It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the apples were ripe. The tavern was going to have a traveling band of musicians play that night, which meant there would be dancing. The patrols had all reported peace throughout the kingdom and Arthur had already come back from his latest hunting trip, so he wasn’t about to order them all to ready their horses for another sojourn out in the woods.
Tonight, Gwaine was going to have a good time and damn anyone who expected him to be out of bed in the morning.
Or so he thought.
The moment Merlin approached him in the courtyard, Gwaine felt his stomach drop. Oh, Merlin was smiling and for all the world, looked to be carefree, but Gwaine knew his friend better than that. The smile didn’t reach his eyes - and his eyes made Gwaine’s blood run cold.
“Gwaine, could you do me a favour?” Merlin asked, never wavering from the smile.
“Of course,” Gwaine answered, and he smiled back, because if that was the game they were playing, then he would play along. He looked around briefly to see if anyone was watching - perhaps this show was for someone else - but he couldn’t see anybody within earshot and no one seemed to be paying them any attention.
“I was wondering, if you could ready my horse for me tonight,” Merlin said. “Then bring it to the courtyard and… uh… if you could just wait there for a bit, I’d appreciate it.”
Gwaine paused and studied Merlin’s face. He was still smiling, but the fear was still in his eyes, and now it seemed to have been joined by nervousness. Gwaine realized that he had never in his life known Merlin to be afraid - no, that wasn’t true, he’d seen him afraid, but only afraid for Arthur’s well-being.
“What’s going on?” Gwaine asked. “Should I ready Arthur’s horse as well… or my own?”
Merlin smile twitched into something bittersweet for only a moment. “No, just mine - I’m just going to pick herbs tonight for Gaius. Special ones - have to be picked at midnight.” Gwaine could actually see Merlin come to a thought, and then he continued quickly. “Actually, now that you mention it, since Arthur won’t be coming with me - could you use his saddle on my horse. I know it’s not… uh, proper, for a servant to use the King’s saddle, but between you and me, I think it has a bit more padding.”
Gwaine laughed genuinely and winked. “It’ll be a secret between us, my friend. But you shouldn’t go riding alone at night, Merlin,” Gwaine pressed on. “I’ll come with you.”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Merlin replied. “I won’t be going far - it’s just, erm, I don’t have time to ready my horse, what with attending Arthur and all, and he said… he said I could, er, with the new position he gave me a few weeks ago, when Dean and Sam were here - remember? He said I could ask people to help with my chores, erm… I know, I know he meant stablehands and...not… not knights, but… the stablehands…they all have families and I don’t want to keep them so late.”
“Fair enough,” Gwaine conceded, if only to stop Merlin’s rambling excuse. “I suppose Arwel’s wife did just give birth not two months ago, I’m sure she’d be happy to have her husband home at a decent hour.”
“Exactly,” Merlin’s smile widened, obviously relieved.
“I had grand plans for the tavern, Merlin,” Gwaine complained. “But, I suppose it will still be open once I see you off.”
“I’ll be sure not to be late,” Merlin nodded, his smile once again turning strained. Gwaine kept his own false cheer plastered on his face, while his mind racing. Merlin was lying. “Thanks so much, Gwaine, you’re a true friend.”
“Anytime,” Gwaine replied, as seriously as he could, while still keeping the cheer in his voice.
“Wish me luck then,” Merlin said as he turned to go.
As parting words, they didn’t make sense from their conversation, but Gwaine replied sincerely. “Good luck, Merlin.”
He watched Merlin walk away for a moment, trying not to feel as though it was the last time he’d see his friend… but that’s exactly what it felt like, and a heavy weight of dread settled in Gwaine’s stomach. He changed his course and headed back to his rooms. He needed time to think. No, he changed course again and headed for the tavern - this was the sort of thinking best done with a mug of ale.
The thoughts swirled in his head, as he walked through town, entered the tavern, sat down, and ordered his ale. He barely paid any mind to the bar-keeper or anyone else in tavern for that matter. Was he overreacting? Surely, it must just be as Merlin said - a simple errand and some consideration to the recently child-afflicted stablehand... but Merlin always readied his own horse and the stable was closer to the forest than the courtyard. So, the simplest answer was that Merlin wanted to leave on his errand as quickly as possible, rather than take the extra few minutes to walk to the stable and ready his horse.
Why? What was the rush? For herbs? The herbs had to be a lie - though, Gwaine had a memory of Gauis telling Arthur about Merlin running errands for him at night in the past. It was, they had assumed, part of the reason that Merlin had been suffering from exhaustion and therefore so slow to recover from the vampire attack over a month ago. Gwaine sighed, he thought of how the mercenary, Dean, had sat next to him in that very bar and discussed Merlin like he knew something that Gwaine didn’t. Gwaine felt the exact same way now, only there was no target for his questions other than Merlin himself - and Gwaine knew Merlin well enough to know he’d be getting no answers there.
Gwaine glanced at his ale and then at the empty stool where Dean had sat.
“What did you know then?” Gwaine muttered.
He closed his eyes and thought back. Dean had asked him where his loyalties lay, the conversation had haunted Gwaine for some time. If he had to choose between his spoken oath to Arthur, or his unspoken oath to Merlin… but the question had been ridiculous, because there was no one more loyal than Merlin to Arthur and Arthur to Merlin. Dean had only been concerned because it was obvious that Merlin had been overworked at the time.
But no, that wasn’t right either, because Dean hadn’t asked Gwaine what he would do if Merlin was mistreated or abused in some manner. Dean had asked him what he would do if Arthur ordered Merlin’s execution.
Gwaine felt the icy hand of fear grip his heart.
“You make it sound like you know something I don’t”
“...call it a hunch.”
Merlin had asked Gwaine to ready a horse. He had asked Gwaine to bring it to the courtyard. He had asked Gwaine to use Arthur’s saddle. If the King called for his horse after Merlin’s horse had already been prepared and taken away, the stablehands would waste time trying to find a saddle that wasn’t there. Merlin had asked the horse to be waiting in the courtyard, because he didn’t want to take the time to walk to the stable…
No, Gwaine thought. It wasn’t possible. The only offenses that warranted execution were murder, treachery, and magic - and Merlin was incapable of the first, too loyal for the second, and…
Gwaine paid for his ale in a blind rush, as he all but ran out of the tavern. Dean had known something about Merlin - how had he known?
“I barely know the King and I only met Merlin this morning,” he had said. Dean - a mercenary with an accent that Gwaine had never heard before, trained since birth to fight monsters that were summoned by a sorcerer from a different realm - how many possible times could that have happened? How did Dean build up the skill and knowledge? It didn’t make sense unless…
Gwaine came to a stop and leaned against a wall, steadying his breath as the world seemed to tilt around him. He was back in the courtyard, now staring up at what he knew to be the windows of Arthur’s bedroom. Merlin would be able to see Gwaine and the horse in the courtyard that evening. When Merlin helped prepare the King for bed, he’d be able to look down and know that Gwaine had kept his word, that the horse was there, that it held Arthur’s saddle.
“Gwaine?” a soft voice spoke, as a familiar figure approached him. “Are you alright?”
“Percival,” Gwaine said, turning to look at his friend. “I need a favour.”
That evening, Gwaine sat on the step to the palace holding the reigns of a horse. Merlin’s horse was well trained - one of their best horses, though Gwaine doubted Merlin knew that - and the horse probably wouldn’t wander if Gwaine let go of the rains, but Gwaine needed it to stay exactly where it was, and he needed Merlin to see that he had fulfilled his promise.
The sun had set, the evening meal long over, and all around him in the castle, Gwaine could see the lamp glow in the windows disappear one by one, as people either blew out their candles or closed their curtains. His eyes, though, were fixed on the shiny buckle at the horse’s shoulder. He didn’t dare turn and look himself, he didn’t want to make Merlin suspicious - but there, in the shiny buckle of Arthur’s saddle, he could see the glow from the royal bed chamber.
It wasn’t a clear reflection, but it was enough to see the shadow pause in the window just before the heavy drapes were drawn. Gwaine waited only a brief moment, before he stood and turned beckoned into the darkness.
Percival came forward slowly leading a second horse out of the darkness.
“It was just as you said,” Percival reported. “He came to the window, looked down at you, and then closed the curtains.”
Gwaine nodded, passing over the reigns of Merlin’s horse to his fellow knight, for now at least. Merlin’s horse seemed happy to no longer be held in one position, and it shifted on it’s feet and greeted Gwaine’s horse.
“Will you really not tell me what’s going on?” Percival continued.
“Just, wait here until either I or Merlin tell you otherwise,” Gwaine replied. “Promise me that.”
“Of course,” Percival replied. “Gwaine-”
“It’s for Merlin,” Gwaine repeated, which was all he had told Percival earlier too. And with that, Gwaine hurried into the palace. He knew Percival had questions. Gwaine’s horse had its saddlebag packed. Merlin’s did not, because Merlin hadn’t instructed Gwaine to do so, so Gwaine had packed extra in his own, just in case.
He tried to walk casually whenever guards were about, but otherwise, he ran through the halls. There were no guards outside Arthur’s door - there wouldn’t be unless the court was worried about a threat to the King. Gwaine could see the firelight flickering beneath the door frame. He could hear muffled voices from within - the King, possibly the Queen, most definitely Merlin.
His heart was pounding in his chest, but he didn’t dare put his ear to the door. Instead, he crouched a few paces down the corridor, where he could see the light under the door, he could hear the cadence of speech, if not the words, and he waited. He felt his hand going to his sword hilt by reflex, the feeling of his muscles coiling, anticipating a sudden need to move, to run, to act.
It seemed an age. At times, the voices rose, and Gwaine tensed, half leaving his position, his sword half-drawn, but then the voices would quiet again, and Gwaine would force himself to relax, his eyes fixed on the firelight under the door, the cadence of the voices - the intermittent soft tread of feet on the floor.
Finally, the voices quieted, became less frequent, softer. Gwaine heard the bed creak. The firelight coming from under the door dimmed, as Merlin - please let it be Merlin - blew out the candles and snuffed the lamps.
Gwaine straightened, trying to appear relaxed. He purposefully removed his hand from his sword hilt, and leaned casually against the wall.
The door open and Merlin stepped out, Gwaine held his breath. Merlin didn’t even look into the hallway, he faced Arthur’s room as he closed the door, and then he stood and leaned his head against the door. Gwaine waited. The silence was suddenly a sacred thing.
When Merlin stepped back from the door and turned to the hallway, he startled at the sight of Gwaine. There was no avoiding it. Gwaine still felt bad. Merlin’s eyes were red-rimmed, his pale cheeks blotchy.
“Will you be needing the horse?” Gwaine whispered.
Merlin took a deep breath. “No, I don’t think I will be. I think… I think I’ll just go to bed.” Merlin smiled, a soft small smile, but it was real, and that was all Gwaine could hope for. “I’m sorry,” Merlin continued. “I made you wait so long for nothing.”
“Don’t be,” Gwaine replied, he didn’t smile. “I’m glad of it.”
Gwaine motioned down the hallway and Merlin stepped forward, falling into step beside Gwaine, as he turned and led them back through the palace. The silence was thick. Gwaine did not mention Merlin’s small sniffles. Merlin did not question what Gwaine had been doing in the corridor rather than the courtyard.
When they exited into the night air, Merlin took a sharp breath, as Percival stood up from the steps and turned to greet them - the reigns of their two horses held loosely in one large hand.
“We won’t be needing the horses after all, Percival,” Gwaine said. “Could you take them back to the stables. I’ll join you in a minute to help unsaddle them.”
“Is everything alright?” Percival asked, looking at Merlin, who was scrubbing fresh tears off his cheeks.
“If you’re certain...” Percival replied.
Merlin nodded again. “Yes, Percival, thank you. I’m sorry about the wait.”
Percival smiled. “Anything for you, Merlin.” And then he turned and led the horses back across the cobblestone.
Gently putting his hand on Merlin’s arm, he guided him down the steps from the palace. Merlin was still watching the horses leave, biting his lip and looking more bewildered then he had any right to be. Making a quick decision, Gwaine halted Merlin before he reached the bottom of the stairs. Quickly, Gwaine moved down two steps so that he could stand in front of Merlin and look up at him. He reached out and grasped Merlin’s hand, and held it tightly.
“I never worried about conflicting oaths, because there are none more loyal to each other than you and Arthur. But never forget, Merlin, I am, and will always be, your man first.”
“Gwaine-” Merlin breathed out in a rush, but he didn’t seem to know what to say beyond that, so Gwaine smiled, and raised Merlin’s hand, kissing the back of it deliberately.
“Will I see you tomorrow, Merlin?” Gwaine asked, as he released Merlin’s hand, and lifted his head.
“Yes,” Merlin said, his eyes truthful and once again swimming with tears.
Gwaine nodded, satisfied, and made to step away, but Merlin reached out and grabbed his shoulder, halting him. Merlin descended the last two steps before pulling Gwaine into a hug. When Merlin pulled back, he only pulled back enough to rest his forehead on Gwaine’s own.
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered into the air between them.
They stood like that for a moment, before Merlin stepped back, gave Gwaine a smile, and then turned and walked towards Gaius’ chambers.
Gwaine went the opposite direction towards the stables. As he passed underneath the windows of the royal chambers, he looked up, and gave the shadow there a nod.
The next day dawned like any other and Gwaine marveled at how everyone went about their day, as if there weren’t a heavy air of anticipation to every minute, to every breath. The King held court as usual, with Merlin standing behind him as always. The meeting at the Round Table went similarly. It was obvious that Arthur hadn’t slept well, but beyond that, nothing was out of the ordinary. Arthur offered little comment on the meetings affairs, but that, in itself, wasn’t too unusual - there wasn’t much activity in the Kingdom presently, certainly nothing that needed to be addressed immediately.
“Gwaine, remain a moment, I want a word,” Arthur ordered at the end of the meeting, as the other knights left the room. Gwaine felt the tension of the day fissure, as he nodded and stepped back towards the table.
Merlin, who had, apparently, been expecting to leave the room, quickly shifted back to remain with Arthur, but the King turned to him and shook his head. “Merlin, please bring my lunch to my chambers - double portions. I’ll join you there soon.”
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin nodded, and, after casting a concerned look towards Gwaine, left the room.
Arthur stood behind his chair, his arms folded across the back. Gwaine didn’t sit back down, but instead stood on the other side of the table, behind his own chair.
“How long have you known?” Arthur asked.
“Known what, Your Highness?”
Arthur scowled. “Don’t play stupid, Gwaine, not today - I’m not in the mood. How long have you known about Merlin?”
“Nearly a day,” Gwaine answered honestly.
This seemed to surprise Arthur, as he straightened and stared at Gwaine for a moment.
“He told you only yesterday? When?” Arthur asked.
Gwaine shook his head. “He didn’t tell me, Sire.” Gwaine took a deep breath, he told himself that it wasn’t a betrayal, as Merlin hadn’t told him to keep it a secret - and Arthur, most likely, had seen the horses. “Yesterday, after lunch, Merlin approached me in the courtyard for a favour. He asked me to saddle his horse - just his horse - at night and bring it to the courtyard.”
“And then he must have told you why-”
“No,” Gwaine repeated. “He told me he had an errand for Gaius, but I knew it was a lie.”
“Did you ask him for the truth?”
Gwaine laughed. “No, I trust Merlin.”
“But he lied to you,” Arthur muttered, confused.
“If Merlin lies to me, it is for a reason,” Gwaine shrugged. “Usually, I don’t concern myself with it, but yesterday...it was different. I was worried.”
“What was different?” Arthur asked, and his voice dropped into something soft.
“Merlin was… frightened.”
Arthur scoffed, a small smile playing at his lips for the first time that day. “Merlin is often frightened.”
“No, he isn’t, not… truly. Not like yesterday. You must have seen it too,” Gwaine pressed.
Arthur took a deep breath and nodded, the smile vanishing.
“I went to the tavern to think,” Gwaine continued with his story. Arthur rolled his eyes, but made no comment. “It was there that I… when the mercenaries were here, Dean and Sam, I had a drink with Dean in the tavern.” Gwaine continued. At the names of the mercenaries, Arthur stood up straight, and if Gwaine had felt under the King’s attention before, it was nothing like now. “He said something then, that my mind went back to as I thought of Merlin.”
“What did Dean say?” Arthur asked.
“He asked… he asked what I would do if you ordered Merlin’s execution,” Gwaine admitted.
“What did you answer?” Arthur all but whispered.
“I told him you wouldn’t do such a thing,” Gwaine replied, as he locked his gaze with Arthur’s.
“Oh, but he would have pressed,” Arthur smiled humorlessly. “What did you answer then?”
Gwaine glanced away. “We both know what I answered.”
“And was Dean satisfied?” Arthur asked, instead of pressing further himself.
“Yes,” Gwaine replied.
Arthur simply nodded. Gwaine swallowed and tried to calm his racing heart.
“Sir Gwaine,” Arthur addressed him, his voice suddenly that of a King and not of a friend. “I’m reassigning you.”
“Yes, Sire?” Gwaine replied, and he couldn’t help the straightening of his spine, or the way his body still as he awaited his orders. His heart, meanwhile, was in his throat, as the possibilities of what Arthur intended ran through his head.
“In the coming weeks and months, there will be some changes coming to Camelot,” Arthur began. “There may be some who do not like these changes - I may be one of them, I haven’t decided yet. As of right now, I need to be able to rely on those I trust and trust those I rely on. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sire,” Gwaine replied, although he wasn’t sure he did.
“Good,” Arthur held Gwaine’s eyes. “Your new assignment is to protect Merlin, at all costs, from any and all threats to his life.”
“Yes, Sire,” Gwaine replied, his blood rushing with equal parts relief and gratitude.
“And, Gwaine, that includes if that threat is me,” Arthur added.
“Yes, Arthur,” Gwaine replied, but then he shook his head. “But I will not need to. Whatever doubt you may have, whatever hurt you currently feel, you will overcome it. There is no one more loyal than you to Merlin and Merlin to you, and there is nothing that can break that.”
Arthur took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, before he nodded once. “You’re dismissed.”
Gwaine bowed his head, and then turned to leave. As he opened the door, Arthur’s voice stopped him short.
“Good work, Gwaine.”
Gwaine turned and smiled. “Thanks, Princess”, and with a wink, he slipped out into the hall.