A/N: Some scenes/dialogue/spells will be recognizable, but instead of copying verbatim, I'd instead like to explore how the events of Vortigern's Tower might have changed things for our young heroes… I won't go too far afield, but I hope it's not boring, at least, in spite of the familiarity…
Also, just fyi, there will be eps and characters that don't figure into this intermission story at all, and that's because they will appear in a different way in part 2… !
The More Things Change
I. The Dragonlord's Arrival
Merlin's stomach was still flying. His feet were on the road, energetically covering ground, but his stomach was still mounting up and dropping in swoops of alternating excitement and fear. He had been waiting for this day for years… and he was afraid it was going to disappoint him in the end. Perhaps he should have walked the whole way, taken more time to prepare himself.
He shrugged to himself, smiling as he passed a gentleman on horseback, headed the opposite direction. Too late now.
Merlin wasn't too distracted to notice his surroundings, as he came over the hill and out of the thicket. It was amazing, the new citadel of Camelot, far grander and bigger than he'd imagined it would be. The rising sun gilded the high clouds lingering in the sky; it was beautiful, though it was likely to be clear by noon.
He kept smiling, as he strode through the lower town, feeling the pull of the straps of his pack over his shoulders. The people here were clean, friendly, walked with their heads up. And though the streets were crowded, there was a feeling of cheerful industry, of safety, that he knew was due to the fair rule of the king, the protection of the knights. It was childish, maybe, but he couldn't stop looking all around him, absorbing every detail of his surroundings, as if the one he was watching for might turn up at any door, around any corner. The feeling in his stomach swooped again – what would his reception be? He hadn't had any indication from the reply to his letter that his friend would prove as eager to welcome him as he was eager to arrive.
The white towers soared high above as he crossed the diamond-pattern cobblestones; there were two guards at the drawbridge, but neither of them spoke to stop him entering. Were they so fearless, then? Or was it that they had nothing to fear? That made him happy, too.
No one stopped him, but he figured they would before long; probably they didn't let strangers wander around the citadel. So he back-stepped from another doorway to face the guard on the right, dressed in chainmail covered by the red-with-gold-dragon livery of Camelot. He wanted to ask where the prince might be, but that would be presumptuous, he thought.
So he said, "Where would I find Gaius, the court physician?"
The guard looked a little surprised at being asked, but leaned into the doorway to point up a staircase. Thanking him with a nod, Merlin took the stairs two at a time, noticing a little sign on the way that read, Court Physician. He rounded a corner to the left and continued up another stair, grinning to himself. He was definitely going to be getting exercise, here – there weren't any stairs in all of Ealdor.
Reaching the door he hoped was the right one, he tapped, and it creaked open under his light touch. He poked his head in, saying softly, "Hello?" in case he was interrupting something important.
The silence was broken by the noise of bubbling liquid in a beaker in an apparatus that held it aloft over a candle's flame, and the squeak of the door's hinges. He glanced around, not sure if the old man he remembered would have left such a process unsupervised.
"Gaius?" he tried again, a little louder.
Movement caught his attention, high on one wall. He saw a narrow walkway, uneven shelves stuffed with books – and the court physician who'd once helped him save Arthur's life turned, surprised at his voice.
The walkway railing snapped behind him, and the old man flung his arms out, helpless to stop his startled fall.
Merlin reacted instinctively, slowing time to a crawl. He glanced about – he could catch the old man, but that might cripple them both, no, he needed – there. A bed. Another golden glance, and the cushioned furniture shot across the room, positioned itself under its owner. Satisfied, Merlin released the moment of time, and Gaius crashed onto the bed. Merlin reached to help him, but the old physician rolled off the other side of the bed, hardly winded.
"What was that?" he demanded irately. "And who are you?"
"I'm Merlin, remember?" Merlin said, smiling. "I wrote you a letter?"
"Merlin!" Gaius exclaimed. "Skin and bones druid lad? But you're not meant to be here until Wednesday!"
Merlin's smile turned sheepish. "I know. I was… a little impatient. So Aithusa brought me –"
"Good heavens, boy, please don't tell me you brought the dragon to Camelot!" Gaius sputtered. "If you haven't got any more sense than that –"
"No, just partway. He's off to the north, now, he was excited to be on his own, too."
"Ah." Gaius looked up at the broken railing, down at the new position of his bed.
"Sorry about that," Merlin told him. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"I suppose I should be grateful it happened when it did," Gaius said. "That railing has needed fixing for a while now."
"I can do that for you?" Merlin offered.
"Thank you, my boy." Gaius looked up at the railing again, then glanced him over. "But it can wait a day or so. You'd better put your bag in there." He gestured behind him to a short stair leading to a small door with a pointed arch.
"Thanks," Merlin said, heading for the room that was to be his new home. He stood in the open door, sliding the pack from his shoulders and letting it drop to the floor. It was a storeroom, formerly, judging by the stacks of empty and half-empty crates, but there was a bed, a cupboard for his clothes and other things, and two tables for his use – one by the bed, the other under a high window, both with candles for his convenience in the dark.
"I suppose you'll be wanting to greet Arthur?" Gaius said.
Merlin left his pack – there wasn't much in it, unpacking would take all of five seconds, and could be done later – and turned, hopping down all the stairs at once. "Do you know where I can find him?" he asked, not bothering to hide his eagerness. Much.
"Training field," the old man said shortly. "Or maybe the side courtyard." As he crossed the chamber again, Gaius spoke after him in a cautioning tone, "Merlin," and he turned at the door, expectantly. "Please try to remember, any public displays of unauthorized magic will be highly offensive to King Uther."
Merlin smiled. "Right," he agreed, and ducked out the door again.
Arthur understood why things must be the way they were. For five years he'd thrown himself into his training and education as he never had before; Lord Geoffrey had been speechless upon several occasions. He'd been the model prince, strong, courageous, obedient, polite to his father's allies and their sons. Though he knew that Gaius had occasional correspondence with friends in the village of Ealdor, he kept his curiosity to himself, though every day brought back memories. The scar on his right side made sure of that - though it gave him no trouble at all, it was hard to miss, washing or dressing.
But tomorrow evening, the court would be celebrating the five-years' anniversary of the battle of Dinas Emrys, and Uther's coronation. Nothing had been said, by anyone, of the strange but vital role played by the druid boy. No acknowledgement was intended for Merlin Emrys, at all. Arthur found himself frustrated by this hypocritical oversight, and relieved his feelings the only way he knew how.
On the training field.
He was not alone, three other young knight-hopefuls were there also, throwing knives at the targets rather more negligently than he was, indulging in jokes and gossip that he ignored for a more concentrated release of tension. He was hardly ever alone, too many people wanted time in the presence of the crown prince, hoping to establish and deepen connections, curry favor, raise their status however slightly.
Arthur leaned into his next throw, hard and vicious. He was whole-heartedly tired of the games, the machinations of the court. Leon had been gone for some months, assigned to his uncle Lord Agravaine's holdings in the west. Morgana was back in Camelot, but now that they were both past their teens, the paths of a young prince and princess crossed but rarely – at mealtimes with their father, and not often, else.
He crossed the courtyard to remove the knives he'd thrown from the red circles painted on the round wooden target. He was never alone… but he was lonely.
Behind him, he caught part of a conversation from the other trainees, mocking the efforts of one of the servants whose job was to attend the training fields. Where's the target? – There, sir. – That's into the sun. – It's not that bright. – Bit like you, then.
Arthur turned to see the servant lift the target with difficulty – they were wide, and heavy – and begin to shift it to a more convenient position. He opened his mouth to protest; it wouldn't hurt the young men to walk ten feet to the side, and throw from the shade. And one threw the knife to stick, quivering, into the target as the servant still carried it. The boy's head shot up, his expression horrified.
Growling to himself – and yet somehow lighter of spirits, as he anticipated a confrontation that might help further relieve his frustration – Arthur strode toward them.
A shadow detached itself from the wall, to glide to the side of the servant, the tall skinny shadow of another young man, maybe another servant. His voice rose clearly through the whole courtyard, "Hey, come on, that's enough."
Arthur's sense of urgency halted completely. Part of him was content that someone else had the situation in hand, and part realized that his tension had turned into curiosity, that someone dressed in the roughest of country clothes would so quickly and confidently tell these young men what they couldn't do. And a small part of him wanted to recognize the voice. He kept walking, but slowly.
The young noble said incredulously, "What?"
The young peasant followed up, politely but firmly, "You've had your fun." He jerked his head, and the field attendant, Arthur was amused to note, obeyed him also, setting down the target and hurrying away with a single backward glance to the trio of knife-throwers. He himself couldn't stop his smile from spreading, but deliberately held back from intervening.
The young noble sauntered over to the peasant newcomer, stretching one hand within its glove as if tightening his fist in preparation. "Do you realize," he said patronizingly, "I could take you apart with one blow?"
Arthur murmured gleefully, "He could do it in less." The other two, whom he'd drawn even with, glanced uncertainly at him. Probably they'd never seen a grin quite like this one on his face. He didn't even try to cover it.
The black-haired boy addressed the other's threatening swagger, deferentially but not fearfully, "I wouldn't if I were you."
"What are you going to do?" the noble's son sneered.
Arthur raised his voice. "Gregory, you have no idea, believe me."
Gregory turned, unhappy to be interrupted, but properly submissive to the wishes of the crown prince. The young peasant's face split into an ecstatic grin, and he passed Gregory with a familiar leggy stride. Arthur met him halfway, grabbing the offered hand as well as his upper arm.
"Merlin Emrys," he said. "Here in Camelot, at long last."
Merlin's grin was brilliant happiness, as he bowed his head in a gesture at once irreverent and courteous. "My lord," he said.
"You've gotten taller," Arthur noted, releasing him. Not much else had changed – limbs still long and lanky, the bones prominent in face and body, both. He had that air of windswept freedom that Leon had often carried, returning from a courier's mission, a fresh openness that Arthur had missed in the stifling airs of the court.
"You haven't," Merlin shot back instantly, the sparkle in his blue eyes taking the sting from the jibe.
It was probably true. The young druid was fractionally taller than Arthur now - and anyone else, Arthur would have been peeved to realize it. He took the sleeve of Merlin's brown jacket to draw him to the side of the courtyard, out of the way of anyone not deliberately approaching him.
"What the hell are you doing in Camelot?" Arthur said delightedly.
"Gaius wanted an assistant, and I figured it was time to turn my attention to the healing branch of magic."
"What about my father?" Arthur said, his joy abating somewhat, remembering the political climate he lived in. "What about your dragons?"
"Kilgarrah's still at Dinas Emrys," Merlin said. "Aithusa's going to be stretching his wings on his own for a while. I think Gaius talked to your father about me, though, he knows I was going to come."
Uther had said nothing to him. The distinct lack of complaint or threat from the dragons, over the years, probably had rankled rather than relieved the king. Arthur wasn't surprised, though, that his father had neglected to inform him of his ally's impending arrival, for Uther it was probably a question of Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
"You're going to have to be more careful," he told his friend. "You can't go around telling the nobility what they can and can't do –"
"Didn't you see what he was –" Merlin began to protest.
"And how were you going to stop Gregory taking frustration and humiliation out on you, hm?" Arthur said. "Use magic for something like that and my father will ride you out of town on a rail. Or-" he frowned – "at least, he'll try. Just, please, Merlin – be careful. For me."
"Gaius said the same thing," Merlin said, his head dropping as he scuffed one boot. Then his eyebrows lifted and the blue of his eyes glinted impishly at Arthur under the fringe of black hair. "You want me to promise not to use it without permission?"
"Uther would love to have that promise from you," Arthur returned. He noticed that the trio of his fellow knife-throwers was close in conversation with each other, all of them giving glances to the prince and the newcomer. Damn, this was going to get complicated. Gaius had been right, five years ago. "Listen, can you meet me here tomorrow afternoon? And trust me?"
"Of course," Merlin said.
Arthur began to stride away – there was just time for a bath before dinner, if he hurried. He turned around to walk backwards a few paces. "I'm glad you're here, Merlin."
That boyish grin hadn't changed much. Merlin said, "I'll see you soon."
Merlin woke early, a little disoriented, missing the quiet sounds of his mother beginning breakfast, or Aithusa's voice in his head – the young dragon was semi-nocturnal. It was quiet, here, though the glow from the high window over the narrow table said dawn was past.
He smiled around him at the dusty crates, the empty tabletops, the unfamiliar cream-tan blanket tangled around his body. He leaped from the bed and bounded up to the top of the table, with only a fleeting thought for the stability of that piece of furniture, leaning out the small window.
The town spread out below him, neat and organized and beginning to wake as well. He was in Camelot, and perfectly happy. The weather promised to be beautiful; he left his jacket and neckerchief both behind in his new room.
"Good morning," Gaius greeted him, turning with a bowl of porridge ladled from a small cauldron suspended over the fire. "Have something to eat, then you can begin with some errands for me."
Merlin slid onto a bench at a place at the table that had been cleared of clutter. Taking the spoon, he ladled one soupy bite hesitantly. He hadn't thought to miss anything of Ealdor except his mother – and her cooking. "Have I overslept?" he suggested hopefully. "I can start on the errands right away."
"Suit yourself," the physician answered. "Here – hollyhock and feverfew for Lady Percival. And this is for Sir Olwen – he's blind as a weevil, so warn him not to take it all at once."
As Gaius turned to face him, his elbow caught a bucket of water on the corner of the table – but one flash of Merlin's eyes was enough to freeze it in place. He pushed himself up, blushing a little at the old man's astonishment, then took the bucket to scoop most of the floating water back into place, and set it on the floor, out of the way.
Gaius made a thoughtful noise. "I had thought to let you learn your way around the town and citadel," he said. "To begin your apprenticeship. But I see that a long conversation is also in order, so I can get a better idea of what you know, and what you can do." Merlin nodded, agreeable to whatever his new mentor wanted. Gaius raised an eyebrow, and a plate holding a heel of bread stuffed with ham and cheese. There was a suspicious twinkle in his eye. "Off you go," he ordered gruffly.
Arthur was nervous. And therefore, early in the training courtyard, adjacent to the grassy field that led to a more expansive archery range and cavalry run.
He was warming himself up, pacing and swinging his arms. It was a test, and it was necessary, for both of them. For all the palace, for his father, for the knights, for the squires in training. The trio of nobles' sons yesterday.
But if Merlin didn't understand? This could end quite horribly for one or both of them, quite suddenly. And if he had to explain, it wouldn't really be much better.
The whispers had started already, the curiosity for the newcomer. His name and abilities, known previously to a select few, would probably become general knowledge soon enough. If it wasn't Arthur, doing this, it would be someone else. Someone who didn't care about Merlin as a person; someone Merlin might actually lose his temper with, and with disastrous results.
He needed to know – he needed everyone to know – if and that Merlin was capable of defending himself. Without losing control. So he wouldn't be tested again.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice, questioning, approaching. He pressed his lips together against the smile that threatened – with everyone else these days it was my lord and sire and your highness. He hoped, with this boy, it would always be just Arthur.
He turned to face the black-haired druid, half-smiling as he crossed the courtyard, conscious as Arthur was, of the audience that was gathering. He was dressed, as Arthur also, in simple shirt and trousers, his dragon pendant on a new black cord visible at the base of his throat. Not even the jacket he'd worn yesterday, no armor. That was a calculated risk, also.
Arthur took a deep breath, stepping sideways to the weapons array laid out on the table, keeping his eyes on his friend as Merlin joined him. "I need you to fight me," he told the younger man.
Merlin's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed slightly in thought as he cocked his head slightly. Arthur held his breath, hoping… The druid nodded, glancing over the table.
"Choose your weapon," Arthur told him. And it might have been his imagination that one corner of Merlin's mouth quirked humorously. His hand drifted over the weapons laid out, long fingers and knobby knuckles, and Arthur suddenly recalled that the last time he'd seen Merlin, his hand had been bandaged against some injury incurred from the magic necessary to save Arthur's life. His mouth was dry. He hoped to high heaven that Merlin understood.
"How's this one?" Merlin said, stopping at a pair at the end. "Nicely dramatic."
Flails. One-handed, the chain long enough to require care not to smash the spiked head on his own hand on the grip. Generally used with shields, its liability was a lack of precision. But yes, as Merlin said, highly dramatic.
He took both by the handles, his right hand already sweating on the cord-bound shaft, and held the second out to the druid. Merlin took the unfamiliar weapon awkwardly, the weight of it dragging his arm down instantly in a way that had bystanders snickering. Time to put a stop to that. Arthur began twisting the handle of his flail, causing the heavy spiked head to circle the end, the chain clicking and beginning to whistle slightly. He lowered his center of gravity and began to circle his friend.
"Do not let me hurt you," he warned Merlin, who nodded. It relieved him a little to see the druid boy – older now than he'd been when he'd ridden to Dinas Emrys, that was odd to think – utterly fearless.
He continued to circle, forcing himself into a sparring mindset. This wouldn't work if he pulled his blows. He struck quickly, aiming a hit for the black-haired head, heart in his throat. He'd never forgive himself – and Gaius and Hunith and Morgana and – Merlin ducked smoothly, and swung back, an underhanded strike more reflexive than coordinated.
Arthur's wrist twisted as he'd been trained, and the chains wrapped. He snapped his arm back, effectively disarming the younger man. The second flail, disentangled from his own, went flying behind him, and he swung again.
Merlin's eyes gleamed with the gold of magic performed, and he leaned backward almost casually, as the spiked iron head circled before his face. Far faster than anyone should have been able to. Arthur relaxed, and grinned, stepping more confidently forward, swinging harder. Merlin leaped back, hard against the weapons table. He kicked at Arthur as he flipped backward over the scattering weaponry, and the heavy flail head thudded into the wood of the table. Merlin completed his flip, landing on his feet with the table between them, and how in hell – though Arthur already knew the answer – did Merlin manage to come up with a set of fauchard blades unattached to their poles, curved blades resembling a small reaper's scythe.
Arthur spent two seconds pulling his weapon free, then kicked the edge of the table, up-ending it and scattering the weapons and making the druid leap back as Arthur circled, spinning the flail expertly.
Three things happened in quick succession, then – always the lightest and quickest at footwork, Arthur somehow managed to trip on the corner of the table, right his balance, and trip again over a pole that bounced up on his shin. And his aim at the center of Merlin's forehead pulled short, as the flail head wrapped its chain around Merlin's crossed fauchard blades. Arthur was off-balance – the shaft flew from his hand as Merlin yanked against the tangled head to disarm him.
Breathless, Arthur dipped his left hand down as he skipped forward, coming up with the pole in his hand, wielding it as a quarterstaff. He rapped Merlin's knuckles, causing him to drop his blades, then swung it around – expecting Merlin to duck again, his aim was perfect - it thwacked off the younger man's right shoulder blade, tumbling him to the cobblestones.
Grinning, Arthur pushed the blunt end of the pole into the hollow of Merlin's throat like the tip of a sword. Merlin held up empty hands to signal his surrender, and the courtyard erupted in applause, cheers and whistles.
"Was that good enough?" Merlin said. He winced as Arthur lowered the pole and offered him a hand up.
Arthur gave a keen glance around, and mingled with the satisfaction at the prince's triumph was a grudging but definite respect for the untrained peasant who'd held his own so well and so long. "You all right?" he said.
Merlin rotated his right arm. "I'll probably have a nice bruise," he said.
"Make sure it's looked after before the banquet tonight," Arthur told him, as the field attendants came forward to right the table and retrieve the scattered weapons.
"Am I coming?" Merlin was surprised.
"Gaius is invited – as his assistant you can be there, but probably you won't be assigned a seat," Arthur explained. "Lady Helen is going to be singing, and the food is generally good." Merlin nodded. "Oh, and Merlin?" Arthur grinned at him. "Thanks for going easy on me."
Word of his match with the prince had reached Gaius before Merlin did. But to his surprise, the old physician spoke no word of censure as he directed Merlin to off his shirt, and dabbed a solution onto the bruise already forming. It smelled horrible, but did lessen the sting and ache, surprisingly. "You know you got off lightly," the old man said, as Merlin ducked into his shirt again.
"I have a feeling it would have been worse if he was actually trying to kill me," Merlin joked.
Gaius humphed. "Before the feast this evening, I have one more errand for you to run – deliver this to Morgana. Poor girl's suffering from nightmares."
"Gladly." Merlin smiled, the ache in his shoulder all but forgotten. He hadn't seen the black-haired beauty again since his arrival.
He knocked politely at her half-open door, and Morgana turned from her mirror, still holding up the dress she'd been considering, a princess from the smooth black waves on her head to the dainty pointed shoes on her feet. He held out the little bottle in explanation. "Gaius sent this? For nightmares?"
She gave him a smile, crossing to take it from his hand. "I see he finally found himself an apprentice," she said archly.
"Yes," he said awkwardly. "I'm – Merlin." Arthur had remembered, but though he'd actually spent more days' time with the prince's sister, she had less cause to remember him.
She cocked her head at his name, then gave a little gasp, flinging the gorgeous silk over her arm negligently and grabbing his wrist, shoving his sleeve up to expose his druid's tattoos. "Merlin!" she said. "I can't believe it! You're so tall!"
"I'm finished growing now, I think," he said, feeling his ears warm slightly.
"Hm," she teased, releasing him. "I think you could stand to grow out a little more, you're still skinny as a stick. How's your mother? Is she in Camelot as well?"
"No, she stayed home in the village," Merlin said, fixing his attention on his sleeve.
"Well, Merlin, welcome," she said, returning to her mirror. "I hope you're happy here." A smirk tossed over her shoulder. "In spite of my father and his prejudices. Will I see you at the banquet, then?"
"Maybe," he allowed. "You can look for me in the shadows by the wall, where the king can't see me."
A soft laugh. "You know, it's a pity I don't have a choice of escort."
"Why, who are you going with?" he asked.
She made a face, a beautiful funny face. "Arthur."
He said immediately, "He can't be that bad."
She shook her head at him. "I forgot – you always defend my brother, don't you, Merlin?"
He shrugged, stepping back to leave. "Til the day I die," he said lightly.
That left only Uther to face. He hadn't expected a summons to an audience, hoped rather to be allowed to slip into a low level of the social strata of Camelot without so much as a glance from the king who still made his blood run a little chilly. The banquet was the first time he'd seen the King of Camelot, and he remained, as he'd told Morgana, on a shadowy stair off one side of the high table, where the monarch was seated, flanked by his children – the prince on the right hand, the princess on the left.
Gaius, as court physician, had his own place at a lower table, but between his raised-eyebrow glances and Merlin's own playfully pleading gaze, he was allowed to snag quite a feast of his own from the servants' passing trays.
The highlight of the evening was a performance by a visiting noblewoman, Lady Helen of Mora, an attractive middle-aged woman with a kind smile. And if, while she was singing and the audience was enthralled, King Uther looked with deliberate evaluation toward the hidden stair, no one else seemed to notice. Merlin himself pretended obliviousness, but made sure to absently rub his bruised shoulder and wince.
Uther turned back to the performance with a satisfied expression, and Merlin hoped he was convinced that Prince Arthur had decisively shown the newly arrived sorcerer his place.
He had the idea that things could have been a lot worse, for his first few days in Camelot. And the suspicion that it couldn't be this easy, every day.