syllic: ([merlin] sun)
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This first part of the second section approximately 6,200 words; Section II approximately 50,000 overall.

I'm sorry I had not had a chance to start posting this sooner; work has been mad this week. Here's to a string of long and miraculous stretches of time in which to get all the part 2s out in quick succession, despite work not showing any signs of letting up.

(Oh god just please be posted already.)

This section is divided into three parts (three trials for Merlin, with a focus on Gwen, Morgana, and Lancelot, respectively): Gwen, at least, will be completely up over the next two days.


Reign of King Arthur, Year the First

Gaius’ rooms had not changed since Merlin had last lived with him.

Merlin visited Gaius almost every day. It wasn’t as if he had expected the higgledy-piggledy assortment of paraphernalia that Gaius seemed to amass as if it were a gold hoard to have somehow changed in substance or arrangement since he had come to Gaius’ chambers yesterday. But the static familiarity of all other sorts of things did surprise him, because the light from the west watchtower still slanted uncomfortably into the spare bedroom through the window, and the board by the largest trestle table still squeaked. Worst of all, the storeroom at the back still smelled like an unfortunate combination of rotten eggs and hickory wood and boiled cabbage and damp stone.

Merlin supposed it was stupid not to have noticed these things during his visits. Then again, the light was a non-issue unless one had to sleep in the spare room, and the squeaking board seemed inconsequential until one had to hear Gaius tread on it three dozen times every hour. The existence of the storeroom could almost be forgotten entirely—except, that was, when one was forced to feign patience as Gaius threw the doors to the reeking cupboard wide open and stood in front of it for long minutes, musing on what it was he had wanted to bring out in the first place, as if he had no cares in the world.

“When do you estimate we can have things back to normal?” Gaius asked, finally closing the doors on the stench after extracting a clear jar.

Merlin heard Colgrevance’s stablehand behind him releasing his breath slowly, then taking in a sharp gasp of fresh air. The smell had not dissipated entirely, though, and Merlin turned his face away from the sound of retching so that the boy couldn’t see his smile.

“I don’t know,” he said morosely, his mood changing abruptly as he thought about how to answer Gaius’ question.

Merlin wished he and Gaius could speak about whether there was some way for them to make things easier for Arthur and Morgana from afar, and more than that he wished they could spend some time comparing what they knew about Nimueh’s spell, and trying to break down its components. But whatever they said would probably get back to Colgrevance in its entirety, and Merlin was not foolish enough to give Colgrevance the satisfaction, no matter how tempted he was to give voice to his concerns.

“I see,” Gaius muttered, spooning a sandy powder from the jar in his hands and dropping it into a shallow bowl.

“We’ll probably know more tomorrow,” said Merlin, feigning nonchalance and watching with interest as the mixture Gaius was stirring turned from pale lavender to a dusky shade of purple.

He found that focusing on insignificant details was doing more to stave off his anxiety than anything else he had thought of so far had, and so he continued to watch intently as Gaius bent over double to stick his nose in the bowl and smell whatever he was mixing.

There was a low-level hum of energy coursing up and down Merlin’s arms, through and around his palms and to the tips of his fingertips. He was frustrated, and he was angry. He felt entirely out of sorts as he sat on a stool watching Gaius work. This room seemed as distant a part of his past as his mother’s house, and Merlin felt ungainly, as if he didn’t quite fit within its walls anymore. It was hardly as if he had been a child when he had come to Camelot, but as he thought of the hundreds of concerns that were clamouring for his attention in Arthur’s chambers he felt like a child, banished to some corner room for bad behaviour.

“I’m sure you’ll be where you need to be soon enough,” Gaius said mildly, not even looking up at Merlin.

Merlin fought the urge to glare hatefully at Colgrevance’s boy, and simply said darkly,

“I better be.”

Gaius hummed in acknowledgment, peering at Merlin through the filter of a glass beaker that he had lifted in order to examine its contents. He seemed to be moving deliberately, with more care than was usual for him, and Merlin wondered if he had realised that his smooth, purposeful motion was the only thing keeping Merlin from bolting from the room.

“Shouldn’t you be thinking about… the task at hand, Merlin?” Gaius asked.

He was looking directly at the tabletop now, as if he didn’t want to risk a look at Merlin’s outraged face.

“I will focus on the task at hand, Gaius,” Merlin said through clenched teeth, trying to remind himself that this was hardly Gaius’ fault, “When I am able to stop worrying about the dozen other tasks at hand, by virtue of being where I need to be in order to make sure those tasks are dealt with.”

Gaius lifted his eyes to Merlin’s, but said nothing. His gaze was soft and understanding, and his eyes flicked to the boy in the corner of the room. Merlin could not have been more grateful for Gaius in that moment: Gaius, who did not say, I’m sure Arthur is handling everything well enough, Merlin, or, worse, Now, Merlin, don’t be silly.

Merlin had come to Camelot hoping he could find enough space in the city to get lost in, to live his life unnoticed. But through no deliberate action of his own, at first, and eventually through choice after difficult choice, he had managed the complete opposite. Merlin had defined his entire existence in this court by where he was seen, and by the people who did notice him and did include him in their lives, rather than by those who didn’t.

Out of all of those, the most important was obviously Arthur—both the man who was now Camelot’s ruler and the boy who had once accepted a challenge to eat an entire haunch of venison and had been bed-ridden for a day as a result.

For Colgrevance, this was no more than another petty game for power, played with servants as pawns, but for Merlin, this was a failure to be where he was needed when he was needed most, and the guilt and shame of that hung heavily around his neck.

He glanced towards the door, and towards the stablehand in the corner. If only he could—

“I believe there is little more that we can do this evening,” said Gaius evenly, stoppering his beakers and folding cloths over the bowls he had been working with.

He looked significantly at Merlin, and said,

“Perhaps we should get some rest. Tomorrow, after all, will be another day.”

Merlin took a deep breath, glancing down at the table. His hands were laid flat on its surface, trembling slightly, and Merlin clenched them into the angry fists he had been making on and off all evening.

“Yes. Fine,” he said. “Let’s sleep.”

He hopped off the stool and turned on one heel, intent on his old bed, where he would press a pillow against his face to block the watchtower’s light, and hope for sleep and for the morning, when something could be done about all this.

Arthur or Morgana would send for him in the morning. He was absolutely sure of this, but that did not stop him from wishing they would send for him now.

“S— Sir?” he heard as he ducked through the low archway to enter his old room.

The voice coming from the corner of Gaius’ workroom was so tentative it was practically inaudible. Good. Let the boy feel uncomfortable. He was wise enough to realise, at least, that he had equal hope of Gaius paying him any mind as he had of Merlin turning his anger on him, and that the Gaius option was preferable.

Once inside, Merlin kicked at the straw mattress on the bed in an attempt to give it a semblance of shape. Gaius’ new apprentice, Magan, was the son of a merchant in the upper city and did not sleep in the castle. From the uneven look of the mattress, in the absence of an occupant for the bed Gaius had taken to haphazardly piling books and heavy crockery on it at odd angles.

“Sir?” Merlin heard again, and he turned to see Colgrevance’s boy standing in the archway to the room, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot.

Was the boy talking to… Merlin heard a low, delighted chuckle from the other room, and realised that the boy was.

“What,” he said ungraciously, not even bothering to make the word sound inquisitive.

The boy hunched his shoulders, and he squinted one eye shut, almost as if he were flinching pre-emptively.

“Sir, I—”

“Oh, for crying out loud. How old are you, Norvel?” Merlin asked, addressing the boy by name for the first time all afternoon.

“Seventeen, sir.”

“Well,” said Merlin, kicking the mattress one final time before giving up on it, “I was seventeen just—”

Merlin had been about to say just a few years ago, and he paused at the uncomfortable realisation that that wasn’t true, rephrasing,

“Well, I was seventeen this decade, anyway, and I would therefore thank you not to call me sir. My name is Merlin.”

It would have been good in a way, Merlin supposed, to have encouraged the boy to stay afraid. But there was something about his thin shoulders and his too-long limbs and flyaway hair that made Merlin feel inexplicably contrite about his bad-tempered behaviour all afternoon.

“Merlin,” said Norvel, looking up and smiling.

Merlin gave him a tight upturn of his lips in return, and Norvel hunched in on himself again, whispering,

“I have to— That is, Sir Colgrevance ordered me to… But I have a bedroll. I can just—”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Merlin disgustedly. “Gaius, do you still have—”

“Yes, Merlin,” came Gaius’ voice from the other room.

He still sounded unaccountably amused.

“There’s a pallet in the other room,” said Merlin, pointing towards Gaius’ bedchamber. “It’s missing a strap at the lower end and sometimes you wake up half out of it, but it’s better than the floor.”

Norvel’s face lit up, and Merlin wondered if Colgrevance had purposefully chosen this boy to make Merlin feel guilty. Immediately he reasoned that Colgrevance was too much of an arse to take notice of a servant’s personality, and too stupid to know to take advantage of Merlin’s sympathetic nature. But watching another hesitant smile curve Norvel’s lips, Merlin was forced to admit that purposeful or no, Colgrevance’s choice couldn’t have been better. Merlin had hoped to scare Norvel into submission, but the boy’s coltish enthusiasm inspired not the desire to see his high spirits defeated, but the opposite.

Norvel looked as if he had only known kindness in his life, and Merlin wasn’t about to be the first one to show him anything different.

Norvel turned away from him, and Merlin heard him walking towards Gaius’ rooms. Merlin threw himself down on the bed, burying his head in the pillow and sprawling his limbs in every possible direction, and only looked up when he heard the sound of wood scraping on stone.

“What are you doing?” he asked, all his irritation and ill will flooding back at the sight of Norvel dragging the battered pallet into the tiny spare bedroom.

“Sir Colgrevance said I couldn’t leave you,” Norvel said, tucking the pallet between the cupboard and the wall and clearly trying to be unobtrusive.

His voice was no longer hesitant, however, and Merlin suspected that Norvel had taken the measure of Merlin, too, and now knew better than to expect true cruelty.

Merlin sighed, too tired from the events of the week to argue, and not sure what the point would have been even if he’d had the energy.

“Fine,” he said. “Do whatever you need to do. Just be quiet.”

Norvel nodded seriously, and Merlin turned his face into the pillow once again.

He heard the sound of the door creaking shut, and then the room plunged into the gloomy twilight that was the only darkness that the watchtower flames allowed. Merlin heard Norvel huff disgustedly, and he smiled into the pillow.

“It wasn’t like that when I first arrived,” he said, lifting his head enough to be heard. “Not until the king—King Uther—ordered that all four watchtowers should be manned all night. Enjoy trying to sleep.”

He heard Norvel lowering himself onto the pallet, and then the creak of the leather as he tried to turn his face to avoid the light. Merlin smiled again, glad to have this petty pleasure, at least, when it was clear that Norvel was not unpleasant enough to have Merlin’s contempt for Colgrevance directed towards him.

“Good night, Merlin, Norvel,” he heard from the other side of the wall.

“Good night, Gaius,” Merlin said.

There was the sound of Gaius shuffling and dropping something heavy on a chest, and then the rooms were silent. In the stillness and the dark, the rage and frustration of the day threatened to well up in Merlin’s chest again. He fought them down, not so much unwilling to let them bounce around his head and chest as he was afraid of the emotion he knew must be only loosely leashed below them, lying in wait for the moment when Merlin lost his grip on his anger.

Because this afternoon, when Colgrevance had foisted Norvel on them, Merlin had not felt irritated at the circumstances, or even that hateful towards Colgrevance. As he had watched Arthur dismiss him and prepare to turn away, clearly willing to accept Colgrevance’s request without challenge, Merlin had felt desperation. It had been a familiar emotion, well known to Merlin from long months of helpless silence. He did not know why he felt it now, when the circumstances were so different and when the look in Arthur’s eyes had suggested he and Morgana would find a way to reverse the effects of Colgrevance’s request quickly. But Merlin did know one thing about desperation with certainty, and that was that once it took hold—whatever the reason for it might be—it was almost impossible to fight back.

So he fought his rage and his frustration down, but focused on them, and was oddly happy to feel them, even as he did. Rage and frustration made you feel as if there were things to be done. As if you were in control of things, if only by virtue of knowing you weren’t in control. That was far preferable to the alternative.

Merlin scrunched his eyes shut, and forced himself to sleep.

“Where have you been?” he asked sharply, when Gwen finally walked in the door the next morning.

He was aware of how petulant he sounded, but he’d been up for hours already, pacing across Gaius’ workroom as Norvel stood, somewhat apologetically, by the door. Whenever Merlin had approached the exit to the stairs, Norvel had asked whether Merlin needed anything, or whether he could run a message for him. Merlin had declined each time, narrowly repressing the impulse to push Norvel down the stone steps and be done with it.

“We have been somewhat occupied, Merlin,” said Gwen, tightly.

Her mention of all that must be going on in Arthur’s and Morgana’s chambers only made Merlin angrier. He did not reply, because Gwen was the last person on whom he wanted to take out his resentment. He turned towards the window silently.

“Sorry,” Gwen whispered, coming up behind him and laying a hand on his shoulder. “I know it must be so frustrating. I didn’t think— I’m sorry.”

Merlin shrugged.

“He’s already shouted at Morgana twice this morning,” she continued, leaning in to whisper into Merlin’s shoulder so Norvel wouldn’t be able to hear her clearly. “And Lancelot says he’s coming to have words with you later about what a proper warning for impending torture should sound like.”

Merlin tried to relax. The thought of Arthur’s own frustration was comforting, in a ridiculous way: it made things worse to know that Arthur wasn’t happy, of course, but it also made Merlin feel reassured. He allowed himself one self-indulgent moment of pleasure before turning his mind to things that actually mattered.

“Tell me everything,” he said, glancing at Norvel and wondering whether he could be convinced to stay in the workroom while Gwen and Merlin spoke in the room.

“I have to stay with you,” said Norvel when Merlin glanced at him.

He looked contrite, which made it impossible to be angry with him; Merlin made a disgusted sound and said,

“Oh, do whatever you like.”

He ushered Gwen into the room, and motioned to two chairs stacked against each other in the corner. She arranged one close to the other on the floor and sat.

“Lionel and Caradoc might as well set up camp in the corridor, for all the peace they’re giving Arthur and Morgana,” she said, whispering quickly.

Merlin glanced at Norvel as she spoke. He was sitting on the top step leading to Merlin’s room and looking out the window, seemingly willing to follow the letter of Colgrevance’s request, but to forgo the spirit in order to allow Gwen and Merlin at least a semblance of privacy. Merlin suspected this was not so much out of a lack of loyalty to Colgrevance, but out of an inability to see why Colgrevance had asked him to shadow Merlin at all. Norvel seemed like a man who liked his complications simple, which was to say not at all, and he clearly wasn’t eager to become embroiled in something that had probably not even been fully explained to him, because Colgrevance wasn’t the type to explain himself to servants. Merlin smiled at him, and Norvel grinned back.

“Hrypa lodged with Anbidian in the city last night,” Gwen said, ducking her head closer to Merlin’s. “The two of them are wandering around the castle now, talking. I don’t know where the Lady Cai is, but I’m fairly sure she went home with Ector last night, too, and that they both came back earlier today. Persant has been in the council chamber most of the morning, looking at the walls, and Feran has been looking at the rose bushes next to the royal privy gardens since Lionel rode in with him this morning. No-one has seen Eurolwyn since yesterday. And Ganieda has not yet come from Caradoc’s house either, but I heard a rumour from one of Caradoc’s messengers that she has requested an audience with Arthur this afternoon, on a matter related to the trials. Colgrevance is supposed to be there to monitor what she says, on behalf of the other candidates. I don’t know much else.”

Merlin nodded. This was all good information to have, but what he really needed to know was what Arthur and Morgana were doing, and whether there was some way for Merlin to help. Though it wasn’t ideal to be barred from the rooms in which they were no doubt hashing out different possible outcomes even now, surely he was now best placed to do whatever they needed done away from the scrutiny of the court. He looked at Gwen, expecting her to move on to their requests, but she merely looked back at him curiously, saying nothing.

“What?” she asked finally, and Merlin glanced at Norvel.

He really did seem caught up with looking out the window, and so Merlin took the chance of saying what he needed to.

“That’s all good to know, Gwen,” he said, leaning in towards her to whisper back. “But what about everything else? Have Arthur and Morgana figured out when he’s going to ride out to the city next? Does Arthur look as tired as he did yesterday? Is Lancelot staying with him in the evenings? Do they want me to do anything until we figure more of this out?”

Gwen looked at him oddly.

“I think Arthur is riding out this afternoon, but Morgana isn’t. Yes, Lancelot stayed with him last night—I think his threat to come speak to you later had a lot to do with whatever’s been happening since then. Morgana is running interference with Lionel and the others, and with the people who don’t have candidates in their households and are kicking up a fuss about all sorts of other things, just to make sure they are not forgotten. But everyone is mostly focused on the trials, Merlin. I know Morgana and Arthur don’t want to add to what you already have to do. Have you thought about how you’re going to approach the first task yet?”

“No,” said Merlin honestly. “I do have some ideas, though. But I need to speak to Arthur first, Gwen. The night that I came back we talked about the intent of Nimueh’s spell, but we didn’t get to finish talking before we both fell asleep. I want to make sure that there aren’t any surprises, nothing that’s meant to hurt Arthur or Morgana. There’s hardly any point in any of the candidates doing anything if this is all a trap for Arthur, which—you have to trust me—we really can’t put past Nimueh.”

“Merlin,” said Gwen patiently, “I’m sure Arthur wants to make sure there are no surprises in store for anyone, either, but it’s hardly as if we can do anything other than what we’ve already done. Morgana received a message from Mordred yesterday, and from what she said, he confirmed what the—” Gwen lowered her voice even further, almost mouthing the word— “dragon told you. Right now I think Arthur probably hopes you’re working on putting the fires in the courtyard out. I’m pretty sure that’s what the rest of the candidates are doing, and if this isn’t a trap, which it doesn’t look like it is, though I understand why you’re worried, then the whole spectacle of the trials will be for nothing if the others beat you to it.”

“Gwen,” Merlin began.

He wanted to think of a way to say I’m not too worried about it without sounding too arrogant. He wanted to communicate that he knew that even if Arthur chose someone else to be court advisor at the end of all this, it wasn’t as if Merlin wouldn’t get to be around, helping Arthur knock down whatever obstacles presented themselves, whether he had an official title or not. In some ways, coming out on top at these trials was the least of Merlin’s worries. Having recognition from the court would be convenient, yes, but it was far from necessary in order for Merlin to stand at Arthur’s side in the coming years.

In the time since Merlin had been in Camelot, he and Arthur had formed a tangled web of debts and oaths and history that would not be unwound by Arthur’s new kingship, or by Nimueh’s curse, or by the shifting allegiances of courtiers. Merlin was much more worried about ensuring that they all came out of this unscathed, and did not get caught in the crossfire of Nimueh’s resentment, than he was about anything else right now.

Norvel might just be uncannily good at feigning that his attention was elsewhere, however, and so Merlin did not risk saying any of this out loud.

“Look,” he said finally, when Gwen raised her eyebrows at him as if to encourage him to say what he needed to. “I have a good idea of what to do for the task, and I don’t think it will take too much time to do. I promise that I’m focused on it. But for now, will you just do me a favour? Go back to Arthur’s chambers and ask him if he needs anything. Can you do that, or is Col— Or will it be difficult?”

She looked uneasy.

“No, I can do that,” she said.

She glanced at Norvel.

“Some… of the others are there, but I can find a way to ask Arthur. But when I come back, will you focus on the pyres? I think Cai, at least, already has a plan, too, Merlin.”

She looked worried, and so Merlin said, soothingly,

“I promise, Gwen.”

She looked at his face—Merlin wondered what he looked like; half entreating and half distressed, probably—and said,

“The two of you sometimes,” shaking her head as she stood up.

Merlin felt abruptly irritated.

“And I suppose if someone made you stay away from Morgana right now, you’d just do as they asked?” he asked.

He knew he sounded angry, but not even Norvel’s presence could make him lower his voice. Gwen looked at him with wide, chagrined eyes, and replied quietly,


She put her hand on Merlin’s shoulder again.

“No, I really wouldn’t,” she said. “I’m sorry, Merlin. You’re right. I’ll be right back. In the meantime, will you—”

“Yes, I said,” said Merlin crankily. “I’ll even get Norvel to help; he can vouch for me to you as well as to Colgrevance, all right?”

Norvel laughed. He had a low, gravely chuckle, which seemed a terrible match for his higher-pitched voice. Gwen widened her eyes again, this time in amused surprise, and Merlin snorted.

Sorry she mouthed, turning her back to Norvel.

Merlin waved her away. Me too, he tried to say. He just felt extremely ill-suited to his skin right now. He thought she understood, or hoped she did, at least.

She nodded at him kindly and then practically ran out the door, clearly unwilling to waste any time. Merlin said,

“Come on then, Norvel. Let’s go look at some stones, or maybe at some roses.”

He seemed confused—Merlin was pleased at this sign that he really hadn’t been listening—but he nodded and followed Merlin out the door.

Merlin and Norvel were behind the royal stables when Gwen came back. The two of them had been chatting about inconsequential things (Norvel had a brother and a sister; his father was a shoemaker), though Merlin had been keeping half of his attention on what he was hoping to find. Norvel had seemed bemused every time Merlin bent to the ground, laying his palm flat on the dry earth, but he had said nothing, even going as far as to warn Merlin when he had seen one of Lionel’s sons approaching.

The weak sun was beating on Merlin’s back, not enough to warm his skin but enough to give the illusion of a summer’s day. Norvel was speaking about his mother’s cooking, but the sight of Gwen appearing around the corner, flushed and holding a piece of red cloth in her hand, stopped him short.

“Gwen?” asked Merlin, turning when Norvel’s fixed gaze caught his attention.

“Merlin,” she said breathlessly. “I have to—”

She looked at Norvel again, and made a sound not unlike a growl low in her throat. Norvel looked wounded for a moment, but did not move away.

“Over here,” said Merlin, pointing to a wooden alcove behind the stables that was used for tethering horses temporarily.

Gwen flattened herself practically against the wall, and as Merlin approached, she pulled him down roughly by his tunic, turning her mouth directly into his ear.

“Ganieda has withdrawn from the trials,” she said excitedly, and Merlin, who had been unconsciously bracing himself for bad news about Arthur or Morgana, relaxed.

“She came to her audience with Arthur just as I was getting ready to leave,” Gwen continued, tripping over her words. “I wasn’t allowed to stay, but Lancelot came out afterwards and told me everything. I waited—sorry I didn’t come back sooner, but I thought you’d want to know.”

Merlin nodded against her cheek.

“Lancelot said it was very sad,” Gwen whispered. “He said that when she came in the door she looked tired, and that she originally asked if she could speak to Arthur alone. Lancelot said it looked as if Arthur wanted to consent, but Colgrevance refused, and Caradoc said he wanted to be present if a member of his household was to be heard. Lancelot thought she might have been trying to avoid Colgrevance, but it turned out she wanted to avoid Caradoc—Lancelot said he looked furious when she said she didn’t want to participate.”

“Why doesn’t she?” asked Merlin, looking over Gwen’s shoulder at Norvel, who was trying to pretend he wasn’t interested in what they were saying.

Merlin once again suspected piqued curiosity at Gwen’s frantic manner more than a desire to report back to Colgrevance, and so he made no attempt to move Gwen further out of earshot.

“Lancelot said she told Arthur that the only magic she had ever practiced in her life was healing magic,” said Gwen, “And that she thought that that was her gift—tending the sick. She said she understood the position that Arthur and Camelot were in but that she didn’t want to participate in a play for influence when there were more important matters for her to tend to—the sick in the town, for one, she said, if Arthur would give her leave. Lancelot said she looked straight at Caradoc and said that the court was no place for her, though it wounded her not to do her duty for her lord.”

Gwen sounded almost scandalised at this point; Merlin supposed it was all rather dramatic.

“So that’s one less competitor, Merlin,” she finished, excitedly. “That’s good, right?”

Merlin nodded, and tucked his head to whisper into her ear. He wondered what they looked like. He wouldn’t be surprised if rumours of his and Gwen’s illicit, non-royally-condoned affair surfaced as early as dinner, but he supposed that that was hardly something they could spare the time or effort to worry about now.

“That is good, Gwen,” he said. “But I hope Ganieda is all right—did Lancelot say whether Caradoc said anything to her?”

“No,” Gwen said, shaking her head against Merlin’s. “I asked that too. He says he was silent as she walked out, and did not follow her.”

Merlin frowned. Ganieda’s actions seemed understandable to him, and even in the short time that Caradoc had been back at court, he had given Merlin the impression of being a reasonable man, if one unwilling to let any advantage pass him by. Merlin hoped he would not punish Ganieda for her commitment to dealings that he did not deem as important as the trials.

“I hope—” he said, and Gwen rushed to finish,

“That he doesn’t punish her? Yes. Me too. He doesn’t quite seem the type, though, I don’t think.”

Merlin nodded.

“I didn’t think so either. But Gwen—”

He looked significantly at her; in all the excitement, he hoped she had not forgotten to speak to Arthur.

“Yes, yes,” she said, shaking her head. “But I don’t think you’ll like it.”

Merlin’s heart seemed to beat out of pattern for an instant.

“Not like that!” she said, rushing to reassure him. “It’s nothing bad, truly. He just… Wait. Have you been doing what you were supposed to?”

She looked at him suspiciously, and Merlin rolled his eyes at her.

“Yes, Guinevere. I have been hard at work at this thing about which I care far less than I do about more important matters.”

She looked at him, and then she actually turned to look at Norvel, as if for confirmation. Merlin fought not to feel insulted; Norvel only shrugged.

“I’m not sure what he’s been doing,” he said, scuffing his shoe against the dust in a manner that suggested that Gwen intimidated him, “But whatever it is, he’s been very busy at it. Lots of crouching down to the ground and the like.”

He was blushing, and Merlin fought a grin. If it came to it, clearly there was one more advantage that they could press, here. Norvel might not do what Merlin asked of him, but it certainly looked as if he would not refuse a request from Gwen.

Gwen turned to Merlin, putting one hand on her hip.

“I’m not kidding about this, Merlin,” she said.

“And you think I am?”

Something in the tone of his voice must have changed her mind quickly, because she looked down in a hurry and said,

“I know. Goodness, I don’t know what— I’m sorry, Merlin. I’ve been treating you all day as if I somehow know better, and we both know that really couldn’t be less true. I’m just… I’m worried.”

Merlin looked at her sympathetically. This was one thing they could probably all unanimously agree on: this last week had been full of an anxiety and spinning uncertainty, and he supposed for Gwen, one of the biggest things to be worried about was Merlin’s safety, Merlin’s continued presence at court. Merlin felt the same way about her.

“I understand, Gwen. I mean— I really do.”

She nodded, still looking abashed. Then she rallied, and said,

“Anyway— I asked. And he… Well, as I said, I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

Merlin looked at her impatiently.

“I asked whether he had any tasks that he needed performed anywhere around the castle, because others were there, and I couldn’t say your name directly, and he looked… I’m not sure what he looked like, actually. Frustrated, and for a moment he almost seemed as if something were funny. Then he stomped around the room for a while, opening chests all over the place—have you not taught him where anything is?—and finally he found what he was looking for and he said to me, ‘Get the servants to wash this out. My current subordinate leaves much to be desired.’ Lancelot did not look impressed, I have to say.”

Merlin looked at her, confused; in response, she extended her hand, in which she still clutched the bunch of red cloth.

Merlin reached towards it with uncertain hands, and shook the bundle out to reveal one of Arthur’s older tunics.

“There’s a stain on it,” Gwen said, biting her lip. “But it looks old, and like it’s been washed before. I’m not really sure what he meant when he said he wanted it cleaned.”

Merlin turned the tunic around to reveal what Gwen was talking about: at the centre of the back, it had a large, faded stain the size of a handprint. Merlin looked at it for a long time, unsure of what to say.

“You know the king,” he eventually said roughly, aware that Norvel really was watching them now.

Gwen looked at him shrewdly, clearly noticing the change in his voice.

“Yes,” she said cautiously. “Can’t make heads of tails of what he needs from us, sometimes.”

That was a kind description of the madness Arthur had been known to drive them all to, but Merlin simply nodded his agreement.

“I have to go back to Gaius’ chambers to look at some of his books,” he said, and began walking across the dusty patch of earth that led to the courtyard.

Norvel turned, too, and began walking ahead of them. Gwen waited for an almost imperceptible moment, then fell into step beside Merlin.

“What is it?” she asked, barely loud enough to be heard.

Merlin did not know if he wanted to answer, but he supposed there was hardly a way to avoid it without giving insult.

“I made that stain,” he said finally, voice as quiet as hers. “Tried to wash it out half a dozen times, but it’s lamp oil.”

She hissed through her teeth, sympathetically, and cocked her head in expectation of the rest of the explanation.

“We had a disagreement one day,” he said, rushing because they were almost to the castle steps, and Norvel was waiting. “Because he’d been harsh to a kitchen maid and I said he had to be more patient with people. He was in one of his moods—”

Gwen nodded. Arthur these days was mostly poise and dignity, and his temperance was truly fit for a king, but there had been a time when that had certainly not been the case.

“He said I only needed to look around his rooms once to remind myself precisely how patient he was. ‘Crockery on the table, hauberk half-dented,’ he said. ‘This shirt. This bloody shirt, with half a lamp-dish of oil spilled on it. This very shirt is patience, Merlin.’

He had a point, but of course I did, too; we eventually agreed to just let it go, the way we sometimes have to. But I never threw the shirt out after that, despite the stain, which I suppose was a bit pathetic. Then again, he still wears it, sometimes, under his chainmail,” he finished.

He felt more than slightly ridiculous after sharing the story, but Gwen only smiled.

“Arthur might not know a thing about what’s in his chests, Merlin,” she said, “But I’ve never known him to put anything on his back without inspecting it four times, either. That’s not to say he ever seems to make good choices, but regardless of how good they are, the choices always are his. If he wanted the shirt thrown out, he’d have said something by now. And anyway, the stupid thing’s come in useful now,” she said.

Merlin gave her a self-conscious smile.

“Maybe,” he said.

“Definitely,” she countered.

Then she laughed.

“Patience, indeed.”

Part II(b)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-26 06:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ooh, I've been dying to read this all day, and it was a delight. I particularly love the shirt-as-symbol-of-patience - it could have seemed so contrived but actually spoke of the deep emotional connection between the two of them.

I'm really looking forward to the next installment. :)


syllic: (Default)

October 2017


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