Life was absolutely not fair, Merlin decided as he listened to Arthur droning on and on about the chores he would have Merlin do now that he was rehired as the prince's servant. He would bet that Arthur had to make do without a servant since he had sacked Merlin and considering the state the warlock had once found the prince's chambers in when he had been gone for three hours, he didn't want to know what mess could be created in a little over twenty-four hours, especially since Arthur had not been in the best of moods. With Arthur that meant that a lot of things got thrown through the room when that was the case. It also meant that he would be the one to clean up the mess.
'… My dogs need exercising, my fireplace needs sweeping, my bed needs changing and someone needs to muck out my stables,' Arthur finished, looking at his newly rehired servant expectantly.
Merlin almost choked on the drink he had just fetched for himself. 'What, now?'
Arthur favoured him with a look that left little doubt about what he thought about his servant's intelligence, or rather lack thereof. 'Yes, Merlin, now. Have you seen the state of my room?'
Do I want to? No, life was not fair, but who was he to do something about it? Only last night he had been wishing that he had his job back and now he had it. He really did not have any right to do any complaining, even if it was still unfair that he got no recognition at all for the fact that he had indeed been right about knight Valiant. Maybe that was his fate: to work behind the scenes for the rest of his life and let someone else get the credit for the things he did. Admittedly Morgana did deserve the credit for saving Arthur as she did, if Arthur would ever let her have it, that was. The prince really was an arrogant prat. His first assessment of him was definitely spot on.
He made a mocking bow at Arthur. 'Of course, sire.' Never mind that I stayed up all night to come up with a way to save your arrogant backside.
There was nothing else for it. This was the way things went and he had best get used to it. Maybe he could use some magic to speed up some of his chores. Arthur would be in here for ages still, basking in the glory he had as champion of the tournament, and Gaius had no business near Arthur's room. And that way he might even get some sleep that night, which would be most welcome, since he would be expected to get Arthur's breakfast first thing in the morning and most likely get something thrown at his head for the trouble.
He had hardly exited the banquet hall before he found himself called back by Gaius. 'Merlin!'
The warlock hoped that this did not mean that he was about to be burdened with even more chores. Arthur would have him kept busy in that department for the rest of the night already. He turned around nonetheless. 'Yes?'
The physician caught up with him and gave him a stern look, leading Merlin to believe that he had done something wrong. 'Would you like to explain to me why there is a dog in your room?'
Uh oh. The dog. He had completely forgotten about the dog. Merlin believed that he was justified in that at least. He had been busy saving Arthur's ungrateful backside again and that had driven the concern of a vicious dog in his room completely from his mind. But now he realised that the beast must still be there. 'Ah, oh yes, the dog!' he stammered, thinking hard on a solution. 'I'll eh… I'll get it out now.'
Gaius's displeased look told him that he better do that right away. 'You'd better, boy. I don't want that dog anywhere near my potions.'
'Sure,' Merlin heard himself say, even if he knew that might be a bit difficult, since he would have to transport the animal across the room somehow. Maybe he could turn it back to stone, but he then realised that he had actually no idea how to do that and it might be easier to let the beast loose in the woods. The dog would be gone and no one would be any the wiser, if he could do it while everyone was still too busy feasting to notice that something was not quite as it should be.
Gaius returned to the feast and Merlin broke into a run in the opposite direction, back to his room. Arthur may have given him a lot of chores to do, but the dog had to take precedence now. Maybe he could render it motionless with his magic and then carry it out of the castle. Hm, that would be a plan.
He changed his mind once he had done that and he'd had to drag the beast all across Gaius's room. The dog was rather big and rather heavy. Admittedly it was less heavy than it had been when it had still been a statue, but, as Arthur never tired of saying, Merlin did not have any muscle to speak of and there was no way that he would succeed in dragging this beast the length of the castle, through the lower town and into the woods. The only option he had was to find a leash belonging to one of Arthur's dogs and walk the beast through the castle, hoping he would not end up being used as a chewing toy for the mongrel's sharp teeth. He cursed himself for transforming a dog by the time he had run to Arthur's room and back to fetch a leash. Would there be any statues of fluffy rabbits around here by any chance, just in case he would have to do this again?
At least he had not been seen before he got back and realised he had left the magically frozen dog in the middle of the corridor for everyone to see and Arthur had not started yelling for him either and that was something, he supposed. Now he only had to get a murderous dog out of the city and into the woods. How hard could that be?
Very hard, it turned out. In fact, at some point he was wondering whether he was walking the dog or that the dog was chasing him. It was only now that he remembered that the beast had not had anything to eat since the moment Merlin had transformed it from stone to living flesh. It might just be hungry. The warlock just had much rather that it sank its teeth into a piece of meat instead of his legs.
This bright moment was followed by a trip to the kitchen and the perfectly justified theft of a piece of meat that the cook had failed to keep her eyes on for all of five seconds. It was a necessity of life, Merlin reasoned as he watched the beast devour the piece of meat before he had even had the chance to count to ten. A human body would not respond well to such a treatment at all.
'Good boy?' he said hesitantly.
The dog wagged its tail enthusiastically and barked its agreement. Merlin considered it progress that it no longer seemed to be making a serious attempt on his life. The food must have done the trick.
'Come,' he said. 'Best get you out of here before the cook realises her meat is missing.'
The quick meal seemed to have brought about a huge change in the monster. It was as tame as a little lamb as it walked – well, bounced, more like – after Merlin. Well, it seemed as if the worst was behind him. At this rate he would make it to the woods long before anyone would miss him, and preferably long before Arthur came back to his chambers and realised Merlin had not been there yet at all.
Of course he should have known that life in Camelot was never that easy. He had hardly stepped out of the door before he spotted Arthur standing in the exact spot from where he had taken the statue. That did not bode well, especially since Arthur was meant to be at the feast still.
Unfortunately there was no chance of going back inside and finding another way out before Arthur saw him, seeing that he already had. 'Merlin, what are you doing here?' he exclaimed incredulously.
Deciding that there was nothing else for it, Merlin braced himself for the worst and conjured up his most dazzling smile. 'I am exercising your dog,' he replied, pointing at the dog, that was looking at the prince interestedly, probably hoping for more food.
Arthur returned the favour, but with a deep frown in his forehead. 'That is not my dog.'
If there was one thing that Arthur Pendragon was not, then it was observant, Merlin had realised within two days of knowing the prince. He usually didn't recognise what was right in front of him. Of course he had to make an exception tonight.
'That's because I've only just got him for you,' Merlin insisted, keeping the smile in place and hoping that Arthur would not see the underlying panic. 'As… ehm… a birthday present.' He was rather pleased with his own explanation.
Arthur still wasn't fooled. 'It isn't my birthday for three months yet.'
Uh oh. 'As a present for winning the tournament then,' he corrected.
'Merlin, I already have three dogs.' The prince of Camelot sounded a bit exasperated, like he was dealing with a particular stupid child that was exceptionally slow on the uptake today. Merlin rather thought it was more like the other way around. Saying so would however be pushing his luck a bit too far. 'What am I supposed to do with another?'
Merlin shrugged. 'I don't know,' he admitted. 'I don't even know what you want with one dog, but at least this one's well-behaved, so I thought…'
Arthur rolled his eyes. 'God help me.'
Merlin recognised a chance to change the subject when he happened upon one. 'What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be at the feast, getting all the girls and the glory and such?'
He got another exasperated look for his troubles. 'I'm here because apparently someone made off with a statue of a dog.' Merlin tried and failed not to think of the accompanying crest that came with the dog and was now kicked under his bed in a hurry. He would need to get rid of it as soon as he could, before Arthur decided to investigate the matter properly. 'You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Merlin?'
He conjured up his most indignant look. 'Me? Why would I know anything about a statue? What should I do with it?'
Arthur gave him a mocking glance. 'Oh, I don't know, birthday present for Gaius?' He looked at the dog again and a deep frown crept onto his forehead. 'Where did you get the dog from anyway?'
That was the question Merlin had rather been hoping he wouldn't ask. 'I… I… I found it. In the woods.'
He gave the prince as foul a look as he just got from the future king. 'All right. I'm a sorcerer and I transformed this dog out of the statue that has been stolen. Oh yes, I stole the statue as well.'
For a moment he feared he may have blown his own cover spectacularly and he thought that for once Arthur actually believed something he said, but then he was rewarded for his efforts with a dismissive snort. 'Don't be ridiculous, Merlin. Put the dog with the rest and get a move on. You didn't think you could sit on your lazy backside all day, did you?' The prince laughed and walked back into the castle, chuckling under his breath. 'You, a sorcerer? Please!'
Years later, as Arthur lay dying, he would ask: 'That dog, you really did transform it from the statue, didn't you, Merlin?'
The warlock would smile sadly and wonder why the king would wonder about a dog at such a time. 'I did.'
The king would smile too, even though it was more of a grimace than a real smile. 'I'm glad you did. It was a great dog for hunting.'
It was a weakened form of their banter, but for a moment, even though the world had been turned on its axis, for a few seconds everything was exactly as it should be.