No Job For a King
No Job For a King
There were days, Arthur Pendragon reflected, when it was easy to sense that Merlin had something on his mind that he felt needed his king's attention. There were signs aplenty, from the sudden lack of disrespectful quips to the nervous shuffling of his feet. Arthur had witnessed it many times before.
His servant however had not realised he was on to him, so he only looked puzzled. 'Sire?'
It took Arthur a lot of effort to stop himself from giving a very unkingly eye roll in response. 'Merlin, if there is something you have to say to me, you know you can tell me, don't you?' He would never admit to this except when he was gravely injured or drunk, but he did value Merlin's input. He had a quick eye and had often spotted danger long before Arthur saw it.
Merlin looked surprised. 'Why would I do that?' he asked. 'You never listen!'
Maybe he should count it a good sign that Merlin had regained his ability to be his usual cheeky self, but he didn't. 'You're evading the question,' he observed. 'What did you want to tell me?'
Oh, there was definitely something. He was twisting Arthur's cloak around in his hands, almost as if he didn't realise he was even doing it. And whatever it was he was about to say, Arthur was most certainly not going to like it. Otherwise he would never have shown such reluctance. He wondered whether he really wanted to know what Merlin had to tell him after all.
But it was too late for such reservations, because Merlin had apparently plucked up his courage and blurted out: 'I need you to come with me.'
Arthur imagined his eyebrows must be up at his hairline after that announcement. 'I need. To come. With you?' There was absolutely no sense to be made of any of that. 'Merlin, you do know I am the king, so I give the orders?' You'd say he would have learned that much in all the years he had been Arthur's manservant, but apparently not.
'Yes.' At least Merlin was looking at him now and there had only been very little hesitation before he replied.
'Merlin, if you want me to come and meet your girl, then I'm afraid I really don't have the time to spare.'
He had a slight suspicion of where this was going and he decided to nip it in the bud. Of course, when Guinevere had told him that Merlin was seeing a girl, his first reaction had been to feel sorry for the girl in question. On reflection though it was more hilarious that Merlin, who had almost no social skills to speak of, had ever managed to find himself a girl who reciprocated his interest. Truth be told, he had never seen Merlin show the slightest interest in any girl, but then, who knew who he ran into when he spent his time in the tavern.
'It's not about the girl.' To his surprise Merlin looked deeply unhappy.
Things had not quite gone according to plan then. 'Did she leave you?' It was tempting, so very tempting to turn that into a joke as well, but Arthur had gone through some heartbreak of his own and Merlin had never made fun of that either, so he owed it to him not to do it now.
Merlin was losing patience. 'It's not about the girl!' he exclaimed, before he remembered himself and lowered his voice. 'Well, it's about a girl, but not that girl and…' Probably realising that he was starting to babble incomprehensibly, he fell quiet and began again. 'I need you to come with me.'
'You said that,' Arthur said. 'Merlin, it is not for you to give the commands here.'
'Yes, because you are the king,' Merin agreed in a rather put-upon voice, as if he had all seen and heard it many times before. He might have; there was cause to remind him quite frequently. 'But there is something I need you to see.'
'You can just tell me, you know,' he said. Something was not entirely right about the way he kept fibbing. Generally when he acted like that he was about to accuse someone of treason or something similar. And if Arthur was entirely honest, he would have to admit that he had not always listened when he had told him truths he didn't want to know in the past, but he had learned his lesson. Surely Merlin knew this? True enough, he hadn't told Merlin so, but Merlin would have noticed. Of this he was sure.
'No, you need to see it,' he insisted.
'Very well!' he gave in. 'Where do we go? Gaius's rooms?' That was where they usually went when there was something to be seen. And at least it wasn't far. He could go there and still be back in time for the training session he had to attend in a little under an hour.
'No,' Merlin said. 'I don't know exactly where yet. And we are not going now.'
Every time when he thought he had Merlin figured out, he did something that left him wondering all over again. 'Merlin…' he said warningly.
He had been acting queer for weeks already, disappearing for days on end, not showing up for his duties. One day he had been about to make for the tavern to drag his sorry arse out of there when Merlin came running into his chambers, clothes ruffled and leaves and mud in his hair. Arthur remembered asking if he had been to meet his girl and Merlin had coloured a bright crimson, which quelled any wish for Arthur to want to know more. 'If you want to see your girl, make sure you meet her after working hours,' he'd said, ignoring Merlin's muttered 'It's never after working hours.'
'You have to trust me,' Merlin interjected, effectively silencing his king.
He didn't like it. He really didn't like it. And he had a feeling that Merlin knew only too well that he was using the one trick that he could not refuse. He had not trusted Merlin on one too many occasions and Merlin had gotten far too many opportunities to say I told you so. Not that he'd always done it; he valued his head on his shoulders.
So he reacted with a quip. 'And why would I do that, Merlin?' he questioned. 'I can't even trust you to polish my armour on time.'
'I can always ask George to do it for you,' Merlin countered.
Arthur's nose wrinkled of its own volition. He had been very near bored to death by that servant and although he had gotten a good laugh out of forcing Merlin to learn from him, if he never saw George again it would be too soon. True, he was what an ideal servant looked like, but Arthur found him sorely lacking in some departments, most importantly the fact that he wasn't Merlin. Clumsy idiot he may be, but at least he livened the place up a bit.
'That won't be necessary,' he said. 'I am sure you'll manage to find some time in between your many outings to give it another go.'
His face lit up. 'Does that mean you'll come with me?'
He hadn't said anything of the sort, had he? But he might as well; it didn't look like Merlin would stop nagging. 'Does that mean you'll shut up?'
'Of course, sire,' Merlin said, the very image of the docile servant, were it not for the relieved grin plastered all over his face.
'Put on my armour, Merlin,' he ordered. It was his turn now to sound as though he was thoroughly tired of this routine. 'I'm not you; I can't spend all my day lazing about. I've got a training session to attend.'
Still, the grin did not disappear. 'Of course, sire.'
What have I agreed to?
As it was, he didn't have to wait that long to find out and he had even less time to wonder. It was one of those rare days when there were no matters of state requiring his urgent attention and there were no diplomatic envoys demanding hospitality and heaven knew what else. And it had been far too long since he had been at liberty to spend as much time as he wanted at the training ground. It felt good to have a sword in his hand again and to hone his skills. Sometimes, when there were too many council sessions and too many foreign envoys, he felt that his skills were going rusty and that was not a pleasant feeling at all.
So there was little time to wonder about Merlin's strange behaviour. Not that he wondered much about what Merlin got up to when he wasn't making sure Arthur had everything he needed, but his strange conduct of late had warranted a thought or two. In the privacy of his own mind he might even admit to being slightly worried.
He took his meal with the knights afterwards and enjoyed the simple camaraderie among them. Gwaine was talking loudest – and drinking most, Arthur noted; it was a good thing he was not on duty tonight – and by the time he left, Arthur found himself in need of a little peace and quiet, and some company from Guinevere, who didn't feel the need to speak at a volume audible at the other side of the castle.
Unfortunately it was the King of Mindless Chatter and not his wife who awaited him in his chambers. Well, there was nothing else for it. 'Help me out of my armour, will you?' he asked wearily. 'And then fetch me a hot bath. My armour needs polishing, my sword needs sharpening and someone really has to do the laundry.'
'We have to go.'
For a moment Arthur was as puzzled and confused as he had been that morning, but then he recalled that he had more or less agreed to accompany Merlin to wherever he wished to go – he hoped that it was not the tavern – and had he not trusted his manservant like he had, then he might have suspected that Merlin was leading him into some kind of trap. It was already dark outside and he didn't have a clue as to where they were actually going.
'Right now?' he asked stupidly.
'Yes, right now.' There was an unfamiliar determination in Merlin's voice. Arthur knew one thing for sure; he did not like the sound of this.
He had agreed to this, so there was little choice but to go with Merlin. Still, he could not help but put up a token protest. 'You haven't forgotten who's the king here, have you, Merlin?'
'Never, sire. Are you coming or not? We're falling behind!' Now that he said it, it occurred to Arthur that Merlin was indeed quite antsy, hopping from one foot to the other as if he couldn't wait to get going. If only he showed such eagerness in his work.
'Falling behind?' he echoed. What did Merlin think this was, a race of some kind?
Much though he may hate it, the best way to find out was to follow his servant and see for himself what had gotten him all excited. Not that it took much; Merlin could get excited over a loaf of bread or some herb that Gaius needed for an undefined potion, but occasionally he had good notions too. And if it meant he had to put up with the nonsense in order to also get the piece of wisdom that infrequently fell from his mouth, then so be it.
'Yes, falling behind,' Merlin said forcefully. He was already standing near the door, expecting Arthur to follow him. 'Come on!'
There were days when it was better not to ask. And if this turned out to be a wild goose chase, he would have Merlin muck out all the stables for three weeks, he swore.
Come to think of it, it turned out that the clumsy idiot was not much of a clumsy idiot at all. He sought and found his way through the castle with an ease that betrayed that he had years of experience in doing this. There were hardly any people about and the ones that they did see fortunately had the good grace not to comment on the fact that Merlin was leading Arthur instead of the other way around.
'Merlin, where are we going?' he couldn't help but ask when it became clear that their path led down, towards the crypts and the networks of empty tunnels that led out of the castle into the lower town. And if they were following someone, as Merlin had implied, then Arthur had yet to see them.
'Silence!' Merin snapped.
There was a limit to how many comments Arthur could stomach. This was that limit. 'Merlin, you are forgetting yourself,' he reminded his servant.
'Think of it as a hunt,' Merlin suggested, a brilliant smile suddenly all over his face. As expected, he completely ignored Arthur's reprimand. Why did he even bother with them? 'As you said, it requires stealth, speed and an agile mind.'
He might have said something of the kind long ago, Arthur thought, and no doubt Merlin's response to that had been cheeky and disrespectful. That was Merlin in a nutshell after all. 'We're not on a hunt now, Merlin.'
'No, we're on a hunt of a different kind,' he retorted. 'And you're scaring away the prey. Come on or are you too much out of shape to keep up with me?'
Arthur knew a challenge when he heard one, and he recognised an insult just as well. 'I'm not fat, Merlin!' Just because his belts didn't close properly anymore.
They were deep down under the castle. The air was cold and draughty here. Arthur had these corridors patrolled regularly to make sure that nobody got into the castle that had no business being here. To make sure Morgana could not get in, he corrected himself. She was aware of these tunnels too, but so far she had not tried to make use of them, that he knew of at least.
It must be one of those patrols that they were closing in on, he reckoned when he saw the light of torches ahead. But one of the gates to the tunnel that led to the lower town was opened and he knew that it shouldn't be. Maybe Merlin was right then, after all.
His hand lingered near his sword, but he didn't draw it yet. They were on a hunt and he didn't want to scare away his prey. If someone needed to do that, he was positive Merlin could do a good enough job of that on his own.
There were voices drifting down the corridor. 'It's not where I thought to have found you, Your Highness.' That was Percival.
And the voice that answered him was familiar as well. 'One does not always wish to be Your Highness, Percival. I miss the old town with its streets and its people.'
What was Guinevere doing here and, more importantly, why did Merlin think they needed to follow her on one of her visits to the lower town? True, he hadn't known about this, but it hardly was a danger to Camelot if its Queen went out, even if it was by the secret tunnel rather than the main gate, as she might have done.
'Merlin!' he hissed. 'What are we doing here?' He looked back at his servant, who now kept behind him and found to his shock that Merlin's entire posture had changed. There was nothing clumsy about him now. He was alert, but breathing calmly. The only thing Arthur could think of was how much he reminded him of a spy.
And they were doing exactly that now. They were spying on Guinevere, something that made Arthur feel bad about himself for multiple reasons. He trusted her, even if he'd much rather have it that she stayed in the citadel after dark. Camelot was not facing any danger at present, but still, he had enemies aplenty and they would not hesitate to use Guinevere to get to him. It had been done before and he was not in a hurry to forget that.
'Hush,' Merlin said, pressing a finger to his lips to make sure Arthur did as he was told.
Not that Arthur had any intention to oblige him. This was his wife and he was not going to run after her, hiding in shadows to check her movements. He trusted her more than he trusted anyone else, with the possible exception of Merlin.
'Merlin, your interest in Guinevere is starting to become unhealthy,' he growled. He had not forgotten that little incident with him searching Guinevere's clothes for "holes" and neither was he blind that he failed to miss out on all the strange looks he sent her way when he thought Arthur wasn't looking. 'Leave her be.'
Merlin used his favourite tactic of pretending to be deaf.
'I understand,' they heard Percival say in the silence that fell between them.
'I'm not sure Arthur would,' Guinevere confessed.
Despite his righteous anger about what they were doing here, Arthur frowned. What was this? They did not have secrets from one another, did they? An uncomfortable feeling settled in his stomach.
'I won't mention it,' Percival said.
There were footsteps and Arthur stepped away from the wall, donning what Merlin called his king's face. He was no spy and this was his own palace; he had every right to be here and to walk these hallways as he pleased.
'My lord!' Percival looked startled when he found his king where he had not suspected him.
'Is all well?' Arthur asked before Percival could ask the question he could read in his eyes. He did not explain his motives to anyone. Not that he was entirely sure what his motives even were. And he would tell Merlin that once Percival had gone, and then they would go back to a place where a fire was burning and he could get a hot bath.
'All is well, my lord,' Percival confirmed.
'Very well, then,' Arthur said. 'Be on your way.'
Fortunately Percival respected him too much to question his judgement. He disappeared and did not look back. Which was just as well, because the King of Camelot had a bone to pick with his manservant.
'What do you think you are doing, Merlin?' he asked sharply.
'I asked you to trust me,' Merlin reminded him.
Well, this was taking trust a bit far in Arthur's opinion. 'Merlin, if Guinevere wants to visit the lower town, she is well within her rights…' There was a lecture coming, he could feel it, and it was going to be a very good one, too. It would involve a good portion on how it was not Merlin's place as a servant to suspect everyone close to Arthur of treachery and he would make a good mention of how sneaking after the queen was dishonourable as well.
The only problem with this speech was that he never quite got round to making it. Merlin, oddly determined, had pretended to listen for a moment and then, just as Arthur got into it, he dove past his king into the corridor Percival had just emerged from.
Arthur cursed and not quite under his breath either. He knew what Merlin was trying to achieve – for whatever reason he had for that and what did he think he was proving anyway? – and he was also very unwilling to give him what he wanted. On the other hand, his fingers itched to get his servant back here and throw him in the stocks for the foreseeable future, because even for Merlin, this was ridiculous.
In the end there was not much to be done and so he ran after him, bellowing at him to get his sorry arse back here right now. Merlin predictably ignored the unspoken threat and kept on running. And he was fast too. How had Arthur even missed out on this?
'Merlin!' he shouted again, hoping that Guinevere was still close enough that she could hear it. She had a right to know that she was being followed, hadn't she?
But catching up to Merlin might very well be beyond him and soon enough he didn't have enough breath left to shout. He'd been training all day and he was starting to feel the fatigue seeping into his limbs. And this was not what a king was supposed to be doing, sneaking, spying and running after his own servant. He'd rather go for another round with King Lot's bothersome envoys.
Merlin had come to a standstill behind a tree when Arthur finally caught up with him. They had ended up a little distance into the forest, which would at least mean they would not be following Guinevere anymore. She was in the lower town, so maybe Merlin had not been after her and had rather used the tunnel to follow somebody else. He'd better.
Experience cautioned him to be quiet here. It was close to Camelot, but bandits and outlaws ventured close to the town sometimes and he was in no hurry to bring those down on them. So he lowered his voice and hissed at Merlin: 'What do you think you're doing?'
Merlin only repeated his command to be silent and pointed at a clearing a little way ahead. Arthur did as he was bid, more out of curiosity than out of a genuine desire to honour Merlin's wishes, and then his heart stopped.
Guinevere was there, alone, waiting. She certainly was not where she had told Percival she would be. What was she doing here?
Arthur froze. He knew that voice, knew it so very well. He had heard it since he was a boy and his father had brought the Lady Morgana to live at Camelot as his ward. No. No, this could not be.
But it was. 'I'm sorry,' Guinevere said. She just stood there, completely at ease, as if there was no reason to fear Morgana at all.
'Was there a problem?' Morgana demanded.
Guinevere dismissed it casually. 'Nothing I couldn't handle.'
It was hard to breathe and it was even harder to think. This did not make sense. Guinevere would rather die than ever betray him to Morgana. As far as he knew, Morgana hated her, had made several attempts to kill her. What did this mean, them standing here as if they were still the friends they had been all those years ago?
'Did you get what I asked for?' he heard Morgana ask.
He could only watch as Guinevere handed a scroll to his half-sister. 'It wasn't easy,' she informed Morgana. 'It details the route the levy collection will take, the names of the knights, their arms, and the day they depart.'
He knew about this. The scroll in question had gone missing the day before and he had given Merlin an earful about it for being so stupid as to lose it, even when Merlin swore up and down it had not been him. Eventually Arthur had let the matter go, knowing that he was fighting for a lost cause. It wasn't all that important anyway. There was a second scroll in the library and the information was of little consequence. But in the hands of Morgana it was dangerous, deadly.
But why would Guinevere even think of doing this? She loved him like he did her, was it not so? She was no friend of Morgana's. But is not sounded a lot more like she is not supposed to be. Even Arthur Pendragon could hardly deny the evidence of his own eyes.
'How can it further our cause?' she asked.
And there it was, the sharp sting of betrayal cutting a hole in his chest. Our cause, she'd said. Our as in yours and mine. She was helping Morgana and clearly saw her aims as her own. But why? Why would she ever do that? He had forgiven her when she betrayed him with Lancelot, his love for her strong enough to overcome whatever had happened in the past. But this, this was something that he could not overlook, not ever.
The anger followed right on the heels of the hurt and dulled the pain in some ways. And all he could think of, wanted to think of, was how badly he wanted to cut Morgana down. How was it that those he loved and trusted seemingly always chose her over him? What was it that she had that he had not? What was it about him that he found himself betrayed time and again until he was not certain he could ever trust a single living soul again?
His hands had been creeping ever closer to his sword, but he only realised he had been drawing it when Merlin alerted him to it. 'No, my lord! You can't.' Arthur would have dismissed this very good point because it was not for Merlin to give him the orders – and he had been on the receiving end of those too much already this night – were it not for the even better point Merlin made directly in its wake. 'Morgana is too powerful.'
And so she was. She would have killed him before he could ever come anywhere near her. His efforts would be futile. Even with Merlin's help, he did not make a chance. And so he stayed his hand.
The anger left him there, leaving only the hurt to flood his heart. Why? How could Guinevere do this to him?
He must have asked it out loud – although he had no recollection of doing it – because Merlin answered. 'She is not the Gwen you love,' he swore. 'She has fallen prey to a dark and powerful magic.'
Relief. He could only feel relief for a few brief moments. It was not his Guinevere, the real Guinevere, doing this. And he did not doubt Merlin; he was Gaius's ward and there was none in Camelot who had as much knowledge about sorcery as he possessed. Merlin, by association, would know much. And he was loath to believe that his servant had dragged him out here to witness this meeting if he did not know what he was talking about.
But the relief was short-lived and made way for despair almost immediately. Because if what Merlin said was true, then what could they do to undo what had been done to his wife? 'I can't lose her.' He had learned the truth of that when he had lost her to Lancelot. He had been absolutely miserable until she had walked back into his life. Yet now it felt like he was losing her all over again and this time, the hurt was worse. Lancelot at least had been a good man, save for his affair with Guinevere, but Morgana was evil through and through. This time, the betrayal hurt worse. And knowing that it was not really Guinevere who did it did not ease his mind much.
'We'll find a way to bring her back, Arthur.' Merlin cut through the haze of pain and despair that clouded Arthur's mind. There was pain in Merlin's own eyes as well. Of course, he used to be good friends with Guinevere and this upset him as well. And he must have known for much longer. 'I promise.'
And in that one moment, Arthur could see such purpose in his servant that he could not find it in himself to doubt him.
(But of course it wasn't until he had Guinevere, his Guinevere, in his arms again that he found himself saying out loud that he had never doubted for a second that they would succeed. And if Guinevere questioned the truth of such a statement at all, then she was wise enough not to mention it.)