It was a brilliant summer’s day. The skies were blue. The birds were chirping. Merlin appeared to be doing his level best to be thrown in the stocks.
“King who?!” Merlin hissed at Arthur, dodging a minor noble and a (tardy) knight.
Arthur swallowed a groan, instead nodding a greeting to the noble and raising his eyebrows at the less-than-punctual knight, who should already have been in the courtyard to greet the subject of Merlin’s question. The knight, a new addition to Camelot’s ranks, reddened and picked up his pace.
“King Vortigern, Merlin,” Arthur said when the pair were out of earshot. “If you can’t listen when I tell you the first hundred times-”
“You and Gaius have had me stretched so thin this past week, it’s a miracle you can’t see straight through me!” Merlin exclaimed defensively. “You couldn’t have mentioned it when I was actually capable of forming coherent sentences and not falling asleep on my feet?”
“Are you ever capable of forming coherent sentences?” Arthur shot back.
Merlin ignored him, looking almost frightened. “You’ve got to let me leave – get someone else to serve you while he’s here!” he insisted in undertone.
“Why,” Arthur began measuredly, “in the seven kingdoms would I allow my manservant to abandon me in the midst of such an important diplomatic visit? Are you somehow not aware of the threat of war? I know I call you an idiot, but even you aren’t that stupid.”
Merlin clearly wasn’t listening. “I- My mother’s sick! I have to go home right away!”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “And you somehow found that out in the last ten seconds, did you?”
Merlin was silent, staring at him with too-big eyes.
His manservant mimicked him immediately. “Arthur…”
The imitation was perfect but for the tight jaw and desperation. Arthur frowned at him, slowing to a halt at the top of the courtyard steps. Merlin was many things, but a coward wasn’t one of them. Kings didn’t impress him – and they certainly didn’t scare him. Not even one with Vortigern’s reputation should have garnered a response like this.
“Merlin, what’s going-?”
There was a clattering of horse shoes and a call of “Sire!” Arthur cut himself off reluctantly and turned to face the new arrival.
“Elyan! What news?”
The ex-blacksmith dismounted his horse in a swirl of red. “Vortigern and his convoy have entered the city gates. They will arrive within minutes.”
Merlin shifted uncomfortably by Arthur’s side. Arthur suppressed another groan and ignored him for the moment.
“Ready the knights,” he told Elyan. “First impressions are everything: I don’t want to see fidgeting from our kingdom’s finest men.” The instructions weren’t necessary – the Knights of Camelot were already in perfect rows of shining chainmail and red cloaks looking formidable – but he wanted to be sure. They needed this treaty.
To that end, he turned to his oddly reluctant manservant as Elyan hurried away.
“Merlin, you know how important this is,” Arthur told him in a low murmur. “I need the people I trust most at my back right now, and as much as I sometimes hate to admit, you’re one of those people.”
Merlin looked away, visibly torn at the admission. They both knew that Arthur viewed him as a close friend and relied on him more than anyone else, but it was almost impossible to get the king to admit it. For him to do so now revealed just how anxious he truly was about the diplomatic meeting.
“I will be!” Merlin insisted. “I just-” He stopped, looking frustrated, then began again with quiet force, “It would be better for me to be elsewhere when he is present. For the treaty’s sake, if nothing else.”
Arthur cast a quick glance at the gates to check for the party. “I don’t understand why you’re so uncomfortable about meeting him – not the least because you aren’t meeting him. You’re just going to stand behind me with your mouth shut while I meet him.”
There was a call of warning at the gate. Merlin looked, impossibly, even more anxious.
Arthur looked skywards in a silent plea for patience, furiously stamping out the feeling of betrayal. “Fine, whatever,” he finally snapped, and pretended not to notice the way Merlin’s face lit up. “See that someone else attends me during the feast. I expect you to complete all your normal duties, though – if you aren’t in my rooms before and after the feast, you’ll be in the stocks tomorrow.”
Merlin opened his mouth, but Arthur glared at him. “Go, you idiot! They’ll be here any second!”
Merlin went. A good thing, too, because the delegation entered the courtyard at the exact moment the edge of Merlin’s brown jacket disappeared behind a door.
Arthur squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and determinedly ignored the disconcerting lack of tall, thin, and clumsy at his back as he strode forward to greet them.
“King Vortigern!” he greeted the first rider, injecting affability into his tone. “Your presence within these walls is a long-overdue honour.”
The other king dismounted, handing his horse off to a waiting servant to allow them to clasp hands.
“The honour is mine, King Arthur. Word of your deeds has reached even my halls.”
Arthur waved away the praise. “I’m sure the tales have been much exaggerated, but I thank you all the same.”
Vortigern barked out a laugh. “I would never have believed a man of Uther Pendragon’s blood capable of modesty!”
And so the hidden barbs began. Arthur hid his distaste behind an even response. “All kings have their faults. My father would have been the first to admit his was pride.”
A lie, of course, and one they were both aware of, but diplomacy was more important than honesty in this first meeting.
Without giving Vortigern a chance to respond, Arthur beckoned for servants to come forward and attend to the party as he strode towards the castle. “I’ll have my servants guide you and your men to their quarters so you can recuperate before the feast,” he told Vortigern, who kept pace with him.
“I’m sure my men will thank you for it,” the other king responded easily.
They entered the hall and stopped at the base of the stairs before Arthur realised his mistake in sending Merlin away. There were no other servants nearby who were of suitable rank to attend the other king. To assign someone of a lower rank would be a grave insult.
Arthur swore internally. He had begun to turn to Vortigern to make his excuses when a figure whose fashion sense was unnervingly close to Merlin’s appeared.
“My lords,” George said, bowing low. Arthur carefully hid his relief. Merlin timed his moments of competency well.
“This is my second manservant,” Arthur introduced. “His service is impeccable, and he will attend you throughout your stay.”
“If you would follow me to your chambers, my lord,” George said, bowing again.
Arthur watched the pair leave before turning himself and moving to see to the feast preparations. For that moment of stress, Merlin had better have a hot bath ready when he returned to his rooms.
If Merlin’s reluctance to encounter Vortigern provided any more problems, Arthur was going to murder him.
Arthur was going to murder Merlin.
To be fair, it wasn’t really his fault that Arthur had forgotten to bring a rather important collection of reports to the treaty meeting – but, on the other hand, it was definitely his fault that he couldn’t simply send for someone to get them. No one else knew where they were kept, or which ones were important, so if Arthur needed them (which he did!) he’d have to get them himself.
Obviously, that would be less than ideal in the middle of a treaty negotiation.
The point was, if not for Merlin’s bizarre reluctance to encounter Vortigern, he wouldn’t be in this dilemma. He’d being trying for days to get his manservant to explain why he’d seen neither hide nor hair of him whenever Vortigern was around (one memorable incident had him vanish into an alcove behind a hanging mid-conversation, right before Vortigern rounded the corner), but to no avail. And that meant that he was seated in the council hall before his most trusted councillors and knights, as well as the foreign king and his most trusted councillors and knights, with all of them expecting him to provide evidence of their grain yield which he didn’t have because he’d left it behind and his idiot manservant wasn’t there to retrieve it!
Arthur closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them again, resolute. If he had to wear the indignity of fetching things like a servant before a foreign king, then so be it. Vortigern was a tyrant and a warmonger, and Arthur would do anything to keep his people safe.
He began to rise. “My apologies, Vortigern. I-”
Arthur cut himself off as the council door cracked open and Merlin slipped through soundlessly. In his grasp was a stack of parchment tied with a red and purple ribbon. The reports.
Thank the gods. Arthur didn’t know how Merlin had known he’d forgotten them, and he didn’t care. All thought of humiliating punishments had completely vanished – hell, maybe he’d even give the man a day off!
“Is there something wrong?” Vortigern prompted, reminding him that he’d paused mid-sentence. The other king was seated facing away from the door, and hadn’t seen Merlin’s entrance.
Arthur sat again. “Yes, but no longer. I’d sent my manservant to retrieve the reports, and he hadn’t yet returned. I thought I might have to request someone else to get them, but he has just arrived.”
“What opportune timing.”
“Indeed.” Arthur gestured for Merlin to come forward, and almost rolled his eyes at the blatant reluctance on his face. Of all the times to finally gain some respect for station… “Come on you idiot, we haven’t got all day.”
Vortigern laughed. “Perhaps he’s frightened of foreign kings. Commoners are easily scared, after all.”
The common born knights at the table bristled a little, but didn’t get the chance to react because Vortigern had already turned.
And saw Merlin.
The king lunged to his feet, a violent motion which toppled his chair with a loud bang. His face had darkened with a frightening rage.
“You,” he spat.
Merlin flinched – not much, and he caught himself halfway through, but he still flinched. Arthur was on his feet just as quickly, the same thought he’d had at the start of this mess running through his head on loop. Merlin was many things, but he wasn’t a coward. Shouting lords didn’t faze him.
And yet here he was, pale faced and trembling.
The sight of Arthur’s manservant had apparently caused Vortigern to lose all sense of diplomacy. “You fucking bastard, you destroyed my castle and made me a laughing stock!” Vortigern hissed, crossing the space between them in three long strides.
Merlin clenched his jaw and said nothing.
Vortigern snarled, enraged at the lack of response, and lost all sense. He grabbed Merlin by the throat and squeezed. Camelot’s knights surged to their feet swords drawn, and Arthur started forward only to find his way blocked by Vortigern’s men.
If Merlin had been caught by surprise like everyone else in the room, there was no doubt that he would have been dying right now. With Vortigern’s men forming a barrier, it would have been impossible for Arthur to get to him before Merlin suffocated. But Merlin hadn’t been caught by surprise.
Even as Vortigern had started to reach out, Merlin was dropping the reports and bringing up his hands. Lightning fast, he hooked his fingers over the line of Vortigern’s hand and pulled, stopping the man a mere inch from his neck.
Arthur was struck with the certainty that Merlin had known exactly what Vortigern would do; like he’d seen him do it a million times.
Like he’d had it done to him a million times.
The moment he had the thought, he felt sick. Somehow, inexplicably, he knew it was the right conclusion, and the knowledge had him placing the tip of his sword at the throat of one of Vortigern’s councillors without any thought of the treaty.
“You will release my manservant,” Arthur yelled.
But the other king was deaf to the order. He was too caught up in his rage, too intent on screaming at Merlin.
“Do you know what I’ve been wanting to do to you for the past two decades, you little fucking shit?!” he roared, sounding almost inhuman. Spit flew with each word. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you? Everything I ever did in your childhood – it’s going to look like a dream after I’m done with you! You’re going to call that mercy, you son of a bitch, and you’ll beg for it.”
Someone gasped – it sounded like Leon, but Arthur wasn’t sure and he wasn’t going to check. He was too busy watching Merlin completely shut down.
“Merlin,” he whispered. Though it was impossible for Merlin to hear him over Vortigern’s yelling, his eyes flickered over to Arthur anyway. Whatever he saw on his face seemed to bring life back to him.
Vortigern shook Merlin like a dog, trying to draw back his attention. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you?!”
Merlin didn’t bother to look at him. “You’re going to take your hands off me,” he told the king evenly, calm in a way that made Arthur’s knuckles whiten around the hilt of his sword. Vortigern gaped, as did the rest of the room. Merlin didn’t seem to notice, having finally taken his eyes off Arthur. “You’ve got five seconds.”
“Or what, boy?”
“Or I’ll make sure you won’t be able to use that hand for months.”
Vortigern’s face twisted with the sort of fury that made your hands shake and your blood feel overheated. Arthur was familiar with it – had been more familiar with it before Merlin had arrived in Camelot. It was the feeling of humiliation; of being told what to do by someone who was so far below you they might as well not exist. Merlin was as skinny as a rake, after all; not intimidating in the least. And yet, here he was, threatening a king in front of another ruler and his own men.
Arthur knew, intimately, with every ounce of his being, what Vortigern would do next.
“Merlin!” he yelled desperately, as Vortigern reached for his dagger.
The warning wasn’t necessary.
Vortigern had only just grasped the hilt of the weapon when Merlin grasped his wrist, twisted, and forced it back at an unnatural angle.
There was a loud crack, and Vortigern howled in pain and attempted to yank his hand back. Merlin squeezed the broken bone tighter with the movement. Vortigern went dead white and made a noise more suited to a dying animal.
Then Merlin took a hold of the king’s fingers and paused. In that moment, it looked bizarrely like they were holding hands.
“I don’t make empty threats,” Merlin said without inflection. His voice was barely above a murmur, but for its impact he might as well have shouted. “You, of all people, should know that.”
He held Vortigern’s gaze as he broke each of the man’s fingers.
Vortigern screamed again, but with less pain this time, and cradled his destroyed hand to his chest when Merlin released him.
“You will hang him, Arthur! I demand it!” He yelled, scrambling away from the slim manservant. “If you don’t, I will declare war!”
Arthur’s stomach dropped, and he felt like he was about to be sick. Morgana’s plots had ravaged Camelot’s army, leaving them with less than half of Vortigern’s men – it was one of the reasons they so desperately needed the treaty. Camelot’s soldiers were the best in the seven kingdoms, but that wasn’t much comfort when you were outnumbered almost three to one. He couldn’t do anything but acquiesce. Thousands of people for the life of one man wasn’t a fair trade, even if he knew he would hate himself until the end of time.
“Vortigern, you must see reason,” he tried anyway. “You attacked a member of my household with no provocation-”
“I will destroy you, then!” Vortigern raged, rising to his feet. Merlin looked amused, Arthur noticed. How the hell could he find this funny? They were talking about executing him and leaving Camelot and her people in ruins! “The moment I leave here, I will send word to my army and we will crush-”
Merlin cut him off before Arthur could. His smile was all teeth. “No, you won’t.”
A beat of silence; utter disbelief. Then,
“The hell do you mean, ‘I won’t’?!”
Merlin was unaffected by the rain of spittle. “Oh, you would. Believe me, it’s not a matter of conviction.” He paused; smiled again. “But you won’t.”
Arthur almost believed him, so absolute was his self-assurance. Vortigern, on the other hand, was worked up to the point that he was unable to speak.
Merlin took advantage of the silence to continue, getting right up into Vortigern’s personal space. “I tore your castle apart, stone by stone, when I was ten,” he said in a low murmur. In any other scenario, Arthur would have said it was gentle. Here, it made the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “I tore your castle apart and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.”
Arthur nearly lost his grip on his sword. Behind him, Gwaine let out a quiet “oh, hell” at the familiar story. None of them had succeeded in getting Merlin to talk after the fae, but they hadn’t forgotten his final lie either. It still haunted Arthur some nights, keeping him tossing and turning until the change of watch as he tried to separate truth from lie.
Meanwhile, Merlin was leaning in with a vicious gleam in his eye. Vortigern took one step back, then another.
“It’s been two decades, old friend. Do you really want to know what I’ll do to you now?”
“You-” Vortigern gasped, having backed up all the way up to the negotiation table. His men let them both through, unwilling to risk Merlin causing their king any further harm.
But Merlin was a force of nature; and he didn’t let Vortigern continue. “You’re not going to march on Camelot,” he said. “You could try – but it will take days for the message to get there, and weeks to organise your army. I could destroy you much faster than that.”
“You haven’t stepped foot in my kingdom since you destroyed the Dinas citadel!” Vortigern said.
Merlin’s smile had teeth. “Are you sure about that?”
If the look on his face was anything to go by, Vortigern clearly wasn’t.
“I don’t even need to enter your kingdom to ruin you,” Merlin told him casually. “The people of Dinas had to go somewhere, after all. They told people what happened. So, who do you think your people care about more: you, the lord who kidnaps children and steals food from empty mouths? Or me? Because they saw a hell of a lot more of me while I was your ward-”
Merlin spat the word out like it was a disease. There was a clatter as one of Vortigern’s men dropped their sword.
“-than they’ve ever seen of you, and they liked what they saw. I was a sweet child, after all.” Here, Merlin put on the voice of an old woman and fluttered his hands around. “‘Poor darling, stolen from his mother… But so bright; so willing to help. Did you hear what he did for Edaen? The king left him in the oubliette for a week for that.’”
Arthur felt sick to the stomach. Merlin, trapped in an oubliette was unthinkable even now, let alone at the age of seven. For a week! He would have been unable to sit, unable to see-
Merlin’s smile turned bitter. “They thought for a long time that I would be your heir, Vortigern. They hoped for it. And they found out what I did to Dinas – that only fanned the hope.”
Merlin kicked Vortigern’s overturned chair upright, then leaned on it with folded elbows.
“Do you really want to find out where their loyalty lies? You can’t march against Camelot without peasants – and the first time you’ll realise they aren’t loyal to you is when they throw down their weapons in Camelot and refuse to fight. What’s left will be decimated.”
Merlin met Arthur’s eyes briefly and titled his head almost imperceptibly to indicate that Arthur and his men should sit. Arthur looked at him hard for several moments before doing so. Merlin continued speaking as if nothing had happened.
“I know what you’re thinking, though: if an attack is out, you could always cause Camelot enough offense that they’ll be forced to march on you. That would be smarter, wouldn’t it? You don’t need as many men, and you’re in the defensible location. It’s the perfect solution.”
Arthur bit back several curses at Merlin. The strategy would be flawless. Strike repeatedly against the outlying towns; burn the crops; melt away before he could catch them. Camelot would be forced to go to war, and they’d almost certainly lose. To give away such a brilliant strategy…
Vortigern clearly thought it would work, too, by the way his eyes lit up.
“Of course,” Merlin added lazily, “there is the small problem of me knowing every one of your strategies and every inch of your land. I know more about your castles and their defences than you do – every hidden passage, every weak spot, every possible ambush location. And just how many servants with family from small villages do you have? It’ll be hard to fight when you’re busy vomiting up everything you eat.”
Throughout the list, Vortigern had been slowly paling. At the last sentence, he looked like he might faint. Merlin fixed him with a bright smile in response.
“You’re not going to war. You’re going to sit down, and you’re going to sign anything Arthur wants you to sign.” Merlin punctuated the sentence by removing his arms from the chair and pulling it out. “And I do mean anything,” he added.
Arthur had never seen a man look so defeated as Vortigern did in that moment. The other king paused for a moment, clearly wavering. Merlin raised an eyebrow.
Merlin turned and bowed to Arthur. “Sire,” he said.
Arthur resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Merlin-”
The man in question straightened to look at him, and Arthur abruptly changed his mind. This was not the place – nor the company – in which to question his manservant.
“Just... pick up the reports.”
Merlin bowed again and turned to gather the items, but Vortigern’s men blocked his path. Merlin quirked an eyebrow at them.
“Is there a problem?” he asked, as if he’d found them lost in the castle’s maze of corridors rather than having just assaulted their king.
The knight who had his sword to Merlin’s throat looked affronted. “‘Is there a problem?’” he mimicked mockingly. “Why, yes, there is. You severely injured our king – which, for your tiny peasant mind, means that you insulted our kingdom as a whole. I should kill you where you stand!”
Arthur began to rise again as it looked like the knight might actually take action, but Merlin apparently still had it handled. He laughed.
Arthur was truly starting to wonder if his manservant was actually insane.
“Don’t be absurd,” Merlin told the knight. “It was a perfectly polite little argument – nothing to get so worked up over.”
Well that answered that question. Who in their right mind referred to a confrontation which had begun with allusions to torture and an attempted choking and ended with broken bones and threats as a ‘perfectly polite argument’?
More than a few pairs of eyes around the table widened with incredulity. The threatening knight actually gaped at Merlin for a good few seconds before remembering himself enough to pick his jaw up from the floor.
“You broke his wrist and all five of his fingers,” he insisted.
Merlin shrugged. Few people would have been familiar enough with him to pick out the mischievous quirk to his lips, but Arthur had learnt through hard-won, bloody experience that not only should he pay attention to that particular expression, but also that he should start praying when it appeared.
“Vortigern didn’t mind,” he said casually, then proved Arthur right by throwing over his shoulder, “Isn’t that right, athair?”
All heads swivelled to the injured king. Arthur was going to have a heart attack some day, and it was all going to be because of his thrice-damned manservant.
Vortigern was watching Merlin stiffly.
“…that is correct,” he forced out through gritted teeth, saying nothing about a servant calling him father.
“See?” Merlin said instantly. “He’s not offended, so you don’t need to run me through in the name of honour. In fact, I’m sure your king would really rather you didn’t run me through at all.”
Looking at Vortigern’s face, Arthur had no doubt that the statement was true only because of how much Vortigern wanted to kill Merlin himself.
At the expectant look from Merlin, Vortigern’s face twisted like he’d eaten something foul and he nodded.
The knight spluttered. Merlin took the opportunity to sidestep him and begin gathering the reports.
“You dare call him-!” began the knight. Merlin waved away his protests.
“Your king wanted me to call him father, once. Old habits die hard.”
Ye gods. As soon as they’d written out and signed the treaty, Arthur and Merlin would be having words. Until then…
“I do not want to hear a word of what has happened in this room pass from any of your lips,” he said, rising to his feet. “I will certainly be most unimpressed, and I can’t imagine King Vortigern will be pleased either.”
He waited until he’d received nods from every person around the table, then sat and returned to the more important issue.
“Merlin, the reports please.”
Next time Merlin said he needed to be elsewhere, Arthur vowed to listen to him.