in front of her demurely. She can't be more than fifteen. "We are, your highness. But we ourselves petitioned our fathers to make this request, since we felt that our talents were most suited here and we could be of use to our king and country in this fashion."

"Very well." Uther says. "You make a good case and we will be happy to accept your submission into training. Report to the training fields and Sir Leon in the morning."

The lords and their daughters smile and bow. "Your highness." And then move to join the rest of the crowd.

"Well, this will certainly be an interesting experiment, sire." Leon says.

Later, after the audience is over, Morgana knocks on the door of the king's offices. "Enter." Uther says, looking over the paperwork that's being drawn up for the various border disputes and requests for help that he's promised to see over. "Ah, Morgana. What can I do for you, daughter?"

Morgana looks ebullient. "What's this I hear about Lord Tamesis and Earl Haraldsen submitting their daughters for training and you accepting?"

"They made the very pointed case that I myself had elevated Merlin to the knights and thus they would like to submit their daughters to serve." Uther says, and looks at Leon. "I have to admit that this is one result of appointing a dragonlord as Arthur's bodyguard I hadn't planned for."

"It's certainly interesting, sire." Leon says. "Do you think it'll be workable?"

"It can't hurt, I suppose." Uther says. "we don't know if they'll make it through training. Not everyone does."

"They can't be worse than some of the sons we've had admitted." Leon points out, moving some papers. "And no-one can be as bad as Merlin when she started out."

"How many broken toes and bruises were involved in her training?" Uther asks.

"Several." Leon says. "Not including tantrums where your son ended up with some interesting side effects."

"The asses ears suited him, I thought." Morgana says, grinning. Then pauses. "I've not met either of them, but I heard that the Lady Angharad had been rather resistant to talk of marriage proposals. You are aware that this might be a saving face of her father to ensure that he doesn't have to deal with his daughter any more?"

Uther looks interested. "I hadn't considered that. However, it may mean that we get the daughters more suited for swordplay and exercise rather than their weedy brothers who wish for nothing more than the scholarly life and have to be forcibly ejected after having several years wasted on their training."

"A very reasonable point." Leon says.

"So have you made any plans for their training yet?" Morgana asks.

Uther gestures to the mound of scrolls beside him. "No plans as yet, we've been sorting through this. I thought they'd go in with the current crop of their age. They'll be sorted on their current levels of experience, of course."

"And no-one can be such a rank beginner as Merlin." Leon says. "Angharad definitely shows promise, since she can already keep her head when being attacked."

"Indeed." Morgana says. "So. Might I and Gwen join in their training? There are several points of training and the female body that Sir Leon is not aware of, not being female himself."

Uther sits back, amused. "You wish to become an instructor."

Morgana curtsies, as does her maid. "I wish to serve Camelot to the best of my duties, you majesty."

"In that case we shall see you on the training field tomorrow." Uther says. "Dismissed.”

"Thank you, father." Morgana grins, and exits.

"Why do I get the impression that my daughter has a vision of her very own army?" Uther says once the door is closed.

"Because it's an impression that's very easy to make?" Leon asks. "I'm surprised she didn't press for admission to the knights herself."

"That may come later." Uther says. "For now let's see how these two work out."

Arthur hears about it two days later, having been out to investigate a border dispute himself with a few knights. "Girls?" He asks in confusion.

"They've already had some training, so they're a step above our usual young recruits." Leon says.

"Yes, but... girls?" Arthur asks, still in disbelief.

"There was a bit of name calling at first, and then Maeve knocked the feet out from under the chief tormentor of the squires assembled, sat on him and bent his arm back until he screamed for mercy." Leon says blithely. "We kept an eye on them to make sure we could intervene before any permanent damage would be done to the boy's shoulder."

Elyan nods in approval. "Her technique was quite impressive, sire. Gwen even gave her pointers for later."

Arthur screws his eyebrows up. "Pointers?"

Elyan grimaces. "Many years of experience applying it to me, sire. But we think she and Angharad will be an asset to their class."

Arthur shakes his head. "Girls. In the knights of Camelot. Why does no-one warn me before this kind of thing happens?"

Merlin pokes him. "I heard that they cited me as their reason for being sure of Uther's approval, so you've only got yourself to blame." She turns to Leon and Elyan. "Now the really important question. Have either of them got magic and how soon can we train them up to replace me?"

"Very funny, Merlin." Arthur says. "You're not getting out of it that easily."

"And my other pressing query." She continues, ignoring him. "Has Morgana adopted them yet?"

"That would be a yes." Elyan says. "She's declared that they're going to require special training because their bodies will grow differently from the boys and will need different techniques."

"No-one said I needed different techniques." Merlin objects.

Arthur puts his arm around her shoulders and brings his other hand up to flick at her fringe. "That's because they gave up back when you were still growing and you were deemed so terrible that special techniques wouldn't have made any difference and the ones that we did use involved how not to fall over your own feet whilst wielding a weapon."

Merlin rubs her nails on her cape and examines them. "It's nice to know I'm being held up as a standard and example."

"A terrible example of 'don't be this bad, if you are in fact this bad we're going to suspect you of hiding some terrible childhood disease'." Arthur says, tweaking her ear.

She bats a hand at his face. "But still an example." She says.

Chapter Text

Merlin wakes up in the middle of the night. "Ow." She says, rubbing her forehead. "Seriously, do you have to be so loud?"

"You were asleep and I need your services, young witch." The dragon booms in her ear.

"What's wrong with starting it quiet?" She grumbles. "What is it, anyway?"

"Meet me in the field outside the castle, young witch. Bring the young pendragons. Their help is also needed." The dragon says.

Merlin groans and closes her eyes just for an instant, and then gets a testy "I said now, young witch."

"All right, all right... What's wrong with daytime? Seriously?" Merlin grumbles as she swings her feet out of bed, pulling on a pair of breeches and shirt and jacket, then her boots and swordbelt. "This is fucking ridiculous, I swear."

In the next room, Arthur's already woken up. "What on earth are you doing up so early? It's the middle of the night, Merlin. And do you have to make such a racket? You don't do this in the morning."

In answer, she grabs his breeches and shirt out of the wardrobe and his jacket from the chair and dumps them on him. George was ill last night, so it's not as tidy as it could be. Definitely not as tidy as the servant's expectations of tidy are. "Great fiery lizard calls." She yawns. "He requires you and your sister's presence and doesn't give a shit about the concept of a decent night's sleep or this thing called daylight hours."

Arthur pulls his jacket off his face. "Are you sure he very specifically asked for me?"

"I quote 'the young Pendragons'." Merlin says, running her hands over her plait to make sure her hair isn't too much of a mess after sleep. It seems to be okay. She floats Arthur's boots over to the side of the bed. "Get on with getting dressed, unless you know of any cousins or extra by-blows of your dad."

"What a lovely phrase." Arthur says. "And not that I know of. I suspect they're thanking their lucky stars that they've so far avoided dragons and the like proclaiming that they have a destiny."

"Don't forget the druids." Merlin says, as Arthur pulls on his shirt.

"You're the only one who gets that." Arthur says, his voice a little muffled as he pulls the shirt over his head. "The rest of us don't have to hide from them whenever we're near their camps, or hide behind Percy. Didn't you pretend to be dead once?"

"I tried." She says sadly. "Mum checked my breathing."

"They can't even get your name right." Arthur says, amused. "Emrys is very definitely not a girl's name."

"Exactly, and they still won't listen." Merlin says. "Come on, let's go rouse your sister."

They trudge out to the field. They haven't ridden out because expecting the horses to stay still when faced with the dragon is a tad mean. The dragon's waiting, looming out of the dark. In the light of the moon and Morgana and Merlin's werelights, he appears to be crouching over something. Which doesn't bode well in Arthur's experience, if someone summons you and is holding something large. It's either something you broke, or something they want to hand off to you. Neither of which is ever good.

Merlin looks, scratching her neck. "All right, what did you drag us out here for and what was so important that it couldn’t wait until daylight when we were actually awake and dressed?"

The dragon booms "Your manners show no change, young witch."

Merlin folds her arms. "We're not here to talk about my manners, lizard who feels the need to drag people out of bed in the middle of the night. What was so pressing?"

"Hmmp." The dragon says huffily. "I have a most important task for the three of you. I have to take a journey and cannot care for this egg." He uncrouches and reveals a large egg that shines pearly in the moonlight. "Thus I pass it on to you. Be most careful with it, for it is a great and important treasure."

With that, he leaps into the air, beating his wings to gain height, and is off before they can reply. Merlin still yells "Hey! Come back here? When are you going to be back? What do you mean, dumping it on us? Was there no-one else? And are you insane, trusting pratface of all people with something so delicate?" There's no reply. The dragon's gone, not even within reach of mindspeak. Merlin slumps. "...bastard."

Morgana walks over to look at the egg, crouching down to look at it closely, fascinated. "Kilgarrah entrusted us with a great honour, Merlin. It's a dragon egg. Why are you yelling at him?"

Merlin folds her arms, making a grumbling noise. "Two bets he's gone somewhere warm for the winter and couldn't be bothered to take care of it. Dragon eggs do not take that long to hatch."

"So do they swap egg caring duties with the mother after she lays it?" Morgana asks, now hesitantly touching the egg. "I know birds swap sitting on the egg in some species."

Merlin makes a snorting noise. "Dragons are both male and female. Gaius' books have a fancy Greek word for it but it just means they can be either. Dad says it's just blind luck on who actually has the egg after mating."

"Well, whatever the circumstances, we can't leave this egg out in the field. it is rather important." Morgana says. "And given that its parent has abandoned it, it falls to us to take care of it."

"Fine." Merlin grumbles, and floats it, trudging back to the castle. The others catch up. "Where are we going to put it? The cave under the castle's too wet and cold."

"The stables?" Arthur asks, still a bit taken aback at the enormity of the task, the early hour, the cold, and the amusement of Merlin yelling into the sky. Grumbling Merlin is generally amusing.

Morgana turns to look at him incredulously, her tone making it obvious even in the weak light of the moon and werelight. "With the horses? In range of their hooves and even worse, the stable boys? Would you trust them to not break it? And even then, the amount of people that sneak in there for various reasons, it would get disturbed or damaged."

"The shell's really quite tough." Merlin offers. "It's more like brittle leather than a chicken egg."

"Even so." Morgana says sharply. "What if someone falls on it?" She pets the egg as it floats along. "It's all right, we'll take care of you." She pauses. "With that in mind, it's certainly not going in either of your rooms, given how clumsy and how many things get thrown around in there."

"We don't throw all that much around." Arthur objects.

"You threw a goblet." Merlin points out. "Yesterday morning. After what that toadying counsellor said in the corridor and you had to wait to get back to the room to react, because throwing him against the wall would be considered bad form."

"That was special circumstances." Arthur says. "Normally I go to the training fields and hit things."

"Still, nothing gets thrown in my room." Merlin points out.

"Merlin, you float things when you have a nightmare." Morgana says.

"Including me." Arthur says. "I woke up last month with my face a foot from the canopy. Fortunately she let me down before she woke up."

"Merlin, what were you thinking?" Morgana scolds. "You could at least have just left him up there."

"It wasn't my fault, I was asleep." Merlin retorts.

"Anyway, my point is made." Morgana says. "If nothing else, George might polish it until the shell was paper thin. We'll put it in my room. My room's warm, and it won't be disturbed."

In the morning, Gwen arrives to wake Morgana up, and tidies the room. Her boots are wet, and for some reason her warm trousers are draped over the chair. And then there's the velvet covered mound in the corner.

She decides not to disturb it, and shakes Morgana lightly awake instead. "My lady?"

"Oh, morning, Gwen." Princess Morgana says, then yawns. "Sorry, I was called out late last night."

"I noticed the wet boots." Gwen says. "Was it interesting?"

"Kilgarrah left us a rather important caretaking task." Morgana says, grinning impishly. "Under the velvet. Go on."

Gwen uncovers it hesitantly. And stares. "It's an egg."

"A dragon egg." Morgana says, getting out of bed and padding over to touch it. She grins. "How often does anyone get to see one of these, let alone take care of one while the parent is away?"

"Never, I would think." Gwen says. "What do we have to do?"

"Kilgarrah didn't leave us any instructions." Morgana says. "Warm and undisturbed is what we decided."

"Um. What if it hatches?" Gwen asks, carefully touching it and then snatching her hand back.

"I think Kilgarrah will be back to claim it before then." Morgana says confidently.

A week later, Merlin and Arthur get back from a hunt. They're idly squabbling about Merlin stopping Arthur from shooting a unicorn. "Pratface, it was a unicorn. Somehow I think shooting it would be an extraordinarily bad idea. The whole magical creature part and symbol of purity part should be a deterrent on its own."

"Yes, but it's still -" Arthur gets cut off by Gwen racing towards them. "Guinevere? Is everything all right?"

"Oh thank god you're back, you need to come this way now -" Gwen babbles, somewhat frantic.

"Um, can we get out of our hunting -" Merlin says.

"No, you have to come now." Gwen says very firmly. Arthur and Merlin exchange glances. Gwen may regularly be nervous, but frantic but firm is a new one. They dismount and hand their horses off to the waiting squires and hurry after her.

She leads them to Morgana's rooms. "Seriously, Gwen, what is it?" Merlin asks.

Gwen swallows as she opens the door to show Morgana feeding a small white dragon scraps of fruit. "Um, the egg hatched?"

Morgana looks up. "Oh, hello you two."

"Morgana, you look very undisturbed." Arthur says. "A dragon egg hatched in your chambers and you're not upset?"

"Her name's Aithusa." Morgana says, scritching the baby dragon between its eyebrows. "Isn't she adorable?"

"it's also white." Arthur says. "Do they come in that colour normally?"

"Apparently the dragons to the far north and the far eastern ones often come in white." Merlin says, leaning down to look at the baby dragon. "The problem is what we're going to do with it."

"She can stay in my quarters for now until Kilgarrah comes back." Morgana says. "Yes, you are adorable, aren't you?"

Gwen ushers them out, slightly worried look already in place. "What do I do?" She whispers frantically. "Morgana's never had so much as a cat! What will it do to the furniture?"

Merlin bites her lip. "Um. I only really know adult dragons, but the little ones.... er. I know that their teeth and claws are quite soft at this stage, so the curtains should be fairly safe. Scraps of fruit and meat should be fine."

"You are going to get your father right now." Gwen growls. "He's the expert."

Balinor mostly scratches his beard and goes "Um. Well. There's..."

Merlin rolls her eyes. "Honestly, father."

Balinor shrugs. "I've as much experience of baby dragons as you have, love. I know lore and a few bits that the other dragons have passed on, but this looks like it'll be a learning experience for all of us."

Merlin frowns. "Learning experience is what people tend to say when it's either going to be painful or disgusting."

"Maybe for you." Arthur comments. For which he gets an elbow in the side.

"But she's still very adorable." Morgana says, petting Aithusa, who's leaning into the touch. "Yes you are, aren't you."

"Morgana, she's not a doll or a cat. You can't dress her up." Arthur says. "I don't think Kilgarrah's going to be impressed if he comes to get her and she's all prettied up."

"Maybe she likes to be pretty, you don't know that." Morgana says.

"Let her make her own choices." Balinor says gently. "Maybe when she's older."

"He can't talk." Merlin says. "There's a litter of hunting dogs that's just been whelped and pratface here has fallen head over heels for one of them."

"I just think Cafall will make a very good hunting dog one day." Arthur objects. "He needs to be encouraged."

"He's a week old, pratface." Merlin says.

A week later, Aithusa's lollopping around after Morgana and being snuck out for evening walks. "I don't think I've used invisibility spells this much since we first learnt them." Morgana muses.

Merlin tosses a ball for the baby dragon. "You can't keep a baby dragon squirrelled away in your chambers for that much longer. She's getting bigger. Gradually, but she's getting bigger. And she'll start breathing fire one day."

"I think Kilgarrah will be back to get her before then." Morgana says reprovingly.

"I have very little faith in that particular fire breathing lizard's sense of responsibility." Merlin says, and pats Aithusa's head as she comes back with the ball. "Plus, we don't know how long this trip's going to be. It might be all winter. He's probably gone to those warm islands in the south you hear about from the merchants."

Gwen pulls the ball out of Aithusa's mouth and pats her on the head. "She's very cute, though. And has nice manners."

Aithusa yelps and makes 'throw thataway' noises. Morgana smiles. "Yes, we'll throw it that way."

"Which way?" Gwen asks. "Did Aithusa say something? I didn't hear anything."

"Oh, you didn't hear it?" Morgana asks, surprised. "She wanted you to throw towards the tower."

"That's right." Merlin says, nodding to Gwen. Inside, Merlin's wincing.

Once they've finished playing, Gwen asks "Are you going back to your rooms?"

"No, I'm going to ask my father a couple of things about Aithusa." Merlin says.

"All right." Gwen says. "She's very cute, but we really do know very little about dragons."

Merlin knocks on her parents' door. "Um, father? We have a problem."

"Is this to do with Morgana?" Hunith asks from the table.

"How'd you guess?" Merlin asks dryly.

"You've talked nothing but dragons for the past few weeks." Hunith says. "It makes a change from the usual moaning about Arthur."

"Baby dragons are a very interesting subject." Balinor says. "We're certainly learning a lot. What's the problem?"

Merlin sighs as she sits down. "Morgana's hearing dragon talk in her head."

Balinor looks at her. "Are you sure?"

"We were playing fetch, Aithusa said to throw to the tower next in baby talk. Morgana heard her and Gwen didn't." She puts her elbows on the table, musing. "And we never did find out why Morgana called her Aithusa. It's not exactly an obvious or common name."

Balinor sighs. "She's bonded." Merlin groans.

"Does that mean what I think it means?" Hunith asks.

"Kilgarrah's created a new dragonlord line." Balinor says.

"Brilliant." Merlin sighs. "The thing is, I'm still not sure if he did it on purpose or just couldn't be bothered to keep an eye on the egg."

"He probably thought it would be amusing." Balinor says. "And then there's the name. Morgana is the first of the Pendragon name to show magical potential, and she's a powerful sorceress. Making her a dragonlord is one way to amuse himself."

"How are you certain he didn't just want to hand over his daughter to a reliable dragonlord family who'd know how to take care of the egg?" Hunith says.

"Either way is possible, but he's sneaky." Balinor says.

Merlin looks up, then grins. "Father."

"...Yes?" Balinor asks, eyeing his daughter. He doesn't trust that grin.

"Since you're the dragonlord and I'm just the dragonlord-in-waiting, you're the one who has to tell King Uther that he's not just got a dragonlord-in-waiting as bodyguard to his son, he's now got a dragonlord for his daughter." She gets up, kisses her mother on the cheek, and opens the door. "And now I have to go and check that pratface hasn't fallen over his own feet and cracked his head on the cobbles. Have fun!" She waves and closes the door behind her.

Hunith folds her arms and looks at her husband. "Your daughter has got far too good at fast exits."

Balinor just groans.

In the morning, Balinor raps on Prince Arthur's door. George answers. "Yes, my lord?"

"I wish to speak to my daughter." Balinor says.

"If that's my father, ask if he's had that word with Uther yet!" Merlin calls.

"Why would your father need a word with mine?" Arthur asks, puzzled.

"Remember what your sister's been doing? Honestly, pratface, you can be so dense." Merlin replies.

"Ah." Arthur pauses. "George, can you ask him?"

"I could just come in." Balinor offers.

George glances back inside, and then nods, opening the door fully. "My lord."

When he's let in, Balinor glances around and sees that Arthur's in the middle of pulling his shirt on and his daughter's brushing her hair. "Were you two not up yet?"

"He sleeps like a log when he doesn't have to do patrol." Merlin shrugs. "So have you told Uther?"

"Told him what?" The prince asks.

"Congratulations, your sister's a dragonlord." Merlin says blithely. "So did you?"

"Yes I did." Balinor sighs.

"And how'd he take it?" Merlin prompts. She really can be very like her mother at times.

"Possibly a little enthusiastically." Balinor says.

"He's not going to be able to stop grinning for days." Merlin muses. "As long as you made it very firm to him that it won't be in full effect until Aithusa's at least half grown, so at least not for another five years. For now it just means that she can talk to them and convince them not to eat her."

"I did." Balinor says. "I very definitely pointed out that for now she's somewhat below you as her dragon speech will be very rudimentary."

Arthur groans. "Just from taking care of a baby dragon?"

Merlin shrugs and sets her brush aside, starting on plaiting. "She bonded and now she can hear them in her head. It's how dragonlords start. Some start with babies and some with adults."

Arthur sighs. "Morgana's going to be even more insufferable and my father's going to start using it in negotiations. This is wonderful, it really is."

"I'm just waiting to hear what it does to her marriage offers." Merlin says. "Either they're going to go through the roof when word spreads or the king's going to bleed them for everything they have when it comes to securing a negotiation."

Chapter Text

Merlin wipes mud off her face after a horse crashes past them and hits a puddle. It's not raining right now, but there's been water falling enough in the last day that any gouge in the land beneath their feet becomes a puddle. It'd be better if they weren't in one of the dips and on the hill instead, but this is where they've ended up on the battle field for now, hacking at anyone they can identify as definitely an enemy or that attacks the. It's one long blur of mud with occasional horrible wounds in unprotected limbs.

In that moment the sun comes out from behind the clods, glinting off armour and anything wet or shiny. Mostly just wet, either with water or blood. She still doesn't understand how they got here. There was some sort of disagreement over the treaty that defined the border with Cenred's lands. A long stretch of mostly infertile land that the peasants were scraping a living from, that wasn't worth anything to anyone. It had been bandit territory under Cenred, until they'd made one too many forays supposedly by accident over into the edge of Camelot, which had pissed Uther off. So he sent soldiers and parties of knights in to clear the bandits out and bring the villages under his control. The land was worth bugger all, but the villagers were happier to only be paying taxes to one lord rather than several, and Uther got his buffer between bandit country and the richer land next door that he actually cared about. This had been years ago. However, this autumn, Cenred decided to get on his high horse and seek revenge for Uther's presumption in taking his lands. Lands that he'd cared so little about that he couldn't even be bothered to get rid of the bandits. Merlin honestly does not get kings. But the sabre rattling went on, and then there was yelling and screaming and treaties being torn up and lines were drawn.

and so they decided to sodding go to war. Over a bit of land that wasn't worth anything except to the peasants that scrape a living from it. Uther barely even bothers taxing it, it's worth so little. Last year when the harvest was bad, he let them off entirely. A place was decided for battle, in the last few days by virtue of where the armies ended up and there was a half decent stretch of land.

The battle started with a charge and arrows and Cenred's battle mages firing off balls of fire while the magicians trained in fighting on Uther's side put up shields and water showers to put out the fires and make everything too damp to burn. It's where half the mud's come from, once that got churned up under the horses and men's feet. Fortunately it's not got deep enough to hamper them seriously underfoot. Just skiddy. Merlin's been sending out bits of warmth to try and dry it out. Not enough to go to hard, but just a bit closer to springy and not this sodding mud.

Merlin's been fighting by Arthur, keeping an eye on his back while she sends out concussive blasts and shields to keep the fall of arrows off as much of this area as she can.

Dagonet died about an hour ago, his horse cut from under him, and then came the pikes. Merlin remembers seeing Elyan reach down and close his eyes for him, taking his ring and pocketing it before anyone could filch it for a trophy.

"Merlin! Missiles!" Gwaine yells as he looks up. Merlin looks towards the sky, and they've fucking unleashed the fire spells again. Only these are smoking.

"Oh for fucks' sake." Merlin says, throwing up shields and rebounds, using any wind current she can to boost it, trying to extinguish it at first only it's not going - fuck, it's pitch, isn't it, it'll keep burning, who even thought that was all right to set fire to - she pushes more, sending it back the way it came, trying to smother the flames as she does.

They unleash some sort of spell that's like stinging bees, trying to get through armour, and Merlin has to fight that, and then she turns to see Arthur falling under a rain of blows and cuts, face bloody, and oh fuck, no, she's supposed to protect him, keep him from dying. and then there's another wave of something - not powerful, just keeps coming, and someone tries to aim a stab at her which she blocks with her sword, and someone hits Gwaine and he goes down and - fuck this. Just honestly, fuck it, she can't take this any more. She looks up, gathers power, and screams. She's had enough. This fucking stupid battle over a stretch of land that no-one actually gave a shit about and Arthur and - she reaches out, reaching into the clouds above and the land and seeking out Cenred's mages and their puny, puny invasive spells designed to just hurt and she's stopping this. Everything goes red as she screams.

She keeps screaming, it's all red and everything hurts and Arthur fell and it needs to stop and she pulls out the sparks from the clouds and she can feel everything shaking and Arthur fell -

She suddenly realises that someone's shaking *her*. not just the ground around her shaking. Someone has hold of her shoulders and they're shaking *her*. And they're saying her name, over and over again, begging her to hear them.

"Merlin, Merlin, listen, stop it, please listen, Merlin - I'm here, Merlin, please -" the red clears and there's a pale blur, a red soaked blur that comes into focus and the face is - no it can't be, the face is too familiar but it's blood soaked and she saw him fall under the blows and - "Merlin, I'm alive, it's a head wound, they bleed like crazy but they stop -" and they grab her hand to put it against the red blood and it's tacky, drying, not fresh, and they move her hand round to their mouth and there's breath and he's dirty and bruised and the blond hair is muddy and sweaty and crusted with blood but he's alive. He's alive. Oh fuck.

"You're alive?" Merlin asks shakily, pressing her hand against his lips, one hand still clutching her sword, the sword he made her learn how to use and defend herself with.

Arthur nods. "I'm alive, Merlin." He laughs, shakily.

"Oh. Good." Merlin says, and grins, the rage ebbing away and her world shrinking back to her, shrinking so fast it's dizzying, spiralling down but Arthur's alive and that's good, that's best -

Merlin passes out, sagging in his arms, and around them the ground stops shaking, and the hellish storm stops, the lightning stopping and the black and yellow clouds rolling back to reveal the scudding grey that had previously been there before Merlin started screaming.

The battle had started to turn in Camelot's favour, and then Cenred's mages had started pushing out strikes, desperate attempts to distract the fighters, and Merlin had diverted her attention to them, stopping each weaker one, and there'd been a surge of soldiers who'd seen a gap. One had caught him a blow against the side of the head and he'd stumbled, going over someone's leg and a few other soldiers trying to pile on top and get a blow in. he'd shaken them off without too much trouble, and fought his way out, but by that time Merlin was screaming.

On and on, an unearthly thing, calling the storm down as she screamed, lightning hitting the ground again and again, the earth shaking with each hit and Merlin wouldn't stop screaming, blind to everything and everyone. Gwaine grabbed him, yelling over the sheer noise of the lightning strikes hitting the earth and people. "Arthur, what's she doing? She won't stop screaming, where's this storm coming from?"

Arthur swallows, wiping blood away from his eye. "It's her. She's always been good at weather."

"This is all her?" Gwaine asks. "We have to make her stop!"

"How? Why is she doing this?" Arthur asks, looking around at the continual strikes and the men and horses screaming.

"It started when you -" Gwaine swallows. "She thinks you died, Arthur. You have to get through to her." He glances around him, and somehow it seems the screaming is getting worse, fires starting where the lightning hits the little grass that's dry. "Quickly, I'd say."

Arthur swallows. Right now Merlin looks like nothing so much as an unearthly being, for all that she's mud spattered and in the livery and armour of Camelot, eyes burning gold as she screams, power pulsing off her. But it's still Merlin. His Merlin, who likes nothing so much as fighting with him and calling him names as he elbows her and yells back. He steps forward carefully, reaching out tentatively in case he gets burned alive, like the green fire in the collapsing castle. It's like reaching through hot water, but he doesn't burn and his hands close on cloth and mail, and he finds himself babbling her name, begging her to look at him.

It seems an age, but finally she stops screaming and looks at him, finally coming back to herself as he convinces her he's there and alive. The lightning storm finally stops. And then she faints. Arthur catches her as she wilts in her arms.

Gwaine steps forward, helping lower her to the muddy floor. "What happened?"

Arthur brushes her hair back, an odd quiet calm in the middle of the men and horses gradually stopping screaming, trying to gather themselves back, the quiet gradually rippling out away from the centre. She's not injured, but she's limp and unconscious. "I think she exhausted herself again."

"Let's hope she doesn't do this too often." Gwaine says. "It's fucking scary, it is."

The battle's generally agreed to be won by Camelot. The knights and soldiers of Camelot manage to gather themselves together, routing Cenred's soldiers - the greatest damage from the lightning is right in the middle of his army, and the greatest concentration of dead is the mages, burned and charred. Most people are staggering around, shocked and shaken by being in the middle of such an awful storm, concentrated into one spot, easily herded away from the field.

Uther finds his son by the medical tents, head bandaged while he sits by a sleeping Merlin. In the tents, the soldiers are being seen to. There aren't too many injuries on their side, and they haven't got the burns that word has filtered back is rife on Cenred's side. Word filtered through fast enough about what caused the hellish storm. It was a bit hard to miss, according to those who were close enough to see it wit their own eyes.

Arthur lifts his head on Uther's approach, reaching for the jug of water someone's set by him, wincing and failing. Clearly bruising around the ribs that's not been bound up yet. He looks up at his father and says ruefully "Something to remember for the future: Letting Merlin near a battlefield is a bad idea."

Leon picks up the jug that Arthur can't quite reach, pouring some into a mug and taking a sip himself before passing it over. "You mean the bit where she called down lightning continuously in a blind rage when she thought you'd been killed? Can't think what you're referring to, your highness."

Arthur looks down into his mug. "I suppose we should give thanks dragons don't involve themselves in the battles of men. One field of men wetting themselves was enough for me."

"Would that include Cenred's battle mages?" Leon asks. "Word from observers says that they're looking a little charred around the edges."

"Blackened bodies is what I heard." Arthur says.

"Definitely charred." Leon agrees.

"Did you know she was so powerful, son?" Uther says.

Arthur and Leon exchange glances. "We had an idea, sire." Leon says.

"There was an incident on patrol once." Arthur adds, taking another sip of water.

"Well, it's certainly a different problem than the usual of allowing your mistress to accompany you to battle." Uther says, amused expression in place as he watches his son's attention stray back to his bodyguard. not that it ever really left.

Arthur blinks, looking back up at him, clearly startled. "My mistress? Father, I'm not bedding Merlin."

Uther raises an eyebrow. "Why on earth not? The position of bodyguard makes it perfectly respectable, I do have some consideration for Balinor."

Arthur swallows and turns an interesting shade of red. "Well. We're not."

Uther shakes his head. "And here I thought the fact that the two of you had gotten more possessive of each other was confirmation."

Leon looks a little long-suffering. "I think that's just prolonged exposure, sire."

Uther looks at his son closely, who even now is holding Merlin's hand. "You're really not."

"No. We - I - well, we're not." Arthur says. he pauses. "Anyway. Did you forget she doesn't actually like me?"

Uther shakes his head. Honestly, his son can really be as block headed as his daughter and her ex lady-in-waiting insist he is. Actually, he's quite sure the lady-in-waiting is probably just as block headed in her own way. "Arthur." He says patiently.

"Yes?" Arthur says, not letting go of his bodyguard's hand.

"May I point out that that young woman refuses to leave your side and called down nature itself because she thought you were dead, no matter how many names she calls you nor how many times she turns your hair blue?" Uther says. He exchanges a glance with Leon. "And you've not looked at another woman once in a very long time because you preferred to tease her." He claps his son on his shoulder. "Think about it."

Merlin wakes up to a mostly quiet tent. Well, the groaning from other patients is quiet. She feels utterly wrung out, but her mind's tingling from the feel of the roiling clouds and the lightning that had been in her grasp. Someone's holding her hand right now, though. She opens one eye to see blond hair and a worried expression. Arthur's sitting next to her. “What happened? Last I remember is you calling my name in the storm.” Merlin asks.

“Well, at least you remember that.” Arthur says, smiling on realisation that she's awake. “You fainted again. You've got to stop doing this, I can't have my bodyguard fainting in the middle of her duties.”

“Saved your sorry arse though, didn't I?” Merlin says and yawns. “Bad habit I've got into.”

“But you do keep doing it.” Arthur says, as he runs his thumb over her knuckles. “Careful, someone might think you actually cared about my survival.”

Merlin looks at him. “You're very deluded for a prince, really you are, pratface.”