Say what you like about him putting off hosting the Crown Prince's Introduction Ball for Camelot's Young Noblemen for--well, forever, really--but if there was a princely responsibility Arthur really loved, it was being Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes.
It was not a role in the capacity of which he often found himself intervening, but the pleasure of his rare acts in office far outweighed the inconvenience of wearing the Arbiter's robes and hat--robes and hat which were, he would admit, not even half as dignified as the livery of the royal servants of Camelot. And for someone who had spent a childhood dodging green and red feathers in an effort to retain the use of both his eyes, that really was quite an admission.
He privately thought--truly, privately, in oh-so-private musings--that, in time, one became quite taken with the colour. Lilac suited his spring features, he'd been told (by a drunken rather unfortunately-attired widow from the next kingdom over, granted, but this did not change the fact that Arthur had been told). The embroidered dragons in gold and silver thread--well, they weren't as bad as they had seemed on first sight. As for the ostrich-plume hat with the dangling golden dragon tassels at the back: well, it sort of grew on one. Especially if one had the very sort of razor-sharp cheekbones required to pull such a thing off.
Not that Arthur had ever been known to even intimate a lack of sincere hatred for these robes.
He, like his father before him, and like his father before him, and like all Pendragon men going back to Billacius Arturius Pendragon IV, the first inheritor of the Arbiter's robes, pretended to detest the ensemble--with a passion, even--and to put up with the robes and the hat only for love of the people and duty and not, under any circumstances, because the billowing materials made one look sort of… alluring.
It suited the fabled Pendragon masculinity better to scoff in public and preen in private, or so his father had pointedly not told him when he was 14.
"So how does this work again?" Merlin asked, having laughed himself sick already and now adjusting the hat--but Arthur was not fooled by this mockery, not even for one minute, for it was not as if--
"It's not as if I can't feel you fondling the dragon tassels at the back with a desire for dragon tassels of your own, you know, Merlin. Laugh you may, but yet I know that what you truly feel at this moment is nothing other than a deep-seated millinery envy."
" Yes, sire," Merlin said obediently--others might have described Merlin's tone as 'long-suffering' or, at best, 'humouring', but Arthur had long ago learned to take what he could get, and so 'obediently' it was.
"The history of the Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes, Merlin," Arthur began, drawing himself up and reaching inconspicuously to twirl one tiny dragon so that its tail peeked flirtatiously from behind the nape of Arthur's neck, just so, "is a long and dignified one."
"Yes, well--I'd certainly picked up dignified from the robes."
"I don't intend to tell this story more than once, you know, Merlin, so I would strongly suggest you listen carefully, lest you find yourself to be suddenly in royal disfavour but once more in the warm embrace of the finest of Camelot's rotten produce."
"I'm listening, I'm listening" Merlin protested, leaning against the bedpost in a manner suggesting that he very much was not. Arthur didn't know how one leaned with insouciance, but however it was that one did, it was a skill that Merlin possessed.
"It all began with the royal efforts of Billacius Arturius Pendragon III, a man with a forward social vision the likes of which has not really been seen since," Arthur continued, gazing into a hazy distance in a gesture of pensive respect, as Uther had once done when he had told Arthur this same story.
"The reign of Arturius--or BAP-III, as he was fearsomely known to his enemies--saw a rather unfortunate incident involving a serving girl, two knights, a goat, and a baker's oven come to pass. The particulars have been lost with the passing of time, I'm afraid, but the gist of it was: one royal servant, two suitors, a fight to the death, one death, a ruined oven, one self-declared hermit fleeing to the mountains with only a goat for companionship and a serving girl disgraced, returned to her parents and compensated by the royal court for the damage done to her name while in royal service."
"As even a man of your limited intellect no doubt can see, Merlin, it was clear, then as it is now, that repetition of such an incident would not do. For years Camelot had lost good knights to myriad lovers' pursuits, including but not limited to: i) falls after trellis-climbing, ii) poisoned love-potion provided by a spurned woman from the knight's not-so-recent past, wearing a bad wig and pretending to be a reputable sorceress, and, of course, iii) broken hearts after a bad match.
While it was clear to BAP that he could not set right every instance of entangled love in the kingdom, he saw that it was within his remit--nay, he saw that it was his very duty--to lower the frequency of such incidents within the castle keep.
He declared that the hand of no royal servant could be vied for by more than one suitor, and that, in cases where more than one suitor existed, it would be up to one man, and one man alone, to decree, through the use of many a canny and intricate test, who the best suited candidate--the most Suitable Suitor, if you like--for such a match might be, and to direct the course of love down such a path that it would not cost Camelot either in knights or in remuneration for innocent weavers' daughters whose fathers claimed they had been 'corrupted by the court', thought it was clear, of course, that they must have been a bit easy of virtue before arrival, for no good daughter would ever involve herself in an incident with a goat.
As I was saying, however, it was for this reason that the post of Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes arose, a post that has been passed, along with these dignified ceremonial robes, down many generations of discerning Pendragons, the last of which, is, of course, me."
Merlin looked a bit nonplussed.
"So what you're saying is, that if three people in the castle are having a bit of a lover's tiff, it is your job--nay, your 'very duty'--to sort it out?"
"Yes, Merlin. That is exactly what I am saying. I would not expect you, who have come from uncomplicated fumbles in the woods with a teenaged sorcerer, for pity's sake," Arthur's spared a moment to think, Oh dear; I did, in fact, say that out loud--he moved swiftly on, however, having found that a dragon-embroidered lilac robe hid many sins--"to understand the import of keeping a castle and its knights scandal- and squabble-free, but I assure you it is as royal a duty as any of the other royal duties whose importance you also seem not to understand."
"First of all," Merlin began, "I did not fumble in the woods with Will, Arthur, who was like my brother, for crying out loud"--and Arthur was rather surprised to have something that he had not known was wound tight in his belly give way, but he was careful to keep his face as impassive as a gold-dragon-tasselled man could--"and secondly, I do too understand your royal duties. I understand them perfectly well, in fact, which is why I wear the official ceremonial robes of the servants of Camelot--nice move breaking those out before I saw this official uniform, by the way--and do other things like, oh, wait, I don't know--drink poisoned wine for you." Merlin had gathered a bit of momentum as he spoke and seemed set to plough on, but all of a sudden his face gave a grim little twist and he seemed to reconsider:
"Er. That is. Not that you haven't drunk poisoned water for me. And, uh, also risked your life to make sure I could be un-poisoned. Oh, and come home with me to a village two days' ride away to fight a minor ruffian because my mother got hurt. So, uhm--yes. I guess the official ceremonial robes weren't really so bad. Or, uh, bad at all, really. So: er, thanks for that. And sorry. Yes." And then, as if to himself, "God. Clearly I do have some grave mental disease."
"Clearly," said Arthur dryly, the corners of his mouth not, in any way, twitching upwards.
"So, uh, once you have, say, established that there is a dispute--wait, how do you know there is a dispute? I mean, does everyone in the castle have to give your father an official annual report giving details of his or her love interests, or something? Oh, god. We don't, do we? God. But--say there were a dispute, which there clearly is, seeing how you're, uh, resplendent in lilac as we speak. What do you do then?"
"A dispute is established when a suitor recognises a rival suitor within the royal court, and brings the matter before the king. The Arbiter--that is, of course, myself"--here Arthur gave an almost-imperceptible toss of his beplumed head for effect, a skill acquired only after long practice in front of a mirror--"then holds an audience with the person who is being courted, to establish whether a) there is indeed a problem--that is to say, whether he or she really does enjoy the company of each of the multiple suitors and is therefore endangering the very honour of the court by indulging his or her indecision like a spoilt child, and b) whether she or he then wishes to enter arbitration--and by 'wish' here I mean 'consent to under threat of banishment'--and submit to the ruling of the Arbiter upon the completion of the Arbiter's chosen tests."
"Tests?" Merlin had that look on his face that he sometimes got when he wasn't sure whether Arthur was having him on for fun, like the time Arthur had served him rat again on the anniversary of the droughts as a sort of ironic but loving brotherly gesture and said, "Isn't it wonderful to think that we never have to eat rat again?", before tilting his spoon as if to eat but really trying to incite Merlin to eat first, because it was a double bluff and it was, of course, rat again.
Arthur had felt really bad afterwards, though, because Merlin's eyes had softened and he had smiled an intimate, small smile at Arthur before tasting the stew and then spitting it back out violently, his face contorting into something else entirely when Arthur had laughed and said, "Really, Merlin, just try not to think about it". Arthur had felt so bad, in fact, that he had apologised when Merlin had made as if for the door, and when that hadn't worked, had actually sat down and begun eating through his own bowl of the stuff, to fully communicate his penitence; he'd had to soldier through seven spoonfuls--seven, interminable, spoonfuls--before Merlin relented, but it was worth it because at first Merlin's mouth had twitched and then he had smiled the soft, sweet, smile again and said to Arthur, "Shall we feed it to Morgana's dogs? I don't want to break with tradition, but I can't really bring myself to feed Morgana rodent twice in a row without her knowledge."
Now Merlin regarded him for a long while, and Arthur did not continue until a careful trust crept back into Merlin's eyes and it was clear that he was willing to listen again.
"Yes, Merlin: the tests. The very reason why a man, even a man such as my father, can bring himself to wear these robes without a hint of irony, without even a moment of wavering self-confidence: the tests, decided upon by the Arbiter and the Arbiter alone, completed by each suitor--under pain of banishment, of course--and judged by the Arbiter to determine who the Suitor with the greatest Suitability is. Yes, Merlin--" Arthur smiled gleefully before harrumphing to himself in a very self-satisfied way--"the tests."
Merlin knew better than to goad Arthur into anything. Firstly, because Arthur was so easily goaded that it took most of the fun out of it, and secondly, because goading, when combined with Arthur's pride, did not always for a felicitous end make.
Most often it was Merlin who suffered the brunt of this--oh, you think you can get back to Camelot more quickly than I can, do you, Merlin? : saddle sores and a day's worth of riding with his heart in his throat, because Arthur was going to break his neck if he kept pushing the horse like that.
What ever do you mean, Merlin, you knew 'all along that I would do the right thing'? Does it seem to you as if I am taking state advice from you, now?: half a day in the stocks (to show Merlin 'what sort of difficult decisions kings had to make every day') at the mercy of the cruellest of the noblemen Merlin had reported to Arthur, who was armed with rotten tomatoes and fresh out of two days in the dungeons after Arthur had punished him and two of his friends (not that he'd listened to Merlin, of course) for terrorising the city's children and destroying two fishwives' livelihoods in one market brawl (regarding the hypocrisy of punishing people for market destruction in the name of a bullying brawl, Merlin said not a word).
So when Merlin had said "Tests?"--a little mockingly, he would admit, but certainly not in any sense attempting to goad Arthur--he knew, as soon as Arthur got that glint in his eyes, that there would be repercussions. Merlin was used to repercussions. He was not, however, used to having someone else suffer them for him.
Their names were Eveline and Marie. They were 18 and 17 respectively, the daughters of Sir Galathiel and Sir Owain.
It became clear that they had both, unfortunately, taken a fancy to the same young man: a young pageboy named Aglaral who had been looking after Uther's hunting horse of late, the son of an important nobleman who lived far enough north of Camelot to have his first-born working as little better than a stable hand without really being able to lodge a complaint.
He was pleasing to look at it, Merlin would admit: a little waifish, with ears too large for his face and a smile that was probably just that bit too ready to appear, but okay if you liked that sort of thing. Arthur seemed to take a liking to him immediately, and this, combined with Merlin's one word--with one stupid, stupidly uttered "tests"--ensured that Eveline and Marie would have to endure what looked, from Merlin's perspective, like a three-day stint in the Royal Arbiter of Suitable Suitors test circus from hell.
First, Arthur had said, "for bravery," holding up a bright golden coin in the palm of his hand, where everyone gathered in the castle courtyard could see it, and declaring:
"This coin's twin lies in the shallowest pool of water in the deepest part of the cave that is hidden in the western part of Camelot's woods. The first to bring it back--are you ready, Eveline, Marie?--will be declared the winner of the first trial."
For a moment, Marie had stared at Eveline as if she had half a mind to rip Eveline's carefully engineered left plait out, and Eveline had looked at Marie's golden curls with a disinterest that could only be feigned, but a second later they had been tearing through the courtyard, towards the portcullis that led out of the city and into the woods.
"Arthur," Merlin had said, when dusk began to set in and his worry began, for the first time since the beginning of the entire ridiculous thing, to make its presence evident in the gloaming. "Do you think they're okay? I mean--I'm sure they're okay; night's only just fallen. But--Arthur, they're really only just girls. Palace girls. Have they ever even been out of the city before?"
"Merlin," Arthur had said huffily, out of the corner of his mouth. "Please. I sent five knights after them; they were to follow stealthily at a respectable distance, but they won't allow any harm to come to them. I know they're only girls."
Out loud, he had only announced regally, "Shall we retire for the evening's feast? I'm sure that Eveline and Marie will return from their quest as soon as they are able; we can prepare a suitable welcome for them."
The court had followed--the court always followed, followed Arthur as Merlin had always followed him, because Arthur was like a tiny, vibrant, star around which other stars gathered closely, like a shroud of light--but there had been a feeling of unease in the air, especially as dusk turned into evening and Aglaral's face turned first pale, and then green.
The noise in the hall had died down gradually, and the muttering had almost faded into a tense, expectant silence when the doors had burst open and in had stormed Eveline, a golden coin clasped tightly in her hand and an unhappy-looking Marie stomping sulkily in her wake.
"The champions return!" had declared Arthur delightedly, managing somehow to at once laugh at the muddied girls with their flyaway, dirty hair, pins emerging from their heads like thorns, and to make them feel as if they were comrades in arms.
"Eveline," Arthur had said magnanimously--and how did one look magnanimous, and not ridiculous, in lilac robes? Merlin wondered for the seventeenth time that day--extending his hand and taking the golden coin from her. He matched it with the coin from his pocket, saying, gravely: "Here are two coins from the same mint. The provenance of one half cannot fully be identified without the twin that makes it whole."
Merlin had glanced sharply at Arthur, but Arthur's eyes, playful under lazy eyelids, had only settled on him briefly, showing nothing but amusement.
"Eveline, you are the champion of this task. But Marie and Eveline, I commend you both on your bravery. Now we shall have Aglaral serve you both a goblet of mulled wine, and then, away to bed with you in preparation for tomorrow's task."
Then Arthur had twisted the two coins between his fingers before passing them to Merlin, his hand clasping over Merlin's warmly, before saying: "Keep those safe, Merlin--pray do not handle them with the ham-fistedness with which you have been known to treat the vambraces my father gave me for my fifteenth birthday."
Merlin's hand had felt absurdly warm where Arthur clasped it, but at the mention of the king's name, Merlin had been distracted from the touch of Arthur's palm and had glanced quickly at Uther, who had let his son hold court all day, in lilac, who had let him hold court without interruption, as if Arthur himself were king.
But Uther's eyes were proud, and Merlin wondered briefly whether this had been a test for Arthur, as well.
The next day at noon, Arthur gathered everyone in the courtyard again, and announced:
"The time for the next task is now at hand. This time, I have designed a task to prove your vigour."
Eveline and Marie waited, expectant, their hair drawn into identical, practical, beaded nets, nothing like the elaborate tonsorial arrays from the day before.
"The river Alyn sprouts in the mountains north of Camelot, and runs along the northern border of the city before curling into the southern woods and emptying into a lake at the centre of a glade. The glade is a day's ride from here: a knight will accompany each of you, and you will go to this glade, where you will find a white hart resting beside a yew tree, at the place where the river spills into the lake.
When the hart runs at the sight of you, you must both dismount and follow it, no matter how long for, or how far, it flees. You may not ride your horse. The knights will follow at a distance"--here Arthur glanced behind him and widened his eyes significantly at Merlin in that way he had ("The wonder is that he's such an idiot"--cue the eyes--"There's no way he's a sorcerer"), teasing Merlin for yesterday's vain worries one final time--"but they will not help you or allow you to ride with them during your pursuit. I know for a fact that this hart will not outrun you: if you persevere, it will tire and will cease to flee. When it does, you must approach it carefully, and take a small tuft of its fur from the crown at the top of its head: whoever obtains this first and brings this back will be declared the winner of this second task."
At Arthur's unseen cue two knights with four horses appeared in the corner of the courtyard, and the girls hugged their fathers goodbye before mounting and setting off, this time considerably more sedately than they had gone the day before.
Arthur gathered the lilac--Merlin would say monstrosity if he weren't growing to somehow like the thing; it sort of suited Arthur's spring features, when you really thought about it--he gathered the lilac cloth around him and walked up the courtyard steps and back into the castle, Uther at his shoulder.
"Well this has certainly been a surprise, so far," Merlin heard Morgana say, her smile bemused as she and Gwen turned to follow. Gwen snorted in that unladylike way she had somehow perfected to be oddly ladylike and nodded.
"What do you mean, 'a surprise'?" asked Merlin from where he stood behind Gwen.
"Well--you know," she answered. "The tests. They've been awfully… well, test-like. They don't precisely fit Arthur's way of going about this in the past."
"The past?" Merlin asked again, aware that he was parroting her words in that way he had of doing whenever he was around Gwen, who, to be fair, parroted those words back to him again more often than not, usually adding a stuttering twist of her own.
"Yes, Merlin, 'the past', 'the past' as in every time Arthur has served as Royal Arbiter before now," said Morgana, insinuating herself back into the conversation in that seamless, royal, way she had.
There were a lot of people who had ways in Camelot, and Merlin found it all very overwhelming sometimes.
"Oh--I'm sorry, Merlin; I forgot," Morgana said. "Of course, you've never been here for an arbitration before."
"How many have there been?" Merlin asked stupidly, because really, how many love entanglements could there possibly be in a castle this size?
"Oh, tonnes," answered Gwen cheerfully. "Let's see: there was Agravain, Ygeme, and Bohort--"
"Brere, Caliborn, and Tristen," said Morgana,
"Uriens and Morgan, in a dispute over that horrid Acheflow--"
"Ettard, Elaine, and Enide--"
"They were awful," said Gwen, "what with the giggling, and the dresses, and the assonance, and the slapping about--"
"In more than one sense, unfortunately" supplied Morgana, with a quick twist of her lips.
"And finally," concluded Gwen, ever a good handmaiden and choosing to ignore the awful pun, "there was that issue with the baker's son and Gawain and Alexandre, but I don't know if that really counts, considering it was hardly a test of true love, but rather it was Gawain and Alexandre trying to decide who had a greater right to--what did they call it?"
"A 'tumble'," said Morgana, her voice somehow nonchalant and terrible at once.
"A 'tumble'," agreed Gwen, "and Arthur only did it because he thought it would be funny, and the poor baker's boy caught in the middle of Gawain and Alexandre like two cats pissing on a castle battlement, and thank god Uther put a stop to that, as much as it surprised me to see Uther do something that was right. Er. I mean-- That is, what I meant to say was… Well, you see, I was trying to--" Gwen flushed.
"Gwen," said Morgana lightly, "Really--and I mean really--don't worry about it. We know what you meant."
"Yeah," said Merlin. "We really don't want you to burst a blood vessel in your eye, like the last time. It made you look slightly demented and really quite frightening. Oh. Uhm. I mean-- That is, uh, what I was trying to say, was-- Well, I mean… I guess it's that--"
"Merlin," Morgana interrupted forcefully. "Gwen. I know a life serving me, and, worse, Arthur, really cannot be good for the nerves, but really, when I say this, I mean it: it's really not necessary for the two of you to do this verbal flailing about every time you even attempt to converse. Quite frankly, it's not good for anyone else's nerves."
"No--you're right," laughed Merlin, half relieved and half in agreement, because really, he'd made an art form of the foot in the mouth, and when he said art form he meant 'art' as in the art encapsulated in the singing of that travelling troubadour who had passed through Camelot two months ago, who had rhymed his name--Dagonet--with flagonet in a moment of panic, after Arthur had given him a particularly murderous glance over the rim of his goblet (this was to say: 'not at all artful').
"You're right, of course, my lady," said Merlin, choosing to change the subject before he was unable to stop himself from telling the very unrelated Dagonet story and laughing before he got to the end again. "So anyway: all of these arbitrations happened before I arrived from Ealdor?"
"Yes," said Gwen, "and that's only been since Arthur took over, two and a half years ago. I can't even tell you how many arbitrations Uther presided over, when I was a child--every other day it was a scullery maid or the gardener's nephew, and really, you had to wonder if for all of Uther's grand talk, it wouldn't have just been better to let these people tumble it out for themselves--I mean, how much disgrace could the cook's niece's tailor really have brought to the court?"
"It's a valued tradition, Guinevere," said Morgana, sounding just a little bit affronted, as Arthur had been when Merlin had made fun of the robes, "a ritual carried out since the days of Billacius Arturius Pendragon the Third--"
"BAP-III," supplied Merlin helpfully.
"BAP-III," confirmed Morgana, shooting him an appreciative smile while Gwen rolled her eyes at him behind Morgana's back. "As I was saying, it is a wonderful tradition, one of the most cherished rituals that this court has," continued Morgana. "and, until yesterday, it had been, for two and a half years, continually debased and perverted by Arthur's infantile humour and irresponsibility."
"Arthur?" Merlin asked, surprised, because he had to admit that so far, his impression had been that Arthur was doing a very fine job of the whole thing, lilac dress robes and all.
"Arthur." Gwen confirmed. "He has always thought of this as a huge joke. I mean, he's never thought the robes were a joke--he has quite an unnatural attachment to the whole ensemble, and I have to say that Uther did, too, for that matter--or had any disrespect for the post itself, really; he's always fulfilled his duty. But until yesterday, his tests had always been a little on… the frivolous side."
"Frivolous? Arthur?" said Merlin, meaning more: Tell me more about Arthur being frivolous than You don't mean to say that Arthur was frivolous?
"Frivolous," stated Morgana flatly. "A test for endurance, for example--"
Gwen nodded and took over enthusiastically. "Yes. A test for endurance, during which suitors had to eat as much of a whole roast boar as they were able to before being sick--"
"And the test wasn't the eating, or even the being sick, odd as that would have been, but who looked funniest before finally succumbing to the enormity of the boar at hand and doing the latter," said Morgana.
"A test for a discerning nature--" continued Gwen,
"--which involved kissing twenty other maidens and knights and ranking the intended's kisses accurately among them, in terms of skill and passion," finished Morgana.
"Acheflow cried over that," said Gwen, "and we almost felt sorry for her."
"Almost," qualified Morgana, dryly.
"The point is, Merlin," said Gwen, "that Arthur has never taken this seriously, not for a day since he was handed that lilac--thing, and now he is in charge of yet another of these ridiculous arbitrations, and here we all were, expecting frivolity and Arthur's usual torment of his victims, but the whole thing, and his behaviour in particular, is proving to be disturbingly--"
"Kingly," said a booming voice from behind Morgana, Uther creeping up behind them like a particularly sharp-smiled ghoul, making all three of them jump and obviously coming to collect Morgana for the afternoon meal.
"Kingly," conceded Morgana, as Gwen blushed at being caught mid-criticism and tried to hide behind Merlin. "It's come as quite as a surprise."
"Arthur has been growing steadily into the crown, Morgana," chastised Uther, his eyes glinting in a rare moment of pride, seemingly forgetting that Gwen and Merlin were standing next to him--or perhaps ignoring them entirely, Merlin thought; Morgana and Arthur, who actually spoke to Merlin and Gwen, if only to call them idiots whose idiocy could not be quantified--okay, only Arthur did that--did appear to be exceptions in the sphere of royalty-servant relationships, which Merlin was only just beginning to explore.
"Uther," said Morgana, laughing, "until a year ago, Arthur was no more 'growing steadily into the crown' than those two poor fools whom he made jump from the roof of the stable onto a horse as part of a test 'for dexterity', one of who broke an arm and declared he would never return to Camelot again."
For a moment Uther's face looked stormy, set on that edge of the displeasure that he was so well known for, but then he barked a sharp laugh and said,
"I will concede that you are probably right. But something began to happen a year ago--and whatever it was, I am grateful for it--and today Arthur does me proud both as Arbiter and crown prince. I think now that every year that Arthur approaches the kingship, I will think, 'He has grown into this even more in this year just past', until one day I will pass the crown to him and think one final time about this moment, when Arthur came into his kingship, and about the fact that whatever began to happen a year ago must have been truly extraordinary, and that it was to mine and Camelot's benefit."
"A year ago," called Arthur from the top of the stairs, having caught only the last of Uther's words, "the kitchen set out our meal on the table. And a year ago," continued Arthur, shooting Merlin an amused look from under his eyelashes, "Merlin arrived in Camelot. But I would hardly call that extraordinary, father, unless by extraordinary you mean extraordinarily unfortunate."
Uther laughed briefly and shifted his neck in that way that somehow communicated royalty, his rare moment of humanity fading into memory, and Morgana wiped discretely at her eyes, before they both looked at Merlin appraisingly.
Merlin, at a loss for what to say, simply looked back at Arthur and said,
"Uh, thank you, sire. I think."
"You're welcome, Merlin," replied Arthur, even more resplendent in lilac in the mid-morning light, though by Merlin's (admittedly poor) calculations, that should have been an alchemical impossibility. "Now Morgana, father--for the love of all that is holy, please come inside so we can eat."
Eveline and Marie returned four days later.
Merlin had to admit that by that point, even he had begun to speculate about what could be befalling the two girls in their chase after the hart, and Aglaral, whom everyone seemed to think should be slapped heartily on the back twice and congratulated on his good fortune as many times a day as possible, was beginning to look slightly green again from all the jostling.
Both of the girls looked tired, their wrists limp where they held the reins, but Eveline in particular looked wan and pale in the rosy light of dawn.
"The champions return!" declared Arthur heartily from the steps, evidently too attached to that phrase by half.
"Yes, sire," said Marie. She dismounted, and walked tiredly to Arthur before depositing a gathering of soft white down in his cupped palm.
"Marie, you have done very well," Arthur said, serious again, as he had been on the day of the first task. "You have shown perseverance and single-mindedness, but alongside that you have shown a willingness to show mercy and restraint, and to take only what is needed, after a long and, at times, fruitless chase. I commend you."
"Marie," Arthur continued, "I declare you champion of this task. Eveline--"
"Sire," she interrupted, "if you please: while we were chasing after the hart, I stumbled, and twisted my ankle, badly enough that I could not go on. Marie… she did not continue, sire. She sat with me and waited until I had had some food and felt well enough to walk again, and then she walked with me at a slower pace until we could both run again, even though we lost the hart while we tarried and had to spend many hours finding it again. She showed me great compassion and kindness."
Arthur nodded, an oddly paternal smile on his face--the smile of a king, Merlin thought, not for the first time.
"And you, Eveline, show graciousness in recognising that. Well done to you both. Now come inside to break your fast: Aglaral will bring you warm bread, and after you have rested two days, we will meet here again and I will announce the final task."
The small group of people who had gathered in the courtyard after the girls' return moved towards the hall, and Merlin moved towards Arthur, hand outstretched.
"Put it in my room, in the pouch with the coins, Merlin," said Arthur, his hand clasping Merlin's around the soft ball of fur.
"Yes, sire," said Merlin; before he moved forward, though, Arthur pressed Merlin's hand gently in his, Merlin's fingers curling around the top of Arthur's before they disentangled and Merlin went on his way.
"The final task," declared Arthur early in the morning two days later, his tassels swaying behind him in the breeze and Aglaral standing nervously behind him, "is a test of loyalty. Marie, Eveline"--the two girls came forward, an ease in their movement that had not been there on the first day--"here is your task.
You must go into the town and find a woman in the market. You must then ask her to invite you to her house, and when you have arrived, you must ask her kindly if you are able to help her in her household tasks. Help her clean the house, and once you are finished, thank her and go back to the market.
When you are there once again, find one of the farmers who has come to sell his cattle or his pigs. Ask him to invite you to his farm, and when you are there, ask him kindly if you can help to clean his stables, or to clear out the pen for his pigs. Help him do so, and when you are done, thank him and go back to the market.
When you are there once again, find a washerwoman, and ask to be invited to her house. Once you are there, ask if you can help her complete a day's work. Help her do the washing, and then help her to beat the cloth so it will dry well, and when you are done, bring a small strip of cloth from one of the garments you have helped her wash with you and present it to Aglaral.
Whoever comes back dirtiest from cleaning a house, most muddied from mucking for livestock, and wettest from helping the washerwoman with her work, will be declared the winner of this task."
There was muttering among the courtiers, and from behind him, Merlin heard Morgana say to Gwen in an undertone,
"Ahh--now I remember that to have faith that Arthur will give up his childish ways is to be doomed for disappointment. This is much more familiar."
Merlin wasn't sure whether to agree (though if he were honest, Merlin would say that he was very rarely inclined to agree when anyone made a negative judgment of Arthur; that was a right reserved for Merlin alone). These were noble-born girls with noble-born pride, of course, and Arthur had devised a test that could only be won by the girl who returned looking the least presentable at the end of the day, looking worse than all her equals at court and therefore humiliated in the eyes of her peers, not only that day but whenever they chose to remember it. That seemed like fancy. But Arthur had spoken seriously, and Merlin had not ever really known Arthur to speak seriously when he meant to joke, and so he chose to reserve judgment until the task played out and he could see what Arthur wanted from the two girls.
He could see from the set of Gwen's jaw that she had chosen to do the same.
But Eveline and Marie were already shifting uneasily on their feet, and they looked at each other for a moment before Marie stepped forward and said, "Sire, I will not do this. I cannot."
Arthur looked at her carefully for a moment, and then said, "Then do not. But if you do not complete the task, you will have failed."
"Then I will fail, sire," said Marie, her voice low and respectful. "But this is not a task worthy of noblewomen, and so I will not perform it."
"So be it," said Arthur. "Eveline?"
Merlin looked towards the girl: Eveline's eyes moved from Aglaral's to Arthur's, and finally rested on Marie's bright yellow dress, before she asked, "If I do this, sire, I will be declared champion for this task?"
"You will," said Arthur.
Eveline threw her shoulders back as if to steel herself, gathered her hair in one hand and tucked it into the back of her green dress, and said, "Then I will do it."
"Very well," said Arthur. "I will come with you, and Aglaral and Marie shall come with me, too, and we will supervise as you fulfil this task."
Eveline looked uncertainly at Arthur, and for a moment Merlin thought she would cry or say she could not do it. It would be doubly humiliating, Merlin knew, to perform all the tasks that Arthur had asked while Aglaral looked on, and worse still to do so while her rival stood by with her noble bearing and her clean dress, and while the prince attended her. But Eveline only nodded, despite her father's audible protestations from the front of the crowd, and so Arthur nodded back at her and followed her slow walk from the courtyard, Aglaral and Marie with him.
Merlin matched Arthur step for step, keeping a safe distance behind the small group, and walked with them towards the market. At the castle gate, Arthur turned around and said to everyone behind him, the slant of his eyes somehow making it clear that the instruction did not include Merlin, "Stay here. We will return at dusk."
That was how Merlin found himself following the two girls, the prince, and the sought-after stableboy, and wincing as Eveline asked first a woman in the market--whose eyes were wide and whose look was terrified throughout as she watched a noblewoman cleaning her house--then a pig farmer--who was, Merlin thought, possibly the most disgustingly lecherous man he had ever had the displeasure to meet, and if Arthur didn't send to have him killed in the night, Merlin would be surprised--and finally a washerwoman, who looked once at Arthur's Arbiter's robes before nodding mutely and handing Eveline a gown of heavy brocade, if they needed help.
Eveline completed the tasks with surprising dignity, even finding it in herself to laugh when she fell face-first in the mud and then again when she thrust her arms too vigorously into the washing tub, splashing herself from head to toe. Her easy demeanour was all the more admirable when contrasted with Marie's, whose unhappy features and downcast eyes told a story of regret without her needing to use words.
By the time they walked back to the castle, Eveline looked worse than a common farmhand and was considerably more disgusting than anyone who wasn't sot-drunk or possibly dead should allow herself to become, but Aglaral's sweet, secret glances made her blush prettily, so that she looked as noble as ever when they walked into the hall, a small strip of ribbon clutched in Aglaral's hand.
There was a shocked silence at their entrance, before Sir Galathiel growled, "Well I never--"
"Sir Galathiel," said Morgana, smoothly as always. "Allow me. Arthur!"
That she could inject that much venom into a single word was terrifying, Merlin had always thought: better to face a furious Arthur, whose temper lit like dry kindling but faded quickly into laughter or contrition, than Morgana, whose anger was always contained in bright eyes but who would probably hold a grudge for years.
"Morgana," said Arthur, pleasantly. He looked around the room, his eyes settling on Eveline before saying,
"Eveline, I declare you the champion of this task, and, as Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes, I decree that you may court the young nobleman Aglaral, and I wish you both a happy courtship and a lasting fulfilment if the courtship is successful."
Arthur paused, and from the nervous twitch of his left index finger, Merlin knew that Arthur was nervous, and pausing to think of his next words as much as he was stopping for effect.
"We are all fools for love. And when we love truly, nothing seems too foolish to us, for we are convinced that all foolish things done in the name of love are anything but foolish. Though being too discomfited to allow oneself to be foolish is not a sign that one does not love truly--" and here Arthur glanced at Marie kindly, "And though we may see, with hindsight, that a foolish thing would not have been so terrible to do after all, when we are ready to love fully, we know at once that we will do what is necessary for the people we love, no matter how foolish, not because we can but because we must.
Eveline, you have proved your love to be loyal and true. We raise our glasses to you, and to Aglaral, who reaps the lion's share of your efforts and your fidelity."
And when a blushing Aglaral kissed Eveline chastely on the lips, Morgana standing behind them with her mouth frozen into a perfect 'o' of surprise, everyone seemed to forget that Eveline's skirts were dripping pig droppings in the floor.
Later, once they and the lilac robes were safely ensconced in Arthur's rooms, Merlin was forced to admit:
"I take back the teasing about the tests, you know. It was really all very exciting. And nice: nice for an odd nobles' ritual instituted by a man who called himself BAP-III, anyway. And sort of, uh… well, romantic, I think."
"'Merlin, you girl.' Yes, I know, I know." Merlin moved forward to unclasp Arthur's cloak, and shook it once before hanging it up carefully on the hook by the window.
He took the hat Arthur handed him (well, of course I'm going to change, Merlin; the arbitration is over, and you don't actually think I like these robes, do you? Why yes, Arthur, as a matter of fact, I happen to think you do, Merlin had thought, but who was he to say a thing?) and put it back into the box from whence it had come, before helping Arthur to slip the lilac robes over his head.
"But you have to admit--" Merlin pressed,
"--that the whole thing was sort of sweet," said Arthur. "Yes. It was sweet if you were watching, and--oh, that's right! If you were watching and also happened to be a girl."
Merlin rolled his eyes, then went to the chest of drawers and brought out the red buttoned jacket, still as fragrant as it had been when he had first seen it, though he had had it washed it four times since--apparently most feasts did end in food fights. As he helped Arthur ease one arm, and then the other, into it, Arthur said:
"You'll come to the banquet tonight, Merlin. Make sure my cup doesn't run dry."
"Oh, and Merlin--"
"Seeing as how I have been in my ceremonial robes all week--" Merlin could see where this was going already, and he decidedly did not, repeat, did not, approve, "I think tonight might be a fitting occasion for you to honour Camelot by wearing your official ceremonial robes."
Merlin thought about protesting--really, he did--but by the time he gathered up the energy required, Arthur already had the hat out of the chest and perched jauntily on his left shoulder, the angle of the brim matching the lovely twist of his smirk.
Merlin sighed, saying a quick prayer for patience before reaching one arm for the hat, one arm for the tunic.
Because truly the costume was clearly as ridiculous as any costume could possibly be (and this week the servant's robes had certainly faced some worthy competition), and evidently it made Merlin look completely, and utterly, foolish--but this was Arthur.
Arthur, who had carried himself like a king and dispensed a fitting and truthful justice to three people who had looked to him for guidance, making Merlin as proud as he always seemed to, in the end, and Arthur, who had saved Merlin's life more than once, and who had done so happily, and Arthur, who laughed when he thought Merlin wasn't looking, and really, a little foolishness was a small price to pay to stand behind this man: looking foolish, perhaps, but with the Pendragon crest emblazoned on his chest.
It was rare for Arthur to walk into his rooms to find Uther gently running his fingers against the Arbiter's robes, but it had happened enough times in the past for Arthur to know better than to jump to conclusions.
"Father," said Arthur, trying to keep his tone uninflected, so that the word could be a question and a statement at once: Father, does someone have need of arbitration? but also Hello, father: right-o, carry on, in case Uther was simply indulging for nostalgia's sake.
"Arthur," intoned Uther gravely, his fingers resting on the embroidery for one more moment before he looked up, "it has come to my attention that there is need for the Arbiter's services once more."
"Again?" asked Arthur, honestly surprised because he had thought the 'nostalgic caress' option more likely. "I mean--father, you know, better than anyone, how much I enjoy my duties as Arbiter, but surely the castle can't be in the throes of its second romantic entanglement in as many months."
"Son, you must know by now that this court will have intrigue, by god, and if it doesn't, it will fabricate it--" it was clear from Uther's face that he was remembering the incident with the Lady Nadia's 'mysterious illness' ('I'm afraid the last thing I remember, before I woke up in Sir Flavour of the Week's bed, was the sound of children singing')--"and this is no exception. I'm afraid that this afternoon, I was approached by the maid Clarissant, who was rather distraught because she has recently discovered that she faces not one rival for her affections, but three."
"Clarissant?" Arthur asked. Clarissant was a very young and very beautiful handmaiden who was part of Morgana's household, and Arthur suspected that the only reason that she herself had not been the object of a dispute was because her numerous good qualities had intimidated many good men out of putting forward a proposition.
"Clarissant," Uther confirmed, his mouth twisted into a terrifying monster of a smirk that looked as if it would devour every virgin in Camelot before Arthur could gouge his eyes out at the thought of it, "--I know; I was surprised too. Apparently the reason why she has yet to be courted herself is that she has made it clear to prospective lovers that her heart, as she put it to me, is taken, and has been for the better part of a year."
"Huh," Arthur said, amazed again at how much could happen in an individual's life inside the palace --lovers met, parents died, crops failed, children were born--without Camelot's royal family ever being the wiser. "So she's in love, and has been for months, but the object of her affections does not return her regard? I find that hard to believe, father--she's very beautiful, and from what I hear, very kind, too."
"I am surprised myself, Arthur," said Uther, a careless wave of his hand somehow indicating surprise and utter disregard at once, "but this does not change the fact that she came to me today, and wept in quite a discomfiting way in the petition chamber, if I am honest, and said that while her advances have not been entirely unwelcome, the man she has fallen in love with seems to be equally responsive to the attentions of three other people in the castle: Lamorat, that stablehand of Gawain's, and Mordrain, the steward's second son, and Pellean, of all people--"
"Pellean?" interrupted Arthur. "Pellean, Lady Vivien's son? Who is a knight of Camelot, and the son of a war hero, and whom I trained myself? Why ever would he be vying for someone's affections alongside a pageboy, a steward's ward, and a handmaiden?"
"Arthur, it has been many years since I tried to understand the whys and wherefores of any of our subjects' actions," Uther's voice sounded weary in a way that Arthur rarely heard, "but the fact that a knight is involved makes this all the more pressing. You must meet with the intended--with the boy in question, that is--at once, and extract from him what it is that he wants done, and then you must resolve the matter as soon as you can."
Uther turned to go, but seemed to reconsider a moment before he walked from the room, pausing with his hand placed flat against the door as if to open it, and said,
"And son. Pray exercise some of the restraint that you must have accumulated every time you have dealt with this person in the past and shown no restraint at all, and conclude this with as little embarrassment to Camelot as possible."
"Of course, father," assured Arthur, his pride stung, before his brain had fully processed what Uther was saying. "I'll do my best to--"
Arthur's throat suddenly seized, and he was overcome with an odd, choking feeling not unlike the time he'd tried to swallow a plum stone when he was 12 (come to think of it, he actually had choked that time, not just had a choking feeling) because he had been too embarrassed to spit it out in front of Morgana, who was newly arrived in court and whose hair had been very shiny.
"Wait. What do you mean 'lack of restraint in the past'? Who is this bastion of virtue and comeliness that has four people in the palace vying for his affections?" Arthur glared at his father, whose hard eyes looked, oddly, as if positioning himself by the door had been a strategic choice.
"Oh, you know--" said Uther. "It's that manservant of yours. What's his name again?" Uther's nonchalance was as badly affected as it had been when he'd said to Arthur, Of course I don't mind you keeping the Arbiter's robes in your room, son--I'd just as soon have them out of my way, with one hand bunched tightly in the fabric and one foot pushing the hat box surreptitiously under the bed. "That character with the mental afflictions. Merlin."
"MERLIN!" growled Arthur as he pushed into his rooms, finally locating his wretched servant after a long and fruitless search in the castle. From the look that Merlin was giving him as he polished Arthur's boots, appearing to think that Arthur wouldn't think this odd despite the fact that Merlin had never shined a boot in his life, Arthur would give good money that Merlin had seen him looking and found a place to hide in Arthur's chambers, where he knew Arthur would come last.
"Arthur," said Merlin. Or at least that's what Arthur assumed Merlin had said, seeing as how Merlin had a look of strangled terror on his face, and had seemed unable to produce a voice to go with the movement of his lips.
"Merlin." Arthur took a moment to remove the dagger he kept perched on the coving above the chest of drawers from its hiding place, before sitting down across from Merlin and trying to put a look on his face as if torture were something he was familiar with.
"Arthur--" Merlin tried again. "I think I can explain."
"Oh, you think you can explain, Merlin, do you? You think you can explain how you somehow failed to mention that you were being courted by four, by four separate individuals, one of whom you saw for an entire afternoon when he and I had a practice on the grounds on Thursday? No, wait; don't tell me--among all the pressing issues clamouring for your attention, it somehow slipped your mind? Were there simply too many other things that you had to say? Because I, for one, particularly enjoyed your extempore delivery of a speech on the virtues of salted fish after supper last night, and when you made that particularly subtle point about wine vinegar versus brine in minute six, never did it cross my mind that there might be something else that you needed to say, so enraptured was I in our topic."
"Merlin. Did you think you couldn't tell me? That would, perhaps, be more understandable. I'll be the first to admit that you and I observe strict codes of silence on certain topics--" here Arthur gesticulated wildly towards his eyes with his index finger, and he would have proceeded to wave his hand in his best imitation of a vaguely magical gesture if Merlin hadn't blanched even further and given one full-body tremble, his eyes so terrified that Arthur almost poked an eye out in his haste to get Merlin to stop looking that way, "but surely you know that you could have come to me with this."
"Merlin, I must admit that I simply do not understand what possibly could have been going through your mind, that you thought it would be sensible to keep this from me. And I'll admit to feeling not a little affronted at your lack of trust in me."
Arthur set his mouth in a line, because he had long ago made it a rule to keep his face impassive during understatements such as It looks as if the creature will be difficult to kill (but if it's a creature that dies when people soil their breeches we should have no problem); It's been an honour (if we die, Merlin, I want you to know that my life changed when you arrived in Camelot and that I die happier for your presence); and feeling not a little affronted at your lack of trust in me (I can't decide whether to focus on the gaping wound inflicted when I realised I knew nothing about this or on the heavy weight that fell on my upper chest when I realised that not one, but four, individuals have somehow laid eyes on you despite my best efforts to keep you hidden in my rooms at all times).
"Furthermore, Merlin," continued Arthur, "Furthermore, I will have you know that it is not only courtesy, but your duty as a member of my household, that should have pressed you to mention this to me at some point before my father came to me in the middle of the day and--"
"Arthur!" shouted Merlin, face a little flushed, "I didn't know about this."
Arthur stopped, taking a moment to look sternly into Merlin's eyes, because Merlin could not lie to save his life--truly, not even to save his life--and if he were trying to fib his way out of this now, one look would soon have him qualifying the statement with a ridiculous story about collecting sticks with grooves that looked like faces on them by the riverside--a favourite pastime for young people in Ealdor, or so Arthur had come to understand.
Merlin was silent.
"You didn't know about this."
"I didn't know about this."
"Merlin, the fact that you smile good-naturedly when I call you stupid leads me to believe that you can't, in fact, be as much of an idiot as you seem set on convincing me that you are, but, pray tell, how could you possibly not have known about this? Or--wait. Did you simply 'not know' about this in the way I 'don't know' about the ma--" Merlin's face went pale as death again, so Arthur killed that line of enquiry before Merlin dropped dead from his ridiculously unnecessary fright (I mean really--what, did he think Arthur would be seized with a desire to declare this knowledge nine months after the fact?) "Did you agree to keep this between you? Between the five of you, that is? Or are you trying to tell me you've entered into four separate pacts of silence since this began, whenever it did?"
"No, Arthur," said Merlin with great forbearance, as if it were his patience being tried, "I am trying to tell you I did not know about this. I was not aware, in any way, that there were four people in the castle 'vying for my hand', as your father terrifyingly put it when he explained this to me, or even that there were four people in the castle who had a desire to do so."
Arthur spied a loophole, and he dove for it with as much dignity as he could muster. "Are you saying they haven't declared their intentions? They haven't spoken to you about this? Because this can't enter arbitration unless intentions have been declared and you have, in turn, declared indecision regarding the suits. You haven't had any conversations with these people?"
"or had tokens from them?"
--Merlin shifted his eyes away--
"or questions about whether you would welcome their advances?"
When Merlin's leg twitched violently, Arthur let the loophole go, sparing it one last, sad, glance as it faded into the distance.
"Well, Merlin, which is it--did you or did you not know about this?"
"Arthur," said Merlin, "It's like this. I didn't know about it. I mean--Clarissant once gave me some violets, and said that she knew I liked purple blossoms and it would give her pleasure to do something for me that would make me happy, but really, there had evidently been some misunderstanding, so I just smiled at her, because I didn't really want to make her feel bad, especially as I had just arrived and I really didn't know if Morgana also had authority to have me thrown in the stocks if I made her handmaiden angry.
Lamorat once walked me home from the stables after I'd brought in your newly shod horse, and he kept brushing his fingers against mine as we walked, but it was crowded in the courtyard, so I just smiled and said goodbye to him at the gate and didn't really didn't think much of it when he gave me an orange he had stolen from the kitchens," Merlin must have seen Arthur's nostrils flare, because he moved on quickly,
"And Mordrain--well, I talked to Mordrain one day when I needed money to have your boots re-heeled at the market, and his father wasn't in his office when I came in, so I talked about it to him and he said your boots looked very supple and fine and he would not mind walking in them to test whether they were as soft as they looked, and then he did some sort of odd thing with his eyes and I was worried it might be a sign that he might be about to have a seizure, really I was, but I had to get to the market, and one of your father's clerks was there, so I just smiled and said I had a dozen chores to get done before the end of the day, and I really didn't feel that guilty about leaving, because I figured if he did have a seizure, the clerk would notice and fetch someone.
All of a sudden, Merlin's eyes softened, and Arthur, who quickly realised that this look was much worse than the pale grimace of fear that had twisted Merlin's features earlier, encouraged Merlin along with a snarl,
"Pellean--" Merlin shot Arthur a look from under his eyelashes. "Well, Pellean has always been kind to me, since that time he came into your rooms and asked who I was and you said, 'Oh, that's Merlin; don't mind him'. He always said hello to me in the corridors after that, which was very nice, I thought, and the other day, when you and I returned from that hunt after you hurt your leg," Arthur rolled his eyes at the memory, because he had accidentally nicked himself with a hunting knife, but Merlin had ridden them back to Camelot as if Arthur's intestines might inadvertently come spilling out of his thigh, "he stopped me, when I was coming back from taking your horse to be brushed down, and said that he had heard that since I had come to Camelot I had shown extraordinary bravery, and that he thought you were lucky to have me in your service, and he said, one day, he would like to hear more about my life in the castle, if I had time, but I really didn't think that much of it, Arthur, really, because I once heard two women tell you that you had the voice of an angel after a drunken rendition of that 'and if we don't come home in time for our wives, well, then, there's always the sheep' hunting song, so it's clear that people don't always say what they mean in court."
"Merlin," Arthur bit out carefully, "I am the crown prince. It is inevitable that people will say things that they don't mean in order to flatter me. You, on the other hand, are the crown prince's servant, and a servant that I don't treat very well half of the time, for that matter. I think you can probably assume that when people flatter you, their primary purpose probably isn't to curry your favour."
There was a beat of silence before Merlin said,
"'Oh' indeed," said Arthur, trying to emulate an amusement that he very much did not feel.
"So, if I understand correctly, what you are telling me is that Clarissant gave you flowers and said she would like to make you happy, Lamorat fondled you in the courtyard before presenting you with a rare and costly fruit, Mordrain attempted with very little finesse to bed you over the steward's account desk, and Pellean--" Arthur faltered a bit, because in a story he felt quite negatively about, the Pellean chapter really had to be the worst, "Pellean said he would like to know more about you, and to all of these things, to all of these clear declarations of intent, some accompanied by tokens, you smiled and said nothing?"
"Uh. Yes. I think that is what I am saying, yes."
"Right," said Arthur. "Well, in that case, you better get the hat box out from under the bed, Merlin, and help me fasten the robes, because I'm afraid the only way we can continue this conversation is if we do so in a more official capacity."
Arthur had known some uncomfortable times in these robes--he'd once mounted a horse and had entangled the fabric in the stirrups but had been too proud to re-adjust, the result being that the robes had pulled excruciatingly across his crotch for the entire duration of a two-hour gallop--but never had he felt as ill-at-ease as today, standing on a dais in the hall and knowing the words, "Merlin, son of Hunith, object of this dispute: come forward" were soon to pass his lips.
Merlin was standing nervously off to the side, Pellean, Lamorat, and Mordrain beside him. Lamorat--the youngest among the suitors, Arthur had discovered by complete accident when he had lingered around the stables for three and a half hours the day before, admiring his horses and minding his own business--was shifting from foot to foot and looking decidedly worse for wear after the excitement of his morning interview, in which Arthur had done his best to loom menacingly throughout. Pellean looked composed, as befit a knight of Camelot, and Arthur would have been irritated by this had it not been for the fact that Mordrain, that wretched sot, was leering at Merlin again.
Arthur made an effort to remember that violent and almost entirely unprovoked murder counted as conduct unbecoming a member of the royal household, and also reminded himself to count his blessings: since yesterday, they'd managed to whittle the number of suitors down to three.
Before he'd interviewed Merlin the day before, Arthur had always enjoyed Interviews with Intendeds. People revealed themselves most clearly when something unexpected happened, and Arthur had seen the subjects of suitors' disputes do everything from cry in confusion to pretend, unconvincingly, to be surprised at their own carefully put-upon allure. But Merlin had simply sat across from him, his hands clasped in his lap and his eyes downcast, and Arthur had regretted his earlier impulsive decision to sit Merlin on a short stool, where Arthur could glare at him with ease, and wished he'd just told Merlin that they could perch together on one of Arthur's trunks, as they had done so many times in the past.
"Merlin," Arthur had begun, when it had become clear that no contribution from Merlin was forthcoming. "Welcome to your official interview with the Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes." When Merlin had stayed silent, Arthur had paused before continuing,
"The first order of business," Arthur had intoned gravely, waiting for Merlin to look up, "is to establish whether you are in fact interested in the suits that have been registered, and if so, what it is you wish me to do about it."
Merlin had nodded.
"Right," Arthur had continued. "The suitors registered in this dispute are--" He'd looked down at the list he had in front of him, pretending to consult it.
"Clarissant, handmaiden to the Lady Morgana; Lamorat, Sir Gawain's servant and master of horse; Mordrain, the second son of the castle steward, occupation unknown; and Sir Pellean, son of Lady Vivien and knight of Camelot."
Merlin had given another small nod, saying nothing.
"Well?" Arthur had inquired, perhaps a little more sharply than necessary, "What do you have to say, then, Merlin? Do you wish me to organise arbitration for all four suitors, or do you not?"
Merlin had shaken his head, and Arthur had sternly reminded himself that premature joy never served a sensible man well, a lesson he had learned when he'd been ten and his father had said he'd brought home the companion Arthur had been wanting, and Arthur's heart had leapt at the thought of having a falcon of his own, finally, only to sink rapidly when Uther had motioned to Gaius, who had waggled his eyebrows as if he'd known just what Arthur had been thinking before presenting him with The Young Royal's Guide to Etiquette.
"You don't," Arthur had said, keeping his tone neutral. "Merlin--are you saying that you're not interested in the suits?"
Merlin had shaken his head again.
"Merlin," Arthur had said, exasperated, "I know that I once told you that I would trade my best destrier for one blessed minute of silence from you--" to be fair, Merlin had been telling Arthur about his studies on medicinal plants at the time, and sharing his newly acquired information in alphabetical order by plant as they hunted; Arthur had only been pretending to be frustrated, though, because he had found that letting Merlin speak his nerves out greatly decreased the likelihood of Merlin causing someone grievous bodily injury-- "but I'm afraid you're going to have to speak, if we're to have any hope of sorting this out. Now, you need to tell me clearly: are you interested in these suits or not?"
When Merlin had done nothing other than look up at him, eyes wide, Arthur had suggested, "We can deal with them one by one, if you like." It had been difficult to look severe, and not affectionate, at the sight of Merlin's ready, and grateful, nod.
"Fine. First suitor: Clarissant the handmaiden, daughter of Lyonesse."
Merlin had shaken his head.
"Uh, no," Merlin had said. "I am not interested in Clarissant's suit."
Arthur had nodded before striking her name from his list in the Arbiter's Annals, pressing the quill down firmly to make sure the strike was clear.
"Right. Second suitor: Lamorat, son of Aballach, master of horse in Sir Gawain's household."
There had been a long pause, and then Merlin had finally said,
"Arthur. If I go ahead with these suits--that is to say, if I agree to this--and if you pick the suitor you think is best, am I… obliged to see the courtship through?"
Arthur had given Merlin a long, considering, look before saying, "No, of course not. The purpose of the arbitration is simply to avoid upheaval within the court. Once a suitor has been picked, the intended can choose whether or not to respond to his or her advances. We're not going to force you to bed someone, Merlin, for pity's sake. You're free to do as you will with your affections."
Merlin had smiled for the first time since the interview had begun, and said, "So you're saying that if I agree to go through with this arbitration business, it doesn't really mean anything other than that I'm willing to see where this will lead, for now. I'm not committed to anything other than the arbitration itself, is what I mean--I can decide after that what I'd like to do? If, say, six months from now, Pellean unexpectedly turned out to be a total arse, he and I could just part ways?"
"You could," Arthur confirmed, feeling something in his chest tug in two directions at once as he hoped simultaneously that Pellean would turn out to be a total arse, but also that Pellean would never do anything to harm Merlin.
"We could. Well, good--in that case, I'm ready to continue. Keep going."
"All right. Lamorat, son of Aballach."
Merlin had nodded. "Yes."
Arthur had drawn a clear mark to indicate a positive response next to Lamorat's name.
"Mordrain, son of Escanor, the royal steward, no occupation that I could ascertain."
Merlin had nodded again. "Yes."
Arthur had drawn another fierce mark on the page, only to jerk back in surprise when the quill snapped under the pressure. When he looked up to find that Merlin hadn't noticed, however, he chose to press on as if nothing had happened,
"Fine. Finally: Sir Pellean, son of Lady Vivien and the late Sir Brandeles, knight of Camelot."
Unfortunately, Arthur had no working quill with which to draw a picture of Pellean with a sword through his stomach, but he mimed to make it look as if he were drawing another mark to indicate Merlin's approval next to Pellean's name, anyway.
"Right. So, to summarise: you are interested in Lamorat's, Mordrain's, and Pellean's suits. You ask that Clarissant drop her suit at your request." Arthur had gazed at the ink-spattered page incredulously before saying, "Merlin. Really? No to Clarissant, who is by all accounts extremely pleasant, but yes to the steward's unpleasant nincompoop son?"
If Arthur had still had a functioning quill, he would have used it to enter a note of historical record in the Annals: RAFSSD's Interview with Merlin, son of Hunith: at no point during this interview did the Arbiter use the word 'nincompoop'.
"Uh, well," said Merlin. "It's not personal. It's just-- I don't--" Merlin had finally unclasped his hands only to begin wringing them furiously, and Arthur had had to look twice, but in the end he had been able to confirm that the unyielding curl of Merlin's fingers meant, I do not have an interest in bedding women.
"Right; I see. I understand. That still leaves you at liberty to reject any other suit you do not find to your liking, though, Merlin."
"Uh--it's just. Well. You said that agreeing to the suits didn't commit me to doing anything. And, uhm--well, I don't think I can really bring myself to turn someone down like that, Arthur. I mean, how would you feel, if someone said they were willing to entertain the affections of two or three other people, people who were practically strangers, but not yours? I just can't do that to someone. With any luck Mordrain will be rubbish and fail miserably at every task, and that'll be that: I won't have to see him ever again; he won't have to know I think he's awful; and then it'll all be over, and no harm done."
Arthur had shot Merlin one long, withering look.
"Merlin. You don't have some sort of countryperson obligation to be so godbedamned nice all the time, you know. This is what got you into this situation in the first place."
Merlin had only shot him a familiar little grin, his head tilted downwards, and said, "No, I know. But surely someone has to be nice around here. And if not me--" He made a show of looking around the room as if searching for someone, his awful attempts at humour horribly unsubtle as always, but--of course--somehow awkwardly enticing, also as always.
"Really, Arthur. It can't hurt to let them have a go, surely. What harm could it do?"
Arthur only very narrowly restrained his desire to drive the snapped quill through Merlin's left eye before saying, "Very well," and marching from the room.
Clarissant had appeared to take the news well, all things considered.
Arthur had stomped into Morgana's room after announcing the newly agreed terms of the arbitration in the courtyard and then dropping the updated Annals off with Geoffrey, the keeper of the royal libraries (whom Arthur resented bitterly to this day, convinced The Young Royal's Guide to Etiquette incident had originated with him), only to find Morgana and Guinevere with their faces pressed to Morgana's window, precariously perched on the window seat like two large brightly coloured birds.
"There's Merlin!" Gwen had screeched.
"She hasn't seen him yet!" Morgana had whispered excitedly.
"She has now, she has now!" Gwen had said, one hand gripped like a vise around Morgana's wrist.
"What are you two doing?" Arthur had demanded imperiously.
"Merlin is about to talk to Clarissant," Morgana had said, not turning her face from the window for a moment.
"He's doing it now!"
Guinevere, Arthur had reflected, really could trill at an impossible pitch sometimes.
Arthur had winced, privately thinking that this particular encounter was sure to end in disaster, what with the spurned lover and the participation of a man who had been known to string a coherent sentence together precisely twice in his life. So he was as surprised as anyone when--
"She's smiling," Morgana had said, "--and look, she's giving him that neckerchief she embroidered for him, the one with the violets."
"She understands," Gwen had said. "I mean, who wouldn't? Merlin is so lovely, and it's not as if he's rejecting her for a more beautiful woman, or anything. Anyway, I'm sure she knew, really--it's always been quite clear, about Merlin and men."
"Yes, of course it has," Morgana had agreed.
It has? Arthur had thought, the tug he had felt earlier making a more insistent reappearance in his chest.
"Look--they're holding hands now!"
Morgana had sighed softly, and Guinevere had turned from the window, her expression tender. She and Morgana had smiled at each other.
Women, Arthur had thought, before shuddering and recoiling from the room.
Counting one's blessings aside, Arthur was aware that he would have to say the words at some point, and so he simply bit them out before he could think about it too much.
"Merlin, son of Hunith, come forward."
He took a deep breath and reminded himself that he had prepared for this moment. He had set out what he would say, and he had even consulted The Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes' Guide to Arbitration, in case the section on 'Arbitrations Involving a Magical Individual' could shed some light on how to extricate them from this unholy mess.
(Arthur's father may have hated magic beyond reason, but even lack of reason was no excuse to deface any artefact associated with the Arbiter's role, something which even Uther seemed to understand, or so the tear that ended repentantly at the top quarter of every page in the section seemed to suggest.)
The pages had simply instructed to account for 'the needs of the magical individual: a sorcerer or sorceress often requires greater strength and forbearance from a partner, and greater bravery in companionship, and it is best if the Arbiter takes this into account as early as possible, preferably at the design stage of the task programme.'
The guidance had been useful, but Arthur had been disappointed to find that the entry was not more akin to:
Arbitrations Involving a Magical Individual: Suggested Tasks
Task of the Bear
A test that measures aptitude for being mauled to death by a bear.
Task of the Dragon
… measures aptitude for being devoured by a dragon.
Task of the Lake
… aptitude for drowning.
Arthur allowed himself one last moment of wistful longing--he just wanted the whole thing over, he thought, over so that he and Merlin could go back to doing all the uncomplicated quotidian things that Arthur had never been able to do before Merlin had come to Camelot--before dragging himself back to the statement at hand.
"Merlin, son of Hunith," he repeated, "You have confirmed to me, in my role as Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes, that you accept the suits put forward by these three men. You have expressed that you consent to arbitration through the completion of tasks designed by myself, and to abide by my decision, once I have made it. It this correct?"
"Yes, sire," said Merlin meekly, sparing Mordrain's leer a quick, nervous, sideways glance.
"Very well. This arbitration has been logged in the Annals, as per tradition, and its first task will be announced at dawn tomorrow. Until then, suitors are reminded that they may not, under any circumstances, speak to the intended to attempt to further their suit or gain favour before the cycle of tasks is complete. The intended has expressed a desire to be in attendance while the tasks are performed, and I have granted permission for this. As you know, the intended is traditionally accompanied by a parent, or by the head of the noble household of which he is a member, throughout the arbitration process: as Merlin has no family in the castle, it falls upon me to serve as his guardian. For this reason, I will also accompany the suitors as they complete the tasks.
For ease of execution, the tasks will be carried out over the next week in the forest outside the city, and the suitors, the intended, the Arbiter, and a small part of the royal court shall camp at a site that is being prepared there now.
I wish suitors the best of luck in the tasks;" Arthur said, his stomach twisting uneasily, "please reconvene tomorrow in the courtyard, at dawn."
Pellean gave Arthur a smart nod before exiting the room, and Mordrain and Lamorat followed shortly afterwards. The room slowly continued to empty of people, until only Arthur and Merlin remained.
Merlin sidled up to Arthur, sighing heavily.
"What is it, Merlin?" Arthur asked distractedly--close inspection of his robes had revealed that one of the embroidered dragon's tails was fraying, something that must clearly be resolved at once.
"Arthur," said Merlin. "Can I ask you something?"
"Merlin," said Arthur. "Can I stop you?"
"Arthur. I wanted to ask--" Merlin's voice faltered. "Do you think-- do you think I'm indulging my indecision like a spoilt child?"
"What?" Arthur asked, looking up.
"It's-- that's what you said," said Merlin, his hands spread out in front of him. When you were first telling me about being Arbiter, during the suit with Marie and Eveline. You said that when you first spoke to the subject of a dispute, you did it to establish whether 'he really does enjoy the company of both suitors and is therefore endangering the very honour of the court by indulging his or her indecision like a spoilt child', and that if the intended was, then you knew arbitration was necessary. And it's just--it's more that I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, Arthur, really. I'm not trying to cause problems, not for the court and certainly not for you."
Merlin's eyes had a sorrowful cast, which forced Arthur to give a heavy and unkingly sigh of his own before answering.
"Merlin. No, obviously not. I mean, I did say that--about being a spoilt child, that is. But I don't think that about you, about this. What I think is--well, I wish you didn't have to do this. I wish we didn't have to do this, either of us, at all. And I wish that you--" Arthur paused, thinking that there were a dozen ways to finish that sentence, and if he could only figure out which one it was that he really wanted to use, he would be a much happier man. But he didn't think he could, just now, so instead he just said,
"You know what? It doesn't matter, really." He looked Merlin in the eye. "What matters is that I wish for you to be happy, Merlin. If you repeat that to someone else, I warn you that I shall deny it; but I do. I just want you to be happy, as I know you want me to be happy. So with that in mind, I have designed the tasks to the best of my ability--which is to say, in such a way as to be certain that Mordrain will never be declared the winner of any--and together, we will aim to eradicate your indecision--which you can rest assured I don't find at all inappropriate; not what I've seen of it so far, anyway--and deal with any potential loss of court honour contained therein. How does that sound?"
Merlin smiled brightly, eyes crinkling in that way they had, and Arthur allowed himself one short warm look before he turned his attention back to the fraying on his robe.
Merlin was convinced Arthur had purposefully given him a recalcitrant horse.
Merlin's riding abilities had improved considerably since he had arrived in Camelot, to the degree that he was now able to keep up with Arthur adeptly on long journeys, usually riding a gelding that Arthur had pointed towards off-handedly in the stables once, but which seemed to always be available when Merlin needed a horse.
Merlin called the horse Chevenix, partly because that was one of Arthur's many middle names, and Merlin had enjoyed feigning innocence when Arthur's eyes had widened angrily when Merlin had chivvied the horse along once, and partly because, as far as he understood it, the horse's real name was Fleur, which must have been upsetting even if Chevenix was only a horse.
When they had set off this morning, though, Chevenix had been nowhere to be found, and when Merlin had called to one of the stablehands, Arthur had stopped him, nodding towards a black horse that was already saddled next to his. Merlin had put a foot in the stirrup, never suspecting that the horse that Arthur had indicated would turn out to be the sort of animal that bolted violently ahead of the rest of the horses as soon as they emerged from the portcullis, despite Merlin's protestations, only to slow to a plodding walk as soon at the rest of the horses broke into a gentle canter and then come a standstill so stubborn that not even a discretely issued burst of magic would get the horse to budge.
Merlin had blushed furiously when Pellean, Lamorat, and even Mordrain had slowed their horses in an attempt to help, but his embarrassment had been somewhat alleviated when Unadulterated Evil, as Merlin had christened his new mount, refused to move despite Lamorat's expert coaxing and Pellean's firm tugs on the reins. It had not been until Arthur had ridden up and given the horse's mane a sharp pull before easing the reins over its ears and around, so that Arthur could hold Unadulterated Evil's bridle in his left hand as he directed his own mount with his right, that the horse had consented to move. That this meant Merlin had to ride alongside Arthur like the most incompetent of damsels, hands hanging limply at his sides, seemed to matter not a whit to the prat--it had only been when Guinevere had ridden past and barely swallowed a snort of laughter that Arthur had turned to Merlin and, eyes looking at the reins in his hand, had said,
"Sorry. I'd forgotten how stubborn he was."
Merlin had thought it best to say nothing--he knew better than to think Arthur would embarrass him this way on purpose (though milder forms of embarrassment were par for the course), but he also knew better than to believe that Arthur had forgotten anything about any horse in his acquaintance. He had simply nodded tersely and allowed Arthur to lead the wretched beast, trying to look as distinguished as possible and reminding himself to concentrate on things that would take his attention off the mortifying journey at hand, such as Arthur: lilac, lilac, lilac, Arthur.
It was in this context of forced dignity that, when Mordrain slowed his horse to match pace with Merlin's, Merlin thought, thank god--a distraction.
But when Mordrain had said, "Sire," addressing Arthur rather than Merlin and adding insult to injury, Merlin's pleasure evaporated completely and was swiftly replaced by a fantasy of Arthur's violent--if magically reversible--death at the hands of Scots. "If I may?"
Arthur's jaw twitched suspiciously, as if he didn't particularly welcome the interruption either, but he replied, "As long as you keep to what you said to me last night, and to that alone, and as long as you speak publicly, with the other suitors here, then yes."
"Merlin," Mordrain began, and when Merlin turned a surly eye to look at him, he took a breath: "I wanted to apologise." Out of the corner of his other eye, Merlin saw Pellean slow his own horse so that he could ride parallel to Arthur on the other side, and Lamorat give a deft flick of his wrist to return his own bay to ride within listening distance.
"For what?" asked Merlin.
"I fear," Mordrain continued, "that my behaviour towards you has not been appropriate. It did not befit interaction with a member of the prince's household, and, more importantly than that, it did not do you, as my intended, justice."
Merlin tried hard to repress a shudder at the word 'intended', which every person in the castle seemed bent on using with alarming frequency--not least Uther, who had cheerfully referred to Merlin that way at least eleven times during dinner the night before while smoothing down a set of robes that Merlin had never seen before--and which, Merlin thought vengefully, had been mauve at best and really tending more towards a covetous lilac when you looked twice.
"Uh," Merlin said, as soon as he realised he was expected to respond, "don't worry about it." He felt rather than saw the resigned headshake that Arthur tried to suppress (you may accept overtures from the suitors gracefully, Merlin, but only in the presence of the other suitors and only, I would advise, if you are certain they are sincere).
"That's very kind of you to say," said Mordrain, "but I'm afraid I should worry. I have acted in such a way as to communicate a lack of respect, but I assure you that this has not been my intention. As my father's second son, destined neither for direct royal service nor for the tending of our family lands, as my youngest brother is, I often find myself … at odds with life. It is as if all my years I have been groomed to be my father's second, but as my father still lives to perform his job ably and well, I find that all that is left to me is to wander around the steward's chambers, occasionally balancing the expenditure books but more commonly giving the impression that I have absolutely no occupation to speak of--which, I suppose, I do not. As a result of this, I have developed somewhat of a--a dissembling nature, I suppose I would say. People expect me to be a fool, and a lazy fool, at that, and so I sometimes act the fool for lack of something better to do. I wanted to apologise in case I have given the impression that I regard this dispute as yet another folly concordant with my foolish disposition, and I hope that I will have a chance to prove myself alongside my equals as the tasks progress. I also apologise that I had not been able to speak to you frankly before now, but a life's expectation is not always easy to disregard."
Merlin nodded, thinking that this was not unlike something Arthur had told him once--and sure enough, when he looked at Arthur, it was only to discover that Arthur was pursing his lips in that way he had that meant, I am surprised to discover I have something in common with you--you, whom I previously thought of as utterly foreign--and I will admit I do not like it.
Merlin had seen this purse for the first time when he had lifted the cover of a dish in Arthur's rooms one suppertime and said, "Ugh--rabbit. I hate rabbit," only to find Arthur giving him a small smile when Merlin looked up from the stew. Arthur had caught him looking, though, and immediately pursed his lips before saying, "I'm afraid rabbit can only be appreciated by those skilled enough to know the pleasure of hunting it before it is put on the table, Merlin," and he had motioned to Merlin to serve him with an oddly determined look in his eye, though when Merlin cleared the crockery, he noticed Arthur had not touched the stew. The next time the kitchen had sent rabbit to Arthur's chambers, Merlin had put it aside without serving it, and Arthur had not complained, though he had pursed his lips again and refused to meet Merlin's eye over the quail.
Soon after that, Merlin had caught Arthur pursing his lips at Lancelot at no less than eight different points before Arthur had given in and began speaking to Lancelot as an equal and a potential friend.
Now Arthur relaxed the pinch of his lips, and seemed about to say something, when--
"Though I am an only child, and though I was fitted with chainmail, rather than taught to do sums, when I was young, Merlin, I will agree with Mordrain that the weight of a parent's expectation, like that of a king or prince, leaves a lasting mark," said Pellean, nodding gravely at Mordrain. "I too have done things in my life because I believed it was expected of me, rather than because I desired to do them. This dispute, however, is something I do for myself, and for myself alone. I also hope to prove myself as the tasks progress."
"As do I," Lamorat said, twisting skilfully in the saddle to look at Merlin as he rode.
Merlin smiled at the three of them, hoping to communicate the gracious regard Arthur had spoken of, pointing to a frayed page in that Young Royal's book of his. His suitors all smiled back.
When Merlin looked across Arthur's horse to meet Pellean's eyes, though, he noticed that Arthur's lips were pursed again.
When they arrived at the 'makeshift camp' that Arthur had promised, Merlin was surprised to find four brightly coloured tents set around a green with two members of Camelot's guard standing at attention beside them, the scene looking more like a royal fair than like an event with Merlin at its centre. You're a royal servant, Merlin, Arthur had said after their interview, and one who, for all his failings and despite my concerted attempts to ensure otherwise at first, attends the prince himself. I may complain about your services, or lack thereof, as often as I am able, but we can't have people thinking we'll just let you go willy-nilly to some faceless suitor after he emerges victorious from a scrap in a dusty field: we'll have a makeshift camp and we'll give the process its due weight.
Merlin could see now that 'makeshift camp' was one of Arthur's understatements, like "It looks like the creature will be difficult to kill," which had really meant, as far as Merlin had been able to tell, "I am about to soil my breeches."
Merlin had never lodged in tents like this, with bright, fine, fabrics pulled taut against a ribboned central post, but he supposed, as both Morgana and Arthur (who had slept on the ground beside Merlin a dozen times but had also been known to say things like, 'I'm afraid the lumps in my favourite pillow have shifted their balance, Merlin, and this really cannot be borne') were there, it made more sense to have this luxury than it would have done if it had just been Merlin and Pellean, Lamorat, and Mordrain.
There weren't many of them there, though--just Merlin, Arthur, Morgana, Gwen, Gaius, and the suitors, as well as Sir Gareth and Sir Gawain, who had come with Lamorat--and Merlin couldn't help but think that the four vividly coloured tents were somewhat excessive, even when one accounted for royal presence.
When Arthur had told him he could view the tasks as they were performed, if he wanted--I don't know, Arthur: having some participation, however, minimal, in this whole affair, or waiting like a nervous handmaiden at home? Not a very difficult choice (as it turned out, he had ended up playing the part of the nervous handmaiden regardless, thanks to the horse, but that was neither here nor there at this point)--he had also said that Merlin could have other members of the court accompany him, if he so wished. Merlin had asked only for those people he truly wanted there: Gwen was a true friend, and Merlin and Morgana understood each other, in their way, and Gaius had been the only father Merlin had ever known and, if Merlin had not invited him, he would have had to contend with the constant fear that Gaius' eyebrows would climb off his face and somehow come after Merlin, hiding in a saddle pouch and biding their time like the instruments of guilt-inducing torture they obviously were.
Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth had asked to accompany Lamorat, and Arthur had granted permission, saying they could be trusted as observers, as well as counted upon to act in case their party encountered trouble in the woods, as 'was always the case' when Merlin was involved. Merlin had tried for a widening of his eyes that somehow asked--Unicorn? Questing beast? Assassins with daggers? Giant hound that turned out to be yet another shape-shifting elderly baker with a desire to kill the crown prince? Or are we not counting any of these?--but Arthur had dismissed the unspoken challenge with a lazy smile and a carefree wave of his hand.
"Morgana and Gwen, the tent to the west is yours," said Arthur. "Gawain, you and your household are east. Pellean, Mordrain--south. Merlin, Gaius, and I will take the tent closest to the stream. If you'll tether your horses within drinking distance of the water and follow me once you have left your belongings in your tents, we'll proceed immediately to the site of the first task."
Merlin hopped gratefully off Unadulterated Evil, and moved to take both it and Arthur's horse to the stream, but was surprised when Arthur batted his hand away and took both horses himself, shooting Merlin one last apologetic glance over Unadulterated Evil's flank.
Though Merlin knew better than to expect another outright apology, he also knew better than to fail to interpret this gesture as it was meant.
Merlin followed Gaius into their tent, which was as sumptuous inside as it had looked from the outside--having seen inside Arthur's gilded crown chest once, only to discover it contained some musty books, a coronet haphazardly shoved in the corner, and a rotting apple core, Merlin knew better than to make judgments on sight--and as they dropped their satchels on the ground, Gaius turned to him and said gravely,
"Arthur honours you, Merlin. This is a clear sign of the value he ascribes to you within his household, as well as of the high regard in which he must hold you. Make sure that you thank him when you get the chance, and for god's sake, don't laugh this off the way the two of you seem to laugh off everything else."
Gaius was clearly thinking of the time last month when Arthur and Merlin had smashed two of his beakers after stumbling into Gaius' rooms drunk and laughing, following a feast during which Merlin had thoughtlessly sipped from the wine he had been serving Arthur--one sip for each goblet--the result being such spectacular inebriation for them both that Arthur had not allowed Merlin to walk back to his rooms alone, claiming he would come to along to 'supervise with royal supervision.'
"Sorry about that again, Gaius," said Merlin, apologising one more time for good measure, since it had emerged that one of the beakers had been imported from Constantinople. Gaius only grumbled to himself as he bent to remove something from his bag, and Merlin went to place his and Arthur's packs next to the bedrolls in the corner.
"Merlin!" called Arthur imperiously from outside. "We would be thrilled to have your company whenever you see fit!"
"Coming, sire!" said Merlin. And if he injected a little more solicitousness into his voice than was usual, well--never let it be said that Merlin did not listen to Gaius' advice.
Arthur instructed the guard to stay at the camp, and then led the rest of them through a path in the woods that only he seemed able to identify, into another small clearing where three trestle tables, each with a quill, ink, parchment, and an hourglass sitting above them, were arranged in a semi-circle. He gestured to Morgana, Gwen, and Gaius, each of who took a seat at a table before looking at Arthur for further guidance.
"As I said this morning," said Arthur, his voice sounding as it had not since he had last spoken to Eveline and Marie, its depth making Merlin stand a little straighter, "the first task is a test of judgment."
"As you can see," he continued, gesturing to the edges of the clearing, "this clearing is surrounded by a variety of young trees, none particularly large but none less than ten years old. Your task," he said, looking at the suitors, "begins when you pick the tree best suited for this test. Once you have picked it, you must tie this ribbon--" Arthur held a pale blue ribbon aloft in one hand, "--to the tree at shoulder-height.
You must pick a tree that is neither too old nor too young, and two of you must saw the tree off at the base, diagonally--" here Arthur made a slashing motion across the bottom of the nearest tree-- "so that it will not stand upright on its own once it has been cut. The third among you must be ready to hold the tree steady while it is sawn, and to continue to hold it upright once it has been cut. The object of this task is for you to keep the tree upright, as a group, for as long as you are collectively able.
When the original suitor is no longer able to bear the weight of the tree after the start of the task, he must ask for help, and another among you must replace him as tree-bearer. When that man is unable to continue holding the tree, then he in turn must call for help, and another must replace him. You do not have to hold the tree in order: whoever is able to bear the tree at any time can offer his assistance. This cycle will continue until all your energies are spent and no-one is able to bear the tree any longer.
The suitor who bears the weight of the tree more times than the others, but also for longer than the others, will be declared the winner of this task. It is therefore in your interest to hold the tree as long as possible, but also to ask for help as often as you need it, so that you may in turn be able to bear the tree more times. You must know when to ask for help, for if the tree collapses while you are holding it and you have not called for help, you will be disqualified.
It is not in your interest to let the tree collapse while another man is holding it, for the winner of the task will be decided on longevity, and the man who holds it last is likely to have held it longest. It is in your interest to help each other as much as you are able, for holding the tree most often will also count in your favour.
As I said, it is clear that at some point, no man will be able to hold the tree any longer: at this point, the last man who calls for help but does not receive it must remove the ribbon tied to the tree, step aside when the tree collapses, and present the ribbon to Merlin.
The winner of the task will not necessarily be the bearer of the ribbon, but obtaining the ribbon before you let the tree collapse is essential if you do not wish to be disqualified from consideration.
The task will test your ability to work together, and to judge your abilities accurately, for you must successfully pick the tree that you think you can bear the longest, and do so in cooperation with each other. It will test your judgment under pressure, but also your desire for victory, for you must calculate when it is advantageous for you to continue helping the others, and when it is no longer so.
It will test your generosity and comradeship, because the only way for this to work is for you to bear the tree when it is not to your advantage as well as when it is. The last man remaining must judge his strength accurately and without pride, for he must have enough strength left to bear the tree with one arm while he removes the ribbon from the tree with the other.
Gaius, Guinevere, and the Lady Morgana will make a mark each time that the suitor they are assigned to bears the weight of the tree, and record the number of minutes for which the suitor bears the tree each time. Their hourglasses measure one minute exactly; only completed turns of the hourglass will count in your favour. Fifteen minutes shall be subtracted from Pellean's total, as well as two instances of him bearing the tree's weight, to account for his strength and training, neither of which this task looks to measure.
If you are all clear as to the terms of the task, and if those terms seem reasonable to you, then you are free to begin."
Merlin appreciated the subtlety of the test, but he privately thought it wasn't particularly thrilling--Arthur could engineer a fleeing hart for Eveline and Marie, but the best he could come up with for Merlin's suitors was a tree?--but the excited whispers that were flying between Morgana and Gwen, the slow, meaningful look Gaius was giving him, and the serious chatter of the suitors as they bent their heads together to consider the task, told him he was missing something.
"What is it?" he asked Sir Gawain, not really knowing what he was asking. Gawain must have instinctively picked up on his ignorance, however, because he answered quietly,
"It is one of the tasks of Olwen. It is from an old legend, about a beautiful princess so dear to her father that he knew he would die of grief on the day that he lost her to a husband. When she found a prince to her liking, her father, Ysbadadden, would not grant her hand until Culhwch, the suitor, completed a list of impossible tasks. In the end, after Culhwch succeeded in killing a deadly, giant boar called Twrch Trwyth, a task that Ysbadadden had counted on defeating Culhwch, Ysbadadden asked Culhwch to bear the weight of the tree on top of which Ysbadadden's house sat for three days and three nights, and claimed that if Culhwch succeeded, he could marry Olwen at last. The tree was so large and Ysbadadden's movement in the house so constant, that Culhwch would have failed had it not been for aid from his closest friends, Bedwyr and Taliesin, who bore the tree for him when he could not. When Culhwch succeeded, Ysbadadden was forced to grant him Olwen's hair-ribbons, the sign that Culhwch could have the princess' hand in marriage. The two married and lived full, and happy, lives, but, as Ysbadadden had foreseen, the pain of Olwen's loss was so great that Ysbadadden was forced to shave his face and head after her departure before retiring to the mountains, where he died of grief."
Merlin's eyes shot sharply to Arthur, but Arthur, who had overhead Gawain talking, merely shot him a look that was playful and arch at once over the handsaw he had picked up from the ground, and said to the suitors,
"You may begin now."
The task turned out to be much more exciting than Merlin had thought it would be.
After a surprisingly long conference, Pellean, Mordrain, and Lamorat had tied the ribbon to a young beech that was nestled between two other trees at the east of the clearing. Mordrain had spotted a branch on one side and a groove on another that would help the suitors bear the tree, and Lamorat and Pellean had agreed on his choice. Lamorat had collected the ribbon from Arthur, and Pellean had tied it to the tree.
The suitors had decided Pellean would bear the tree first, partly because his first fifteen minutes would not count, and partly because he was broadest of the three and would be best able to bear the movement as Lamorat and Mordrain sawed carefully upwards, away from Pellean's ankles.
Pellean had bore the tree with ease for long minutes while Mordrain and Lamorat looked on uneasily, but after the tenth turn of Morgana's hourglass, a bead of sweat had appeared on his forehead, and he had shifted his weight first to his right leg, and then to his left. At the fifteenth turn, a small tremble had begun between his shoulder blades, and as soon as Morgana turned the hourglass for the nineteenth time, he said in a strained voice,
"I'll go," had replied Lamorat, and he had eased himself carefully between Pellean and the tree, saying "I'm ready" and nodding before Pellean let go.
Morgana had made no mark for Pellean's turn, but she had recorded his time after the fifteen minutes that were to be struck from the record: 3.
Gwen had made a firm mark when Lamorat had replaced Pellean, and when he called to Mordrain and handed the tree over, she marked 11 at the top of her parchment.
Gaius wrote a spidery 13 on his page once Pellean returned to bear the tree, but Mordrain looked decidedly the worse for wear after bearing the tree for as long as he had; he stood, bent over and panting, for the entirety of Pellean's turn, and began to recover only once Lamorat had replaced Pellean once more. Arthur gave Mordrain an approving nod nonetheless, no doubt accounting for the fact that though Lamorat was the slighter among them, Mordrain had spent a life inside, keeping books, while Lamorat had spent his youth breaking and taming the spirited foals that Gawain seemed to have such a fondness for.
The suitors' totals climbed steadily as everyone watched silently, the only sound the harsh breathing of the tree-bearer and the suitors' quiet voices: Pellean. Mordrain. Lamorat, now.
Eventually each suitor's parchment showed six marks, Pellean having bore the tree once on either side of Mordrain's turns when Lamorat had scraped his palm badly on a growth on the back of the tree, and then again on either side of Lamorat's turns when Mordrain had appeared to be having trouble recovering. Merlin moved between the tables slowly, noting the totals: Pellean, 37; Mordrain, 40; Lamorat, 39.
Pellean was only able to bear the weight of the tree for three minutes in his last turn, and Mordrain and Lamorat struggled to keep the tree upright for one minute each after that. It was clear from the looks they were shooting towards the tables, and towards each other, that each suitor had begun to consider whether he was far enough ahead to quit now, while another man bore the tree, or whether he should continue to help even if he was unable to bear the tree for a full minute, simply to gain a mark for a turn and ensure that the task did not end with a minute for someone else.
Merlin could see each of the suitors thinking, each playing to his strengths: Lamorat looked between Pellean and Mordrain, as if he could remember the order in which they had come, like horses in a jousting line, obviously trying to remember who had bore the tree most times. Mordrain was panting, his eyes screwed shut as if he could add up every minute that each suitor had held the tree for. Pellean concentrated only on his hourglass on Morgana's table, making sure never to hand the tree over until she had turned her hourglass, marking a full minute for him on the parchment.
Two more turns passed.
"Lamorat. Mordrain," called Pellean, his legs trembling as he held the tree, "Now, please."
"I can't," panted Mordrain from the side, and Lamorat, breathing harshly, said,
Pellean nodded, bracing his legs and pushing his chest against the tree, and Arthur and Gawain moved forward in expectation of the end of the task. Pellean redistributed his weight twice before tentatively moving his left hand towards the ribbon, trying to work the fabric free.
Merlin was trying to peek over Morgana's shoulder to see Pellean's total when he saw Arthur dart forward at the edge of his vision. He looked up, only to see in one instant that Pellean's sleeve was caught against the branch that the suitors had been using to bear the tree, and that the tree was sliding inexorably downwards, Pellean struggling to keep it upright even as Arthur tackled him at the waist as the tree fell, missing Pellean but set to catch Arthur at the knees.
Merlin didn't think--he shot his hand out and slowed the tree's descent, not enough to be truly noticeable but giving Arthur enough time to tuck his legs underneath him as he rolled.
When the tree crashed to the ground with an audible thump, Merlin lowered his hand, the silence and the fixed gazes of everyone in the clearing making it clear that the pause in the tree's fall had not been so unnoticeable after all.
Arthur and Gaius looked furious; Morgana's bemused look and Guinevere's shocked face were a study in opposites. Pellean's and Mordrain's eyes were wide, though Mordrain looked scared, while Pellean managed to keep his gaze steady and his eyes kind. Gawain and Gareth were looking at Arthur for guidance, and Arthur opened his mouth as if to give it, but evidently he did not know quite what to say.
"Magic!" hissed Lamorat, a finger pointing accusingly at Merlin. "He used magic!"
Arthur looked as if he would deny it, but it was clear that everyone had seen what had happened, and Merlin briefly considered using magic again to lift one of the tree's broken branches from the ground and whip Lamorat around the head before he reasoned that that would probably make matters worse.
"Lamorat," said Gaius, using his best 'let's be reasonable' voice, "Merlin--"
"No--I saw it!" said Lamorat, his voice reedy but stable. "I saw him do it. He used magic to stop the tree when it was coming down. Magic. The king! The king must be told."
Lamorat made a move to sprint back towards the campsite from the clearing, probably just trying, Merlin reasoned, to be a good subject to Uther, but he evidently had not accounted for the fact that he was currently surrounded by individuals who it appeared were--in this respect, at least--all god awful subjects to the king.
Everything happened at once.
Lamorat moved forward, and Mordrain dove after him, catching Lamorat by the leg; at the same time, Pellean tackled Lamorat from the other direction and drove him to the ground. Morgana and Gwen ran to the opening that led from the clearing into the woods, blocking the way, and Gaius glared menacingly while Gareth and Gawain simply continued to look at Arthur, who had his sword drawn and a murderous look in his eye.
Merlin tried his best to look inconspicuous--though he would admit that it was probably a bit late for that--and Arthur approached Lamorat slowly, only to find, Merlin realised, that Pellean was already whispering threats from where the three suitors were entangled on the ground.
Arthur's lips pursed violently.
"Shall I release you now?" Merlin heard Pellean say, and at Lamorat's nod all three suitors stood up. Pellean removed a pouch from his belt and Merlin heard the tinkling of coins before Pellean said,
"If you find that you cannot return to Camelot and keep what you have seen here unspoken, then take this gold, and take my horse from the camp, and ride to wherever you wish, and make a new life for yourself. If I find, however, that you have returned to Camelot in our absence and said something, or if you say something once we have all returned, then I will be sure to brand you a liar to the king, and I will press him to banish you for speaking against the word of three knights and against the word of the prince himself, and once you are gone, I will hunt you, Lamorat, and when I find you, I will kill you."
As afraid as he was, Merlin still thought that was probably a little much, and from the way in which Pellean's eyes widened comically, it was clear that he probably thought the same, but he gave no other sign of surprise at his words and simply tightened his grip on Lamorat's upper arm, taking responsibility for his wild overstatement as all knights trained by Arthur were wont to do.
Lamorat looked to Gawain and Gareth, whom he was duty-bound to serve, but they were both looking at Arthur and did not return his glance. Gawain said,
"You knew about this."
"Gawain--" Arthur began, but Gawain interrupted him before he could continue.
"Arthur, I have to be perfectly honest--I don't really want to know. My allegiance has, for many years, sat with you, and not with your father, and if you say to me that this is something best kept silent, then I and my brother will keep it silent, and ensure that Lamorat does, as well."
"That is my wish," Arthur said simply.
"Then that is our troth," replied Gareth, and he and Gawain moved forward to clasp Arthur's arm.
Arthur moved towards Lamorat again, rotating the hilt of his sword in his right hand, and said,
"Well, Lamorat? What do you say?"
"Sire," said Lamorat, his voice calmer than Merlin's would have been, "I only thought to do what I have been taught is right. I have been told my whole life that magic and sorcerers must be reported, and I have done my best to do my duty as a royal servant, though I have never had cause to act on any knowledge of magic before now. I serve Sir Gawain before I serve the king--" at this he widened his eyes as if expecting Arthur to use his sword for the violence that the rotating hilt evidently threatened, but Arthur simply waved him on "--and if he says to me that I must not say anything, then I will not. I do, however, ask to be released from my declaration of intent: I no longer wish to be a party to this dispute."
"Then you are released," said Arthur, shooting Merlin an apologetic look. He looked at Pellean and Mordrain and raised one inquiring eyebrow, but Pellean merely shook his head and Mordrain, after one long look at Merlin's face, shook his head as well. Arthur turned to look at Morgana and Gwen.
"Guinevere? Morgana? What about you?"
"I will say nothing, Arthur," Morgana said, her high eyebrows belying the calm she tried to communicate with a knowing smirk. Arthur looked at Gwen.
"Merlin is my friend, sire," she said. "I would not have any harm come to him."
Arthur nodded at her gratefully, and Merlin tried to show that he understood what magic had cost her in the past and what it cost for her to say this now by giving her one long, thankful look.
"Then we are agreed," Arthur said, "that despite an unfortunate accident towards the end of the task, Pellean and I very felicitously escaped from harm, thanks to quick reflexes and Pellean's presence of mind in bearing the tree as steadily as he had been doing. Lamorat has expressed a desire to drop his suit," Merlin tried not to flinch as Arthur declared so easily yet another instance of rejection for something Merlin had done only with good intentions, and it was clear that Arthur had seen Merlin move from the way he softened his voice, "but I would ask that he stay until the tasks that remain are completed."
"Lamorat will not be considered a contender for this test," Arthur continued, "and so I must declare that Mordrain is the winner of this task, for though all suitors bore the tree nine times and though Pellean's time totalled 45 minutes, while Mordrain's totalled only 43, Pellean's inability to obtain the ribbon before the tree collapsed unfortunately disqualifies him, as per the rules. We must all recognise, however, that Pellean showed great strength, generosity, and good judgment throughout."
Arthur moved to the tree, untying the ribbon before continuing,
"Mordrain, you have shown good judgment and presence of mind even when no immediate drive for competition, such as danger, was inherent in the task; you showed comradeship to your peers when you relieved Pellean after Lamorat's injury, despite your own tiredness, and you showed a willingness to admit when you could no longer continue: you placed your desire to win this task, and therefore your intended, above your pride. I therefore declare you the winner of this task, and I offer my congratulations."
Mordrain looked apologetically at Pellean, who only gave him a friendly shrug, and Arthur moved forward to place the ribbon in Merlin's hand before declaring, "We can return to camp for our evening meal now; the next task will take place tomorrow." Arthur stilled the trembling in Merlin's hand with a solid grip on Merlin's wrist before moving away, and Merlin clutched the ribbon and looked at Arthur gratefully.
For a long moment, no-one moved from the clearing, but then Gawain and Gareth made back for the camp, and Gwen, Morgana and Gaius returned to their tables to gather their materials. As Lamorat, Mordrain, and Pellean followed after Gareth and Gawain, Merlin moved to where Gwen was putting an inkpot away, and said,
"Gwen--I'm so sorry." Gwen shot him a fast look from behind lowered eyelashes and went back to gathering her things, and Merlin forced himself to press on despite her lack of response.
"I'm sorry, because I know you suffered the greatest loss because of Uther's fear of magic. I know it must be difficult to know that Arthur keeps my secret, though your father died even though he had no secret to keep. It must feel like a betrayal, and I apologise, because if I had not acted without thinking, like an idiot, you would never have known about this and it might not have made you feel pain. I also apologise that I never told you--I trust you, Gwen, I do. I just--I didn't even tell Arthur, he somehow figured it out on his own!" Merlin was still somewhat aggrieved at this, because though he would admit he had made no concerted effort to keep his magic secret, Arthur had done a remarkable job of feigning dim-wittedness throughout, and Merlin resented that he had not realised that Arthur had been humouring him all this time.
Morgana moved from her own table to stand next to them, and Gaius and Arthur inched closer to where they were, too. Morgana placed a hand on Gwen's shoulder.
Gwen did not say anything at first, but finally, after a heavy silence, she looked up and said,
"Merlin. Arthur keeps your secret not to betray my father or his memory, but to protect you. I cannot begrudge him that. If anything, I am grateful: it confirms my knowledge that he will be a much greater king than Uther could ever hope to be, and I cannot feel anything but happiness for that. As for you--as I said, Merlin, you are my friend. I understand why you had not trusted me with this before, but I love you now as I loved you when I first met you, and as I loved you when you asked me so many stupid questions about Arthur's armour I thought I would tear my hair out, and as I loved you when I saw you riding beside Arthur earlier today, looking as foolish as you ever have. I won't have magic take anything, or anyone, else away from me, Merlin. So just know that, and know that you are my friend and that I love you, and we'll leave it at that."
Merlin smiled at Gwen and took her hand, and when the five of them began a slow and silent walk back to the campsite, Merlin thought of Arthur asking him, a lifetime ago, as they lay beside a fire in Merlin's mother's house (which should have felt like home if any place ever did) and spoke about belonging: Had any luck yet?
Yes, Merlin thought now.
"Arthur?" Merlin called later that evening, when Gaius was snoring in the corner and Arthur was breathing beside him in that way that meant he wasn't asleep.
"Yes, Merlin?" yawned Arthur in an irritated manner, pretending shamelessly that he had been asleep, which he always did at times like this, for some reason.
"Do you forgive me? For earlier, I mean?"
"Merlin. Leaving aside the fact that you used magic in front of nine people earlier to spare me a bruise mid-thigh, have I given any indication that there is anything to forgive?"
Merlin considered: Arthur had shot him one exasperated look when they had returned to the camp, but after that, he had proceeded as if nothing was amiss. Merlin had caught him looking at Lamorat edgily, and at one point, when Gaius and the girls had retired and Pellean and Mordrain were gathering their things to go back into their tent, Merlin had turned from the fire to find Arthur standing peculiarly close to Lamorat, whispering intently in his ear.
Merlin had only caught, "my pack of hunting hounds", "there is still room for training", and "violent defilement" before Gawain had laughed loudly and said,
"Arthur, really--I think he gets that he will be mercilessly hunted down and killed if he says anything. Leave the poor boy alone."
Apart from that, however, Arthur had not given any sign that he would have Merlin thrown in the stocks until the ravens picked his eyes out--Merlin had heard stories--and so Merlin was forced to answer,
"No. Now kindly be quiet so that I can sleep to see another day of impartially yet gracefully supervising another ridiculous task for these suitors of yours."
Merlin turned in his bedclothes, intending to settle down, but,
"Merlin, for the Arbiter's robes sake, what?"
"Do you think it will work? I mean, do you think that you'll really find the right suitor for me?"
Arthur was silent, and Merlin had resigned himself to the fact that Arthur was going to use the 'I had already fallen asleep' excuse on Merlin again, before Arthur said suddenly,
"Merlin. Get up. Bring that box that I brought in my pack with you and come outside, to the fire." Arthur rolled smoothly out of the covers, and moved so quickly that the tent flap had fluttered closed by the time Merlin had stood up to follow.
He collected the small chest Arthur had made him pack that morning, and followed Arthur outside, where he was sitting poking at the fire with half-hearted carelessness. Arthur gestured at the space next to him on the ground, and Merlin sat, the wooden box unopened in his lap.
"Open it," Arthur said.
When Merlin did, he was surprised to find the little chest packed full of small velvet pouches, each labelled clearly on a small piece of linen that was attached to the drawstring of each.
"Brere, Caliborn, and Tristen," read Merlin, "Urien, Morgan, and Acheflow. Arthur, are these…?"
Merlin rifled quickly through the pouches before coming to Eveline, Marie, and Aglaral. He turned the pouch over into the cup of his palm, and two coins, a soft gathering of white fur, and a tattered yellow ribbon tumbled out into his hand.
"Arthur--you keep these?"
Arthur poked at the fire a few more times before answering. "Yes. I've kept them since I arbitrated my first task. I keep them because I like to think that--well, that there isn't necessarily one perfect person for every man or woman in the world, but that with some effort and some cunning, the right person, who is often better than a perfect person, can always be found. Out of those pouches, Merlin, at least three quarters of them have ended in happy marriages, or in long-standing partnerships or friendships, when marriage was not possible. I know that to you and Gwen, and to others who grew up outside the royal household, this tradition may seem foolish, or naïve, but it works--not because it's a flawless concept but because it makes the efforts that one person is willing to make for another explicit, and when those things are made obvious, the awareness they engender can give way easily to affection and trust and love."
Arthur paused, taking the pouch from Merlin's hands and carefully returning its contents before placing it back in the little chest. He looked at Merlin, his eyes looking conflicted in the firelight, and Merlin wanted to ask what the matter was, but Arthur spoke first, rushing his words, almost as if he wanted to make sure Merlin didn't get a chance to ask.
"So to answer your question, yes, I think I will find the right suitor for you. I will only do this, however, if you cease to harass me to the point of wrath at ungodly hours such as these, Merlin, so go back to the tent--" Arthur took wooden box from Merlin's hands, and turned his face back to the fire, "--and leave me to think in peace."
The next day the sky was so clear and the sun so bright that even Gaius' twenty-minute speech on escaping death by the skin of one's teeth, and a disregard for one's safety better suited to a drunken cat (Merlin didn't ask) than a grown man, which Arthur had helpfully left the tent for, was not enough to dampen Merlin's spirits.
His throat had constricted at the sight of Lamorat exiting his tent, but Lamorat had simply flashed him an easy grin from behind Arthur's sword, which Arthur was sharpening viciously outside Gawain's tent, and shrugged as if to say, No hard feelings.
Merlin had half a mind to tell him that prejudice had never led a man right, but having just suffered through a lecture himself, he felt more lenient than he otherwise might have, and so he smiled back at Lamorat and went to sit by the fire, where Morgana was poking at some sausages with the lack of skill of the truly ignorant while Gwen looked on, amused.
"The next task," Arthur announced without warning shortly afterwards, while Merlin tried to eat around the char on his sausage, "is a task for perseverance and commitment."
Merlin swallowed and buried what was left of the sausage in the dirt with his foot, hoping Morgana wouldn't notice, before turning to give Arthur his full attention.
"The task should take no longer than a day to complete, but it would be best if everyone took their cloaks, as we will be riding for some time and night may fall before we come back. We will depart as soon as everyone is ready."
Merlin ducked into the tent to bring his and Gaius' cloaks while everyone burst into movement around him, and by the time he came back outside, after allowing himself a moment to run a hand over the small wooden chest that Arthur had hidden under his bedroll, everyone was gathered around where the horses were tethered by the stream.
Pellean was helping Gwen and Morgana onto their mounts, and Lamorat was assisting an affronted-looking Gaius, so Merlin was left to glare at Unadulterated Evil while Arthur watched him carefully from under his eyelids, tightening the saddle on his own horse.
The sun and the sky continued to be awfully bright, though, so Merlin spared one thought for his dignity before pointedly rolling his eyes at Arthur and handing him Unadulterated Evil's reigns.
They rode for three hours in companionable near-silence, Lamorat riding on the other side of Merlin and every so often asking him the questions that the remaining suitors could not--What was Ealdor like? Is it true that you were with Arthur when he slew the Questing beast? Do you know yet whom you'd like to win the next task?
Arthur had glared pointedly at Lamorat after the last question, and Lamorat had quickly trotted his horse to the other side of Gareth's and Gawain's, shooting Merlin another impish grin from a pale face whose eyes followed Arthur carefully.
They finally arrived at a flat rock bed populated by low sage and rosemary shrubs. It was surrounded by woods on all sides except for one, where it gave way onto a sharp drop to the river below; a waterfall had evidently worn the cliff face smooth long ago.
Arthur quickly explained that he, Gawain, and the suitors would lower themselves over the side using ropes, and that the two suitors must then climb as quickly as they could to return to the top of the cliff. The winner of the task would be the first man to reach the top and present Merlin with a spray from the shrub that grew nearest the edge--a rosemary bush.
"Rosemary and sage can be mixed with buck bean and boneset to prevent ailments of the mind," Arthur said "--ailments that Merlin has been under severe threat from the entire time I've known him. Presenting him with these herbs as the task ends therefore seems appropriate to me."
Gaius had laughed his dry, rasping, laugh while Pellean and Mordrain looked slightly discomfited at Arthur's carefree demeanour, such a contrast to his behaviour from the day before (Arthur shook his head and waved his hand in their general direction to indicate that it was somewhat of a private joke, the blue sky and the bright sun evidently having an effect on him, too) but Merlin only smiled at Arthur, because it had been Merlin who had told him that, one day when he thought Arthur had been letting him speak about herbs without listening only because he could not be bothered to tell him to be quiet.
"This task will not be as easy as it looks," Arthur continued, sobering. "As you can see, the cliff face is almost completely smooth, and you will not be allowed to use ropes to climb back to the top. What is more, birds nest in the cliff, and as dusk falls they will return, and I can tell you from experience that they will react badly to intruders. You must look carefully if you are to find the few footholds and handholds that are there, and you must persevere when you lose ground, especially if you are to make it back to the top before nightfall. I wish you the best of luck: when you are ready, you may tie a rope to any tree you wish and begin your descent."
Arthur approached Merlin, and said quietly, "Merlin. You could perhaps--do something to ensure that none of us fall to our deaths while we do this. That cliff face really is quite sheer. Make sure no-one notices, though: we don't need anyone taking a blow to their pride."
"Of course, sire," said Merlin, feeling free to be openly galling because Arthur would have to pay for long months before the Unadulterated Evil incident was forgotten, "I have long practice protecting people who are too proud to admit they need my help."
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him, but his mouth twitched before he turned away and went to tie his rope to the nearest tree.
"He must really care for you, you know," said Lamorat, watching as Mordrain, Arthur, Gawain and Pellean divested themselves of their ropes at the bottom of the cliff, four small figures highlighted against the grey of the rock by virtue of the fact that one was fussing violently with his voluminous lilac robes.
Merlin hummed his assent. Lamorat waited expectantly, but when Merlin said nothing else, he shook his head and went back to Gareth and Gaius, who had a chessboard open between them as if this were just another day in the castle courtyard.
"A quest to get you a medicinal plant, Merlin?" asked Gwen. "And combined with the task yesterday, from the Olwen story--this doesn't tell you something?"
Merlin continued to watch the four men below: Arthur appeared to be arguing with Gawain, but some resolution must have been reached quickly, because Arthur yanked the Arbiter's robes over his head, taking the hat with them, and bound the outfit into a bundle which he appeared to tie securely at his back with the aid of some mysterious lilac robe extension that seemed to be designed precisely for this purpose. Merlin saw Gawain shake his head and open his arms, as if to say, what are you doing? in that way that all people who spent enough time with Arthur were forced to ask incredulously, in the end. Merlin wished he could hear what was being said.
He looked back at Gwen, whose eyes were wide, her piercing gaze trying to push Merlin to answer truthfully.
"No," Merlin lied. "It doesn't."
Gwen tutted twice and shook her head, leaving Merlin to look over the cliff on his own.
Merlin could not hear what Gawain was saying even when Gawain's voice was raised, but he saw clearly when Gawain lifted his left arm, and then lowered it quickly to mark the beginning of the task. Pellean and Mordrain immediately turned their attention to the wall in front of them, and Merlin watched avidly for an early mishap, not noticing at first that Arthur was climbing alongside the two other men.
Arthur, what are you doing? thought Merlin, before lying flat on his stomach on the ground and inching forward to look down over the cliff face, focussing his attention more carefully in case there should be an accident, a prospect which suddenly seemed much more terrifying than it had a moment ago.
The climb was not quick. Arthur had not lied when he had said the rock face was sheer, and sometimes it took two or three minutes before Arthur, Mordrain, or Pellean could find a foothold towards which to tentatively move one leg. Gawain followed slowly beneath them, a rope tied securely around his hips.
Minutes passed, then an hour; Merlin continually tried to find more comfortable ways to lie face-down on rock, finally giving up as dusk started to fall.
Suddenly there was a violent movement above Merlin's head, and when he looked up, Morgana, Gwen, and Gaius standing up quickly behind him at the sound, he saw dozens of black birds flying steadily towards the cliff face and heading directly towards Arthur and the other men, the downward-moving black shapes a terrifying inversion of something Merlin had once seen in a dream.
Merlin threw up a barrier between the climbers and the birds without thinking, and when Pellean moved to cover his face and fell backwards, Merlin held him firmly in place with a yank to his shirt. Pellean looked at him in outrage for a long moment before smiling at him, and Merlin smiled back before gesturing upwards with his hand as if to say: Well?
The racket of the birds must have been a significant distraction, but Merlin's intervention ensured that no-one fell to a horrid death, as per his orders from Arthur. When the four men seemed to realise the birds would not do them any harm, they fell to climbing more determinedly than before, Pellean gaining ground over Mordrain, and Arthur scampering to keep ahead of Pellean, somehow opening a distance between them despite the fact that they had been climbing at similar speeds until then.
When Arthur's face appeared over the top of the cliff, Merlin beamed a smile at him before moving to help him, but Arthur shook his head and vaulted himself over the top gracelessly, panting heavily and plucking a rosemary bloom before dragging himself to sit next to Merlin.
"I thought it would be a good idea," said Arthur, pushing the rosemary across the ground towards Merlin as if he didn't want Merlin to notice that he was doing something with his hands, "to climb alongside the suitors, just to provide a neutral measure against which to measure their progress."
Merlin thought Arthur's spirited scrambling hardly deserved the adjective neutral, but he kept quiet, surreptitiously reaching for the bloom and tucking it into his waist of his breeches, near his left hip, and simply said, "It was. A good idea, I mean."
The tumbling of tiny rocks as Pellean and Mordrain raced for the top could be heard clearly now, and as the sound approached, something in Arthur's face seemed to harden, his blue eyes turning to Merlin once before he turned to look at the sky and said, almost too quickly to be understood,
"Did I ever tell you about the time that I ran away from the Beltane feast at which I was supposed to pick a girl from Camelot to play the Lady for the night, when I was five?"
Merlin shook his head at Arthur, who evidently knew as well as Merlin did that he had never openly shared a childhood story with Merlin in the past.
"I was young," said Arthur, rushing his words as the sound of Pellean and Mordrain continued to approach, "so young that I cannot even tell you if I was really five--perhaps I was four, or six. I can't remember.
I do remember that there was a Beltane tree, and that the girls at the feast had draped it in brightly coloured pieces of cloth, and that I clapped my hands as they did it, and as they lit candles underneath it to illuminate it against the dark of the night. I remember that I was having a wonderful time, but then the speeches began, as they are wont to do at any feast, and as one nobleman droned into another, I got horribly bored and climbed down from my mother's throne and snuck away from the feast."
"Why were you sitting on your mother's throne?" asked Merlin.
"I always sat there," said Arthur, offhandedly. "My father said that the throne was the rightful place for the king's companion, and as we had lost my mother, it was I who should be his companion, his partner in all things.
Anyway--I snuck away from the feast, and I think I went to the courtyard to play knight. I was having a glorious time when Gaius found me, but when he took me back to the feast my father's eyes were furious, and I remember being horribly afraid of how he'd punish me when the feast was over."
"What happened?" pressed Merlin urgently, aware that any minute now Pellean or Mordrain would appear over the side of the cliff.
"He didn't punish me," said Arthur, almost wonderingly. "He just came to my rooms after the feast was over and I remember he said to me, Son, I know that sometimes it must be difficult to understand why it is that you must do so many things that do you not enjoy, when you would rather be in the meadows behind the castle, or playing in your rooms.
I tried to apologise for what I'd done, I think, believing that some awful lecture was coming, but instead of saying anything else, my father laughed, and he sat on the side of my bed, which he never did, and said,
I know that sometimes the things you are asked to do must seem foolish, Arthur. Sometimes they seem foolish to me, too. But son, sometimes we must do things not for love but for duty--that is to say, we must do them not because we want to, but because we must. Do you understand?
Tonight, for example--how do you think the girls would have felt, if their prince had not been there to pick who among them would play the Lady tonight?
As king, Arthur, you will be asked to do a dozen things that you would rather not do--a dozen things every day. It will be difficult to do those things, because you will have to do them for duty, rather than for love.
But if you grow to understand the importance of doing what matters to others, if not always to yourself, then I can tell you honestly that duty and love have the ability to become the same thing, Arthur.
Duty is a love of others--a desire to see them thrive and be happy and to see them flourish under your guidance. If you understand it this way, son, then it may be that one day, the things you do for duty and the things you do for love will be the same, for your love--what you want to do, for yourself and for those you love--and your duty--what you know must be done to bring others happiness and stability--will be one and the same."
Arthur looked at Merlin quickly, smiling tenderly at the same time that Pellean's hand appeared in front of them, his fingers scrabbling as they sought purchase at the edge of the cliff.
"I thought my father was lying, Merlin, that day. To some extent, I have always thought he was lying, saying what he did only to ease the harsh reality of kingship for me." Arthur smiled again, but now his smile was sad in a way that Merlin could not define.
"But today, I think for the first time that I understand what he meant."
And as Pellean rolled over the side of the cliff, gathering a rosemary bloom carefully and coming to place it reverently in Merlin's cupped hands, Arthur stood in one smooth movement and watched silently as Pellean closed his hands over Merlin's, before helping Mordrain and Gawain to climb over the side and declaring,
"Pellean, you have shown perseverance, bravery, commitment, and strength. I commend you and Mordrain on completing this task, and though I declare Pellean the winner of this second test, I look forward to seeing you both continue to show the admirable qualities you have thus far demonstrated that you possess in the final task.
I will announce what that task will be tomorrow, and as you have each been declared the winner of one task so far, the man who is declared the winner of the final test will be victorious in this dispute."
Arthur clapped Pellean and Mordrain heartily on the back, and both men smiled wanly at him as Arthur pushed them towards their horses, chattering to them about 'that god-forsaken, foothold-less bit about halfway up the cliff'.
Merlin watched silently as they walked away, Arthur's words swimming in his head and the spray of rosemary that Arthur had given him burning against his skin.
Gaius, Gwen, and Morgana, none of who had approached when he and Arthur had been speaking, gathered around Merlin now as Arthur talked to Pellean and Mordrain, and together the four of them watched as the last of the sun faded behind Arthur as he walked, setting his face ablaze and making him look like the king he already was.
Arthur was not a man to leave things to chance.
Some things, of course--he enjoyed the uncertainty of the hunt as much as anyone, and liked it better when he didn't know for sure whether the cooks would be saddling him with rabbit stew at royal feasts when he would be forced to consume it in front of everyone. But he had learned long ago that when it mattered, it was better to practice a parry a thousand times than to hope one's opponent would not have the presence of mind to do the same.
Arthur had seen where this was going--Pellean would have won the task with the tree, if his sleeve had not caught on the branch, and he had climbed the cliff with much more assurance than Mordrain had, even if Mordrain had given him surprising competition. Mordrain had exhibited many more admirable traits than Arthur would have ever thought possible upon meeting him, but the fact remained that Pellean was a knight, and that Arthur had trained him himself, and if Merlin's safety and wellbeing had to be entrusted to someone, Arthur would make sure that it was to the man who had darted forward as Arthur practiced his thousand parries, and not to a man who might, possibly, turn out to have the presence of mind to learn how to parry at all.
Arthur allowed himself one look at the Guide to Arbitration, whose cover seemed to glare at him from where the book was stuffed into his pack, and straightened his robes one last time, trying not to let the hypocritical gesture of respect for the Arbiter's uniform set his fingers to trembling. He exited the tent and went to announce the final task, which he had decided would be, rather predictably, a test 'of bravery'.
Arthur made up some dreadfully inconsistent story about a terrible beast in a cave, and Merlin paled considerably--Arthur had not taken into account what two duplications of his and Merlin's own quests might do to Merlin's state of mind, but the beast in the cave had been the best he had been able to come up with on short notice, and so he forced himself to look away from Merlin's worried eyes and to lead the small group towards a cave two hours' ride away. Arthur knew for a fact that beyond the entrance, the cave diverged into two deep tunnels, one of which led treacherously in circles before coming to a central hollow that could be entered from above through an opening in the hillside, and one of which led treacherously in circles before coming to a dead end. He had, once upon a time, spent hours and days exploring this particular cave, while his nurses and his father's guard screamed themselves hoarse on the hillside above.
When they arrived, Arthur ordered the suitors to dismount, assigning Gawain, Gareth, and Lamorat to 'keep watch' over the cave's entrance and leading Merlin, Morgana, Gaius, and Gwen to the hillside opening. Arthur ordered Merlin to crawl through the opening and then down, to wait for either Mordrain or Pellean, depending on who arrived first, and Merlin shot him a suspicious look--Arthur supposed he had asked Merlin to climb down rather cheerfully, considering he'd told Merlin and everyone else that a murderous beast resided in the cave--before lowering himself down carefully through the hole. When his head had almost disappeared into the dark, Merlin looked up at him and said, softly,
"Arthur. We don't really have to do this, you know. I've made my choice."
Arthur looked at him, saying nothing, before turning away and leaving Merlin to finish climbing into the cave in silence--because Arthur had also made his choice, trying his best to match it to the one that he thought Merlin would make.
Gaius, Morgana, and Gwen were summarily assigned 'opening in the hillside' guard, and Arthur looped back around to the entrance at a quick run, trying to make his own lies sound believable in his head before he was forced to impart them on others in as regal a tone as he could muster.
"Mordrain, Pellean," said Arthur upon arriving, "as I mentioned when I explained this last task to you this morning, the object of the test is to reach Merlin, and to lead him back out of the cave--not through the opening through which he entered, but back out through this entrance--safely and as quickly as possible. The first suitor to reach Merlin, and to lead him back here, shall be declared the winner of this task, and the winner of this dispute.
The beast that resides in the cave, the villagers claim, is nocturnal, and so you should not encounter it if you are stealthy and quick." Arthur shook his head at himself mentally, reminding himself that the more elaborate one made a lie, the more believable it seemed, but also the harder it was to keep straight in one's head, before continuing, "The cave, I am given to understand, is not large, and if you encounter the beast and cannot fend it off on your own, Gawain or myself should be able to reach you in time, if you call for help. As I said, however, it should be perfectly possible to complete the test without alerting the beast to your presence at all. The object of the test is not to slay the creature, but only to successfully complete the task that you have been assigned, which is simply to bring Merlin out safely and quickly, and to present him upon your exit with this brooch bearing the Pendragon crest, which I shall leave on the ground here, at the cave's entrance, for you to collect when you show Merlin out safely.
I will enter the cave ahead of you, and will wait inside in case either of you needs assistance at any point--with the beast, that is. Give me a small amount of time in which to place myself inside, and then follow when you are ready. Pellean, you can start by following the west wall of the cave; Mordrain, follow the wall to the east. I wish you both the best of luck in this task, and look forward to congratulating one of you upon its completion."
With that, Arthur gathered his Arbiter's robes in his hand so they would not be sullied on the wet cave floor and ran inside, fading out of sight quickly and ducking into Pellean's tunnel, on the left.
Arthur heard a dozen different sounds coming from within the cave as he waited in the dark, and he stopped to think that he had not bothered to check whether some ravening beast really did live here now, so eager had he been to have the task over and done with. He didn't feel particularly comfortable with the thought of Mordrain the bookkeeper braving a deadly creature alone, so he hoped he had not inadvertently stumbled them all into just the cave that could make a truth of his terribly patchy lies. He told himself that the sounds were clearly the result of small animals scurrying about, and hoped that they would have the same power of suggestion on Pellean and Mordrain that they were most certainly not having on him.
Soon enough, he heard the sound of cautious footsteps approaching, and he moved quietly to intercept Pellean, who was walking forward slowly, his back to one of the cave walls and his sword drawn--evidently the sounds had had the desired effect.
"Arthur," said Pellean from the dark, sounding less surprised to hear him moving about than Arthur would have liked.
"Pellean," Arthur replied, trying to sound as grave as possible despite the fact that Pellean was no doubt a beat away from calling him on his poorly constructed lies.
"Am I to take from the fact that I have seen no evidence whatsoever that a murderous beast inhabits this cave that there is no beast?"
"You are," Arthur replied.
"And from the fact that you are here, revealing this to me--am I to understand that you wish to ensure I am the winner of this task?"
Arthur remembered, suddenly, why it was that he did not particularly like Pellean--because he had known Arthur since early youth, and because he said things always as they were and not as others would like to hear them described. Arthur braced his shoulders, however, and said, simply,
Arthur tried desperately to gather his thoughts, thinking that some forward planning on this point would not have gone amiss.
"Pellean," he finally began, "Merlin is … special." One final understatement, for old time's sake, Arthur thought to himself.
"I know, Arthur," said Pellean, and his voice was soft and compassionate in a way that Arthur did not like, so Arthur pressed on before Pellean could move to grip Arthur's left shoulder kindly, or something equally nefarious.
"He is special, Pellean, and he requires that someone keep a constant vigil over him, if he is not to engineer his own death through a foolishness and an inability to see what is right in front of him that know absolutely no bounds."
As his eyes adjusted further in the dark, Arthur saw that Pellean was nodding, and Arthur took from his stance, assured and delighted and proud and resigned at once--which was how Arthur felt about Merlin most of the time--that Pellean really did understand all that Arthur wanted to say, that he understood Merlin as Arthur had understood him in the early days, and that he may yet grow to know him as Arthur knew him now.
"Pellean," he finished, simply, "If you hurt him--"
"Arthur. I won't."
Arthur gave him a long, considering look--as considering a look as one could give in the dark, anyway--before leaning down, robes still fisted in his left hand, and gathering a handful of wet dirt with his right, pressing it to Pellean's palm and saying,
"Here. I should smear that on my face, if I were you. It is my personal experience that one usually looks much worse than you do now after one has had an encounter in a cave with a deadly, nocturnal (or so the villagers report), ravening beast."
Pellean smiled and did as Arthur suggested, and Arthur drew his sword in one swift motion, slicing a shallow cut in Pellean's cheek and a deeper gash across his sword arm before Pellean could lift his own sword.
"For realism's sake--that's good," said Pellean seriously, and he sounded as if he had understood the cuts for the warnings that they were.
"Yes," said Arthur simply, before turning on his heel and going to fetch Mordrain to tell him the sad news of his defeat.
When he found him, walking close to an opening in the cave through which a tiny amount of sunlight flickered, Mordrain took one look at Arthur's face before he moved forward quickly, and gripped Arthur's left shoulder in a kindly and reassuring grip.
The mood as they returned to Camelot was cheerful, Gawain, Gareth, and Lamorat riding ahead to give the news--with a story about Lamorat's early disqualification in the first task readily prepared--and the rest of them plodding towards Camelot at a relaxed pace, Guinevere chatting to Mordrain and Morgana on the other side of Merlin, whose horse--Malfoi was its name, but Arthur did not think Merlin would appreciate finding that out at this point--apparently realising a return to the stables was imminent, was cooperating admirably as Merlin nudged it forward.
Pellean rode alongside Morgana's horse's right flank, his sharp-featured face relaxed in laughter as he spoke to Morgana and Mordrain about his mother's lands to the west of Camelot. Arthur clenched his jaw tightly and fiddled with the tassels on his hat, forcibly reminding himself of the desirability of the moral high ground, and of what he had told Merlin about love and duty, which, for all his anger now, he really did believe.
When they arrived in the castle courtyard, a small crowd had already gathered, and Arthur lowered himself from his horse as gracefully as a life of practice allowed, donned his hat, and declared,
"I am delighted to announce that Sir Pellean, son of Lady Vivien, has been declared the victor in this pursuit. Mordrain, son of Aballach, the castle steward, performed admirably in each of the tasks, and I commend him for his bravery, his skill, and his determination throughout. It is clear that Mordrain is a man of high character, and it is my hope that he will find a match well suited to him in future.
I declare that Sir Pellean was the victor in two out of three tasks in this dispute, and, as Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes, I declare that he may court Merlin, servant to the crown and son of Hunith, and I wish them both a happy courtship and a lasting fulfilment if the courtship is successful," said Arthur, trying to keep his false smile authentically wide while also attempting to modulate it so that it did not spill over into a sign of oncoming madness.
He looked at Merlin--looked at him properly since they had left the cave the afternoon before--and when Merlin smiled warmly at him, his eyes amused under his raised eyebrow and the curve of his lips as intimate as always, Arthur found it in himself to give a genuine smile in return.
Arthur had expected that things would change immediately after their arrival. He had not known exactly what it was he had expected, but it had certainly not been more of the same: Merlin cluttering his room at every inappropriate hour, and absent every time that Arthur truly needed him; Merlin pretending to clear plates from Arthur's table when he was really there to complain about learning under Gaius; Merlin acting as if nothing of import had occurred, calling Arthur an insensitive prat at every opportunity but really, Arthur knew, trying his hardest to cater to Arthur's every need and (legitimate) whim.
Merlin evidently did not understand the concept of 'life-changing upset engineered through careful self-sacrifice', and Arthur was aggrieved to discover that the put-out expression that he had cultivated so carefully on the way back from the suitors' camp wasn't really getting much use at all. If anything, Merlin seemed to be making more of an effort to spend time with Arthur, always chattering about how Arthur really had been right about the tasks revealing intentions, and about awareness giving way to affection, or making it possible for affection that had been there before to bear fruit. Arthur had attempted to look interested, but it had been hard, what with Merlin's nearly incomprehensible speed of speech, Arthur's low-burning hatred of Pellean, and Arthur's icy expectation that any day now, the life-changing upset would show its face.
Arthur did see Merlin and Pellean together--they spoke in the courtyard, sometimes, and Arthur had seen Merlin smile at Pellean when Arthur had sparred with him the day before last--but mostly Merlin spent his time in Arthur's chambers, his smile infectious as always and his hand warm on Arthur's neck when Arthur was sitting down to a meal, or cool between his shoulderblades when Merlin was helping to remove Arthur's hauberk after a spar.
"Hello, Arthur," Merlin would say in the morning, smiling as if he could not possibly be happier at the sight of Arthur waking up as he drew back Arthur's bedcurtains, stoked the fire and complained about Gaius as Arthur dressed.
"Hello, Arthur," Merlin would say in the evening when Arthur came back from long conversations with his father, drawing back Arthur's bedsheets and smiling welcomingly at him as he asked if everything was well and if Arthur would like anything to eat.
The lack of any significant presence of a suitable suitor in Merlin's life--as far as Arthur could tell, anyway--combined with Merlin's carefree behaviour in the face of this fact, were, Arthur reasoned, enough to drive any sensible man to frustration, and Arthur found himself violently torn between the maddening warmth of Merlin's smiles and touches and the freezing certainty that it was only a matter of time.
Arthur was sitting with his father and Morgana, having an afternoon meal while Merlin and Guinevere attended, Merlin putting plates down in front of Arthur and drawing his fingers along Arthur's hand as he bent to clear them away, when Arthur decided he had had enough of the awful, expectant, waiting, and said,
"Merlin--" this as Merlin poured wine as solicitously and as carefully as he never had before "--don't you have somewhere to be?"
"Sire?" asked Merlin quizzically, as if he had no idea what Arthur could possibly mean.
"Your suitor, Merlin," Arthur forced himself to say, gesturing towards the door with his knife and trying not to give away the fact that his white-knuckled grip on the utensil might bend the metal in two at any moment.
"My suitor, sire?" said Merlin, still sounding as if he had no idea who Arthur could possibly be referring to.
"Yes, Merlin--your suitor. Sir Pellean, who held a tree for you, and climbed a mountain, and battled a ravening beast for your honour--" at this Merlin rolled his eyes, as if (admittedly fake) ravening beasts were a thing to scoff at "--and whom I spent the better part of a week selecting for you. Shouldn't you be off somewhere, entertaining his suit, rather than here? Or is it that you require further intervention from me, despite the fact that I have already spent far more of my time than I ever desired to ensuring that a servant could be passed to suitable new ownership?"
Merlin's eyes widened before they narrowed, and he slammed the pitcher he was holding onto a nearby table, sloshing the watery wine over the brim--that was more like it, Arthur reflected--before drawing himself up slowly and saying, slowly and clearly,
"You. You want me to go to Pellean."
"Where else do you suggest you could go, Merlin?" said Arthur, the easy laugh he had been aiming for sounding alarmingly like a death rattle as it scraped out from his throat.
"Oh, I don't know, Arthur--"
Merlin stopped, looking at Morgana and Uther and Gwen before seeming, suddenly, to change what he had been about to say.
"Well," he said softly, his eyes fixed on Arthur's, "If you want me to go to Pellean, then to Pellean it is."
Merlin walked towards the door, stopping before he left the room and turning to look at Arthur intently. "Arthur. I'm going to Pellean now," he repeated, and something in his eyes made Arthur feel as if Merlin was saying something other than what he was, but though Arthur did his best to see, even squinting his right eye a little, all he could see was Merlin, skinny as ever and with a trembling hand poised on the door.
"Very well, then," said Arthur, and after Merlin looked incredulously at him for an instant before turning on his heel and walking quickly from the room, he muttered to himself, "And good riddance, already."
When he looked away from the door, Guinevere was shooting him a look from over a tureen of soup as if Arthur had murdered the small sparrows she kept in Morgana's chambers violently in the night. Morgana was simply looking at Arthur as if he lacked basic mental faculties, but as that look was more or less usual for her, Arthur just turned back to his meal.
It was not until his father said, mildly and seemingly out of the blue, "You know, Arthur--as long as you produce an heir at some point, that's really all that matters," that Arthur finally pushed the plate with the food he was pretending to eat aside, a horrible, no-good, plum-stone feeling rising in his throat.
Because Merlin had taken his rosemary bloom, and Arthur knew for a fact that Merlin had provided Arthur's, and not Pellean's, when Arthur asked for a token to put in Merlin's dispute pouch. And Merlin had come back from the dispute riding not next to Pellean, but to Arthur, and upon their return to the castle he had waited on Arthur hand and foot as he never had, his voice and his touch softer and sweeter than they had ever been. And he had also said, I've made my choice, and once, a lifetime before that, you must learn to listen as well as you fight.
As Arthur thought of all these things, the plum stone in his throat growing wider at every moment and threatening to choke him completely, he pushed his chair back from the table and stood quickly as Morgana said, placidly,
"I would hurry, if I were you."
Arthur ran to his rooms first, yanking the Arbiter's robes from the dresser and the hat from under the bed, and pulling one and then the other over his head as he ran down the corridor, not because he wanted to be wearing them but because this was how the whole wretched mess had begun, and because Arthur had found that the lilac momentarily shocked people into silence, and he was counting on having a moment to think of what to say.
He started by running to Gaius' rooms, before walking, as sedately as was possible (not very sedately at all, unfortunately), to Lady Vivien's rooms in the far end of the castle keep; when he found Merlin at neither, he ran outside and cast his eyes over the courtyard before he thought of the last time he had seen Merlin and Pellean together, as they had walked together slowly towards the castle stables the day before, Lamorat laughing beside them.
When Arthur came around the stable door and found Merlin and Pellean sitting on a bale of hay, Merlin gesticulating wildly as he spoke and Pellean nodding in understanding, he cleared his throat and, before he could stop himself, found himself saying, incomprehensibly and with no justification whatsoever,
"Merlin, Pellean. I'm afraid I am here in my capacity as Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes."
Merlin cast a baleful eye over Arthur's robes, but Pellean only smiled at Arthur warmly before standing up and saying,
"Right. Well--I was just leaving. That is, unless you need me for this official Arbiter's business that you have come to carry out, Arthur."
Arthur could swear that Pellean's lips were twitching, and he made a note to have Merlin sharpen Arthur's sword as much as was physically possible before Arthur had to spar with Pellean again.
"No. You should leave, Pellean." When Pellean outright grinned at him, Arthur amended, "I mean, you may leave. I do not require you. For this business."
Arthur felt a foolish desire to say something else, but what? Thank you, and I'm sorry I cut your face? From the look on Pellean's face, however, it was clear that he understood the sentiment without Arthur needing to speak.
Pellean gave Merlin a lazy lift of his hand as he walked from the stables, and Merlin waved back before turning to Arthur and saying, sullenly,
"Well? What is it?"
Arthur had really not thought this far ahead, having hoped he could get by on lilac fabric and bravery alone, and he was forcefully reminded of why being the sort of man who did not leave things to chance had such advantages as he struggled for the right thing to say--for anything to say. He looked at Merlin, saying nothing, before removing his hat and twisting the tassels in his hands.
"Well," he said. "Merlin. Son of Hunith. I came to tell you. I came to tell you that--" a dragon tassel came off in his hand after a particularly violent yank, and Arthur felt a wave of rising horror at this tragedy that only grew in scope and size as Merlin stood up from the hay bale, making his way over to Arthur and looking first at the snapped tassel and then, appraisingly, into Arthur's eyes.
"I thought you were here in your official capacity as Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes," said Merlin, his smile subtle and warm.
"Yes, well, I--" said Arthur, before he changed his mind and said, "I lied."
Merlin's eyes were brilliant, and when he surged forward, his lips soft and warm against Arthur's own, he fit so neatly into the circle of Arthur's arms that Arthur forgot all about the snapped tassel, drew Merlin to him tightly, and almost dropped the hat into the dust.
Arthur courted Merlin for precisely three days.
He'd read the Young Royal's Guide to Etiquette too many times to really feel comfortable with anything less, though he would admit that his long years of careful study had been almost impossible to remember when Merlin had been in his arms in the stables, warm and yielding and perfect.
Arthur had forced himself to think of Geoffrey's unpleasant, musty-smelling, Guide-bestowing, gnarled hands, and to push himself back and away from Merlin's lips, as was proper, but Merlin's look had been wounded, and guarded, when Arthur had pulled back, and so Arthur had kissed him again, inappropriately but uncaring that it was so, before he had said,
"The whole purpose of a dispute is to ensure that the man or woman at the centre of it will be courted properly, Merlin."
"I thought you said the only purpose of the dispute was to avoid upheaval in the court."
"You lied?" Merlin had asked with a smile.
"Not precisely," Arthur had said, affronted, "but I would like to court you properly nonetheless. Do you understand?"
Merlin had smiled softly, shyly, before kissing Arthur again and whispering yes against his mouth.
On the first day, Arthur gave Merlin a sword of his own.
Merlin had not looked particularly impressed, but Arthur tried to make clear that a man such as Merlin really could not be doing without any sword-fighting skills, and he had made vague hand gestures to indicate that he would teach Merlin himself--truly this time--before Merlin smiled at him again and launched himself at Arthur for a kiss.
One kiss turned into two, and two turned into twenty, and before Arthur knew it he had Merlin bent over the trestle table in his chambers, Merlin's legs wrapped firmly around Arthur's waist, and if it had not been for the fact that the Young Royal's Guide had been looming angrily at Arthur from where it sat above one of Arthur's trunks, Arthur would never have found it in himself to pull away and say,
"We'll begin tomorrow, then."
On the second day, Arthur gave Merlin a brooch with the Pendragon crest, just as the one he had dropped outside the cave for Pellean to collect, and Merlin smiled at him slowly before pushing back from him and unhurriedly pulling the edge of his breeches down to reveal the curve of his left hip.
Arthur was midway through a careful mental recitation of the table of contents of the Guide to Etiquette, reminding himself forcefully of his noble courting intentions by digging his nails into his palms, before he finally saw what Merlin was hoping to show him: a small birthmark, almost hidden under Merlin's nail as he pointed to it with great import, clearly expecting Arthur to identify some significance that Merlin clearly ascribed to it.
"What is it?" asked Arthur.
"A dragon, of course," said Merlin with a laugh, and Arthur looked again and concluded that if one used a copious amount of imagination and were truly inclined to see it, the birthmark did look a little like a tiny, grievously misshapen, dragon curled over Merlin's hip, coiled like its twin on the brooch that Merlin held tightly in his hand.
Arthur reached out a finger to trace the mark gently, and Merlin pulled him close and said, against his neck, "I was born with it." --It's a birthmark, Merlin, Arthur thought-- "Like the magic, you see. But I never really saw it properly before I came here."
On the third day, Arthur threw The Young Royal's Guide to Etiquette from his chamber windows in a fit of pique. He stormed to Morgana's rooms, plucked a flower from a vase, and went to find Merlin in Gaius' rooms, where he pushed the summer tulip into Merlin's hand and said, roughly, "Here," before pulling Merlin to him, as close as he would go.
Merlin kissed Arthur like he had fought on the practice field the day before: with absolutely no finesse and threatening accidental death at every turn.
Arthur pulled him closer, and then closer again, palming Merlin's hip through his tunic, and Merlin whispered against his mouth, as he had done every day for the past three, "Arthur, now?"
Arthur walked them back to his rooms with an urgency befitting matters of war and matters of war alone, and when he shut the door behind him, Merlin slid back into his arms as if he had never been anywhere else, and Arthur kissed him, trembling, something hot and unnamed and needy coursing through his veins, though Arthur could not say precisely what it was.
When Merlin pushed him back into the bed, drawing Arthur's linen shirt over his head and smoothing his hands over Arthur's forearms before pinning Arthur's wrists gently to the bed, Arthur knew, suddenly, what the fire running through his blood was, and so he--he, who was a complete stranger to surrender--yielded under Merlin's hands and let Merlin do as he pleased.
This time it was Arthur who wrapped his legs around Merlin's waist, his shoulders trembling where they lay flat against the bedsheets, and as Merlin bent his head to kiss Arthur's lips and face and neck, Arthur whispered a dozen impossible true things in his ear: I love you and I'm sorry I'm such an idiot and Merlin, Merlin and--though Arthur would deny this until the day he died--Merlin, like that. Harder.
Afterwards, Merlin lay beside him, his hands running over Arthur's arms and belly and thighs as if he were gentling a skittish horse, and Arthur rolled them over, kissing Merlin once, twice, seven times, refusing to stop until Merlin wrapped his legs around Arthur's waist again.
When Arthur woke up, Merlin was wandering around the room naked, stoking the fire and running his fingers over the furniture as if his being undressed in Arthur's rooms was the most natural thing in the world.
Arthur watched him from under half-closed eyelids, thinking that this was what Merlin would be like one day, when he didn't have to shroud his magic any longer--carefree, and graceful, moving unencumbered as he was now, curious but impossibly at home in Arthur's chambers.
"Merlin," said Arthur, finally, "Come back to bed."
Merlin shot him a playful look over one shoulder, and said only, "In a minute," before padding towards the dresser and opening the drawer that held Arthur's Arbiter's robes.
"What do you think?" he said, bunching the lilac fabric in his hand and gesturing towards Arthur, "Shall you come to me in bed one night wearing these and nothing else?"
I think, Arthur thought grumpily, that you are crumpling the fabric and that those creases will not come out.
Out loud, however, he said only, "Maybe. Though I'll admit I have no desire to have need of those robes in your presence, ever again. Come back to bed."
Merlin beamed at him, looking, for an instant, as young as he had looked when he had first arrived in Camelot, and he reached into the drawer and brought out the chest in which Arthur kept suitors' tokens, cradling it in his arms and walking back to the bed to lie face-down, opening the box in front of him and intertwining his legs with Arthur's as he did so.
"Ettard, Elaine, and Enide," Merlin read carefully, as his fingers rifled through the pouches. He gently eased the drawstring of one of the small bags open, and peeked carefully inside before saying, "Arthur--is that a chicken bone?"
Arthur opened his mouth to explain, but Merlin shook the chicken bone at him and said, "Never mind. I don't want to know." He hummed happily and returned the chicken bone to its pouch before opening another bag, and another after that.
Arthur allowed himself to doze, drifting in and out of consciousness as Merlin prattled his way contentedly through the contents of each pouch. Suddenly, though, Merlin said, "Ahh--here it is. Merlin," and Arthur's eyes shot open, all of his muscles tense; he only just resisted the urge to snatch the bag from Merlin's hands--a bag that was decidedly not supposed to be in the chest--as Merlin inspected the pouch's label carefully.
"How come the suitors' names aren't written on here?" asked Merlin distractedly as he worked the drawstring. "I guess there were quite a few of them, really--did their names not fit?"
Arthur simply watched in something akin to horror as Merlin upended the pouch, the smell of rosemary drifting upwards as the needles of the rosemary sprig scattered on the bed.
"Arthur," Merlin said quietly, and Arthur looked at him out of the corner of one eye, and out of that corner alone. "What is all this? Is that--Arthur, is that one of my mother's earrings?"
Arthur was silent in the hopes that Merlin would think Arthur was asleep and lose interest, or perhaps accidentally fall from the bed and knock himself unconscious.
"This--it's a fang from the snake, isn't it? The snake from Valiant's shield?" Merlin whispered.
Arthur set his mouth and refused to speak.
"And this--it's a pebble from the beach at Gedref; I recognise it, because the colour is so light--I've never seen stones like this in Camelot. My mother's earring--and a button from the jacket you wore the night we were hunting the giant hound, and it bit my arm and I bled on you all the way home."
Merlin looked wonderingly at Arthur, and Arthur did his best to return the look with as steady and certain a gaze as he could.
When Merlin held up a small, dark, quartz, cocking his head inquisitively, Arthur said--because really, it was a little too late to dissemble--
"From the cave. Where I found the Mortius flower."
"And this chain," said Merlin "--it's from the vial I brought back, with the water of life. Wait--you knew about that?"
"Not then," said Arthur quickly. "Gaius told me, a few months later."
Merlin continued to sift through the contents of the pouch--pebbles from two different hunts, a strip of Merlin's scarf where it had torn when he'd used it to press against the cut on Arthur's leg on that one trip, and it had snagged on Arthur's belt. A coin that Arthur had had in his pocket when he had chased Merlin through the marketplace, after they had first met. There's something about you, Merlin.
Arthur tried frantically to think of what he could possibly say to explain his magpie-ish and utterly sentimental behaviour. It was surprisingly difficult to think of anything, but finally, he settled on,
"I've been the Royal Arbiter for Suitable Suitors' Disputes for almost three years now, as you know, Merlin. It's only natural that I have become interested in the material history of courtships and friendships. My interest in the collection of artefacts such as these--it's purely professional."
Merlin smiled wickedly before darting forward as quickly as Arthur had ever seen anyone move, pressing his lips against Arthur's ear and whispering, hotly, "Arthur. I love you. I will always love you."
Merlin pulled back and turned his attention back to the pebbles and trinkets so quickly that Arthur wondered if he had imagined it. The glint in Merlin's eyes made it clear that he had not, but out loud, Merlin only said,
"Of course--I know it is." He smiled. "What else could it possibly be?"