The sun glinted off the armor's polished silver, which clanged and bounced as the horse beneath it rushed forward with a steady thud-thud-thud-thud. It sounded like a heartbeat, and Merlin held his breath from his place near the tents as the knights drew closer together.
There was a loud cracking sound, the splintering of wood, and more clamoring metal as one knight tumbled from his saddle. He landed in a cloud of dirt and his spooked horse reared up and whinnied loudly. Merlin winced slightly, as though he had felt that one, but he couldn't keep himself from chuckling and cheering at the antics of the victor knight, who slowed to a canter and waved his gloved hand at the erupting crowd.
The defeated knight got to his feet and started towards the tents. He all but shoved past Merlin on his way. Meanwhile, the winner trotted to where Arthur and Gwen sat and gave a flourish of his wrist. He bent into something like a bow, but more teasing. Gwen looked delighted as she laughed and clapped. Arthur merely shook his head at the knight, but there was a ghost of an amused smirk on his features.
Then the knight galloped off the tiltyard to where Merlin stood. Once there, he pulled off his helmet to reveal long, sweat-matted and tousled brown hair. He gave it a ruffle as Merlin relieved him of the helmet and shattered lance.
"Sir Merek didn't seem pleased by your victory," Merlin told him, having to squint up in the afternoon sun to see his face.
"Sir Merek is a sore loser," Gwaine pointed out with a smug grin. He looked over his shoulder, to where Elyan and a visiting knight were preparing their horses. "Never mind him. Arthur doesn't seem too amused, either."
Merlin followed Gwaine's line of vision to where Arthur was leaning back in his seat, looking as bored as could possibly be. He yawned into his fist.
"You'd think he'd loosen up a little on his birthday," Gwaine went on. His armor rattled as he dismounted his horse.
Merlin's eyes stayed on Arthur, watching the way the sunrays streaked through the canopy above him and painted away the shadows surrounding him. As though he could feel the stare, Arthur's eyes flickered over, and Merlin looked back to Gwaine quickly.
"It's not just his birthday," Merlin excused, running his hand down the horses mane to smooth it out. "It's been one year today since his coronation, and it's the day of his father's death—and his mother's death. It's quite the anniversary."
Arthur used to love his birthday, full of music and people and rich food and lots of drinks. These days, he didn't love it so much. In the days leading up to it this year, Arthur seemed to dread every moment. He rolled his eyes or walked away each time Merlin came to him with plans or questions.
"All I'm saying is, he could at least pretend to enjoy himself," Gwaine countered airily. "I'm doing my best out there to give him a show; we all are. And I'm no court jester."
Merlin was giggling before the words were even out of his mouth: "You could have fooled me."
Gwaine pulled a face of mock-anger before grabbing the reins of his horse and walking it towards the tents.
Merlin looked back to Arthur, whose bored disposition had turned blank and solemn.
Arthur was just glad the day was over. But he had more of it to look forward to tomorrow: more jousting, another feast; but, for now, he was left alone. The pale light of the moon streamed through the windows of the corridor. He stopped at one of them and looked down into the courtyard below. Beyond it, he saw the outlines of the tents and tiltyard. All was silent; all was empty. The citadel, whose visitors' quarters were packed with knights and nobles from all over the kingdom, had settled in for sleep hours ago.
And yet, Arthur heard footfalls from down the hall.
He turned towards the sound in time to see Merlin round the corner. He had a scrap of parchment in his hand and Gaius' medicine bag slung over his shoulder. He stopped dead as soon as he saw Arthur.
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked off Merlin's confused look.
"Delivering drafts to those wounded in the tournament," Merlin said, taking a few steps closer, the moonlight catching the tips of his hair whenever he passed through a patch of it. "What are you doing?"
Arthur let out a heavy exhale and turned back to the window. "I couldn't sleep."
Merlin was at his side now. "Should I tell Gaius? He can whip you something up. Or a hot bath with lavender? That always puts you right to sleep."
"It always put you to sleep, too," Arthur thought aloud before he could stop himself, and he realized it made Merlin tense.
He cleared his throat, trying his best to shake the moment away.
"You don't seem to be enjoying the tournament," Merlin said a bit awkwardly, trying to change the subject—or get it back on track. Arthur could never really tell with him.
Arthur snorted bitterly. "How can I enjoy it? All I'm doing is watching it."
"Being a spectator is fun."
"Being a contender is even more fun."
Merlin let out a patient breath. "No one will want to go up against the king, Arthur. They'll withdraw."
"Well, jousting by myself will be dull."
Merlin looked out at the courtyard and beyond, and Arthur snuck a glance at him out of the corner of his eyes. As Arthur surveyed him, Merlin appeared to be thinking. He was sucking on his bottom lip in a way that made Arthur absentmindedly lick his own.
"People have traveled very far for this," Merlin told him. "The tournament will continue, but . . . that doesn't mean you have to be there."
Arthur angled his body to face Merlin. "I'm listening."
Merlin shrugged. "We could make an excuse—say you've caught a cold. What would you prefer doing?"
Arthur thought on this for a moment. It would be nice to leave the city for a day or two, just to clear his head.
"Hunting," he decided on. "At least that I can participate in."
Merlin nodded. "I'll prepare supplies."
"And only tell a few men," Arthur told him, pointing a finger at Merlin's face as he started towards his chambers. He already had a renewed spring in his step. "I don't want too many people accompanying us."
"And Gwen?" Merlin called after him.
Arthur turned back around to face him. "She'll want to stay here. She hates hunting."
"I hate hunting."
"You don't have a choice."
Merlin seemed to accept it, and he turned back from where he came.
"And Merlin," Arthur called on a second thought, recapturing Merlin's attention. "Thank you."
Merlin looked confused again. "For what?"
"For not saying happy birthday."
They left at first light, taking with them Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, Percival, and a small handful of soldiers. What Merlin assumed would be a one-day trip, with the possibility of camping for the night, turned into three days. They road through fields and forests off Arthur's commands, and the sky was now turning a smoky gray above the canopy of leaves.
They hadn't managed to catch much, save for a few birds and one stag. Arthur simply refused to return to Camelot until he'd hunted a boar, but the chances of that seemed more unlikely with every passing day.
"It's the start of the cold season, Arthur," Elyan tried to reason with him at one point. "You won't find one out in the open."
But Arthur insisted, and everyone secretly wished they'd stayed in the citadel to watch the tournament, which would be over by now anyway. Merlin wondered whether a longing to joust was actually the reason Arthur wanted to leave Camelot.
At the end of the fourth day, as they hungrily and tiredly stalked through the brush, Merlin heard Gwaine mutter to Percival, "I'd love a bed tonight. Something warm. Something with feathers. That sounds nice."
"So does eating anything but salted pork and stew," Percival agreed.
"You said it."
"Hey!" Merlin hissed over his shoulder, mocking offense. In all honesty, he agreed with them. But the same meal wouldn't be a problem that night: They'd run out of rations. "I'm trying my best."
The two shot Merlin weary but apologetic eyes.
"My lord, sunset is in a few hours," Leon's voice rang through the trees, apparently breaking Arthur's concentration. He turned around to face the rest of the group in a huff. "We should make camp."
Arthur tensed his shoulders, taking one more wistful look around for the boar that never was, before answering, "No camp. Get on your horses."
Gwaine groaned loud enough to scare some ravens from their perches. "Come on, Arthur, we're tired!"
Arthur cocked a brow. "Too tired for a feather bed?"
Gwaine stood straight, as did the others. It caught Merlin's attention, too. Whatever Arthur's plan was, he liked it already.
Arthur started to pace towards them, gesturing to the trees with a pointed finger. "There's a village not five miles east of here. They'll take us in for the night."
Everyone swiveled their head in that direction, as though they could see beyond the forest to the soft fur blankets and roaring fires. However, all they saw were brown and gray trunks.
"How do you know that?" Merlin asked skeptically.
"I'm the king, Merlin. I know the lay of the land," Arthur answered in a tone of stern haughtiness. Merlin rolled his eyes at it, which Arthur did not see.
"That's Odin's territory, sire," Leon pointed out. "He won't react too kindly to knights of Camelot staying in his lands."
Arthur smiled softly to himself, which made Merlin wonder what was going through his mind.
"No one in this village will alert anyone to our presence, I assure you," Arthur promised. He turned to Percival and continued, "Percival, ride ahead and tell the lord we're coming."
Percival eyed the others briefly before shrugging. Wordlessly, he started through the trees towards where the horses were tied up, and was momentarily riding off.
The rest of them packed away their spears, arrows, and crossbows and watered the horses and dogs. A quarter of an hour later, they were trotting in Percival's wake, with Gwaine in the front, Merlin and Arthur side-by-side behind him, and Leon, Elyan, and the soldiers at their backs. The dogs ran alongside them, weaving through the trees whenever it pleased them.
"How did you really know about the village?" Merlin asked Arthur. "And none of that king-knows-all business."
Arthur shot him an unamused glance, but he eventually straightened out and said, "I used to visit it as a boy. The first time, I couldn't have been more than eight. It was the first time my father took me hunting, and we found our way to these parts. Our company was attacked by raiders—a large and vicious group."
His eyes started to glaze over in the memory, and for a moment Merlin forgot to control his horse. All he could do was stare. He was knocked back into reality when the horse started to drift away from Arthur's.
"My father was wounded," Arthur continued. "I wanted to stay and fight, but he told me to go. He said, if he were to die, the kingdom would pass to me. That I needed to be safe and unharmed. So, I fled. I kept riding until I found the village.
"The lord of the manor took me in until my father found me two days later. We remained for a fortnight until his wound was healed and he was fit to travel. Then, we returned to Camelot, but . . . I went back sometimes. In the summer, I would return—sometimes for a week, sometimes a month."
He looked down at his lap, blinking in what looked like regret.
"I haven't been back for many years."
"Why did you stop going?" Merlin wondered as images of Arthur living in some manor in a village in the middle of nowhere flooded his mind. He couldn't quite picture it. He imagined wooden, airy halls and large windows overlooking the stables and the huts and wells of the villagers, but he couldn't quite place a young, bright-haired boy in them. He'd never thought of Arthur waking up to the quiet calm of a valley rather than bells and hustle of city streets; he never imagined Arthur scampering through trees or getting into footraces with the wind in the fields, laughing up at the sky. He never assumed Arthur had ever lain down on the bare grass of the hills and fallen asleep under the stars.
Those were, for the most part, memories reserved for Merlin's past. It was small living, nothing of importance compared to life in Camelot, but it was simple and peaceful. Merlin often missed it, and it appeared Arthur did, too.
After so many years, Merlin found it odd that he was still learning new things about Arthur. However, he supposed there were things Arthur didn't know about him.
And then there were things he couldn't know.
"I became crowned prince," Arthur said with a sigh that hinted at the weight of a world pressing down on his chest. "My place was in Camelot."
Merlin looked forward, noticing the trees were becoming less dense around them. A realization struck him: "Your plan was never to go hunting. That was just a way to get out here."
Arthur gave him another sidelong look, seeming as though he'd been waiting for Merlin to figure it out.
"Shut up, Merlin," he said with a roll of his eyes.
They arrived in the village just before sunset, when candles were already lit in the homes to battle the long shadows and the clouds were tinged pink. As they road down the dirt path between the huts, Merlin looked forward at the tall, two-floor manor that stood above the rest of the homes. Torches were burning in its entrance and a banner, depicting a bear swiping its claws, waved in the wind from the rooftop. Villagers stood in their doorways with small children at their heels or bowed low from their places in their garden patches as Arthur went by. He waved and smiled at them pleasantly.
When they reached the manor at the end of the row, they were met by a group of people, servants and maids and stable hands, all bowing their heads respectfully. Percival was there, too, standing closest to the porch in front of the house. At the forefront of the group was a man who couldn't have been much older than Arthur. He had dusty brown hair and broad shoulders. He did not bow his head, but stood up with impeccable posture with his gloved fist resting casually on the hilt of his sword. Merlin instantly pegged him as a nobleman with a sense of way too much self-importance.
He scanned the group, making eye contact with each of them in turn; maybe it was Merlin's imagination, but the man seemed to linger on him for just a moment longer than he did the rest.
Arthur stopped alongside him and got off his horse and, at last, the nobleman bowed low.
"Sire," he said.
Arthur looked down at him with a neutral expression, but it soon cracked into a happy grin.
"Oh, stand up, Kay!"
Kay looked up at Arthur through his eyelashes, a playful smirk on his face. When he straightened out, he and Arthur wrapped their arms around each other in tight embrace, and Kay patted him hard on the back a few times with laughter.
Merlin caught Gwaine's eye, and they both tried to tame their faces and hold back their amusement.
"Look at you, then," Kay said when the hug broke. He pulled an impressed frown and brushed his palm on Arthur's cloak, as though testing the material. "All this, and I bet I could still beat you in a swordfight."
"You wish," Arthur teased back. Then, he looked behind Kay, apparently searching for someone. "Where's your father?"
Kay's face fell. "Ill, I'm afraid. He's been sick for quite a few years now."
"Not sick enough to keep me from my boy," a sudden voice rang out, sounding strained and shaky but still powerful. Everyone's heads turned to the elderly man who had just come through the main door of the manor. He wobbled against his cane and dragged his feet as he started down the porch steps.
Arthur was smiling in a way Merlin had never seen him do before. It was the same smile Merlin wore whenever he visited Ealdor and caught sight of his mother after a very long time apart.
"Sir Ector," Arthur said softly. He walked past Kay to meet his father.
"Father, you should be in bed," Kay tried to cut in, but Ector gave a dismissive flap of his hand.
"Nonsense, nonsense. I should be right here, with our Arthur," he said, sounding as though he were trying to catch his breath. "Or, I should say, King Arthur." His eyes sparkled with pride as he looked at Arthur.
So did Merlin's.
Arthur hooked his arm into Ector's for support as they turned and started back towards the porch steps.
"I've told the butcher to slaughter a goat for dinner. I know that was always your favorite," Ector was saying. Then, over his shoulder, he called, "Kay, have the stable hands put the horses away and show these gentlemen to their rooms. Have Sonya fix them warm baths. They've had a very long ride."
As Kay said, "Yes, Father," Merlin caught Gwaine and Percival making excited faces at one another over the prospect of roasted goats and bathing.
They all dismounted and trudged up the porch steps, and Merlin could already taste the lean meat and fresh vegetables. He was eager for country cooking and, if this goat tasted anything like the ones in Ealdor, he knew he was in for a treat.
"You, there," Kay said, catching everyone's attention. They all stopped chatting and walking and looked off the porch at him. He was pointing a lofty finger at Merlin. "No need to go inside. You'll be sharing space in the servants' quarters. They're located in the back of the house next to the stables."
Merlin stammered a little, suddenly feeling a little put on the spot as his companions' eyes moved to him.
"Oh," he finally managed to say, and Kay raised both brows at him in impatience. He looked back to his friends, who either offered him tight smiles or avoided eye contact. There was nothing any of them could do as guests in the manor, and Merlin would just have to accept that.
Just as he started back down the steps, Arthur called out, "Merlin stays with me."
Merlin stopped in mid-hop down the step, and he looked sharply back at Arthur. So did Kay.
"Arthur, there are no more rooms for him inside—"
"He stays with me," Arthur repeated with more of an edge in his tone.
Kay looked hesitant. His eyes flashed to Ector for back up, but Ector remained still.
"Very well," Kay eventually said, not looking too happy about it, and Arthur didn't wait for him to follow up the statement. He pushed the door open and helped Sir Ector inside.
Merlin felt Kay's eyes on him, surveying him closely up and down. He looked back, feeling unwelcome and unwanted, but he did not break the stare until Kay did.