The only way to describe the sun on that day was scorching. It sat, suspended in the sky, glowing with a majesty that even kings envied. The sky itself was a riot of colour – oranges and reds streaked across the heavens, bathing the rolling clouds in gold as they sailed across the earth. There was the lightest of breezes racing through the trees, whispering quietly to the wildlife that scurried about the forest floor.
Merlin loved days like this. They were calm and peaceful – totally different from his hectic life as Arthur’s servant. He swung his bare feet in the warm air as he gazed at the lake before him, admiring the reflection of the autumn scene that was shimmering gently on the glassy surface. Mountains, awash in a fiery gold, and Chestnut trees, crowned with leaves like amber jewels, gazed back at him as he picked up a small, flat stone beside him, and with an expert flick of his wrist, sent it skimming over the water, distorting the scenic image as it sailed across the pool.
He heard something behind him, a sort of scuffle of tiny pebbles showering down the ledge he was lounging on, but he chose to ignore it. The day was too perfect to be interrupted.
Turning back to the lake, he found the stone he’d thrown had sunk, leaving a line of circular ripples were it had skipped over the water. He picked up another. Just before he threw it, he let the magic within him slide to his fingers and sparkle in his eyes. The pebble shot through the air and skidded over the lake, soon disappearing on the far side. Merlin watched it with a blissful grin on his face.
Behind him, the noise of upset pebbles sounded for a second time. He was quite sure it was closer now. As he looked around, he barely had time to register a blur that suddenly smacked into him at full speed. In a split second, him and the blur were hurtling over the edge of the rock that he had been happily sprawled on. They hit the water with an almightily splash. Merlin quickly found his footing and felt his magic surge up within him, ready for anything, but it died away as he saw who was before him.
“You should have seen your face!” the soaking wet prince laughed, holding his sides as if they were about to split.
“I thought you went home,” Merlin said churlishly before beginning to wade out of the lake.
“I did,” Arthur defended whilst trying not to laugh, “but then I came back.”
Merlin reached the edge of the water and pulled himself back onto the ledge, grimacing at his drenched shirt that now clung tightly to his slight frame. He pulled it off and rung it out, glaring at Arthur.
“Prat,” he muttered under his breath, earning himself a raised eyebrow.
“What did you say?” Arthur asked innocently, pretending not to have heard.
“Nothing,” Merlin said as he pulled the shirt back over his head and moved on to ringing out his neckerchief.
You may be wondering why they were at the lake, so in order to let you understand, I must take you back a few hours to when they had been on a hunting expedition.
It was relatively late into the autumn, but it was still very warm. All the decent game had taken shelter from the relentless sun, and could not be found – even by Arthur and his expertise. When the two boys had also begun to suffer from the heat, the prince lead the way to a lake where they had thrown off their clothes and leapt into the cool water.
“I’ll race you to the lake,” Arthur had said, smirking.
“What? I don’t want to run. I don’t like running,” Merlin protested sulkily. Arthur had only smiled and punched him good-naturedly.
“You just don’t want to try because you know I’ll win,” the prince started walking, knowing Merlin wouldn’t let him have the last word.
“Wait a moment!” Merlin had begun hastily. “I said I didn’t like to run, not that I couldn’t run faster than you.”
“Oh, yeah? That’s what I wanted to hear. The lake. You and me. The first to arrive gets the biggest steak at lunch.”
“Alright, you’re on. Sounds fair.”
“Fair?” Arthur had spluttered, smirking. “I’m sorry, Merlin, but if you are running against me it’s never fair.”
“In your dreams…” Merlin growled under his breath. “On the count of three,” on his word, they had both began to prepare, jostling for a better space and tensing up. “One…two…three!”
Just a second later, Arthur was far ahead of Merlin with a sudden burst of speed. In less than a minute the prince was sure he was going to win. Frustrated, Merlin had looked at his fast disappearing back as he struggled to keep up. It was impossible for him to win this. He would have to stand Arthur’s jokes for the rest of the day…and possibly further…
That was too much for him. There was only one thing to do. Something illegal, something wrong, but his pride for a long, long time was at stake.
From where he was ahead, Arthur suddenly found a tree root slipping under his foot and tripping him up. He landed on the forest floor with a painful thump. Before he could register what had happened, a blur shot past him.
Muttering curses to himself, the prince climbed to his feet and tore after Merlin, who was fast disappearing amongst the trees. Merlin arrived first after this, and punched the air, grinning like a manic just as his friend came bursting through the trees, puffing.
“You must be kidding me,” Arthur had exclaimed in disbelief.
“Don’t worry – I wont tell anyone,” Merlin said, clapping Arthur on the arm as he headed for the water. The prince had just stared at his retreating back with incredulity.
Some people (namely Uther) would probably frown upon this as if it were something nasty on the underside of his or her shoe. Servants and princes didn’t mix. It wasn’t the done thing.
Arthur himself would have unquestionably agreed with this when he and Merlin had first met. At that particular time in his life, the prince would have held a speck of dirt in higher esteem than the clumsy, gawky, idiot Merlin who had turned up one day out of the blue. But now, after the adventures that had followed their first meeting and particularly the recent events with the cube, their friendship had grown considerably. Merlin had shown he would die for Arthur, and the prince in his turn had also displayed the same fierce loyalty and affection. To loose Merlin now would be like someone tearing off one of Arthur’s own limbs. Why should he care about what his father thought? Merlin was his friend and no one was going to tell him differently.
So, as a result of this, they had amused themselves in the lake, seeing who could dive off the highest rock, swinging on overhanging branches, dunking each other under the water and being generally immature.
After a while, when it began to get late, Arthur had gone home, but Merlin stayed. He wasn’t going to confide in anyone, not even the prince, that he liked staring at the sky. When he gazed up at the heavens he felt most connected with his magic. It was a glorious feeling – not one to be missed. However much he enjoyed Arthur’s company, Merlin found that he sometimes had to be alone with nothing but his magic.
It seemed Arthur didn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) respect this and had so decided to scare him by jumping out from behind him. A classic really but it worked nevertheless.
“Are you quite sure its nothing?” Arthur asked, smirking as he lay back in the water, hands resting behind his head and an infuriatingly smug expression on his face.
“Quite,” Merlin responded with a scowl that covered his amusement.
“I could have sworn you called me a prat,” the prince went on airily.
“Well, now you come to mention it, yes, you are,” Merlin said brashly with a dangerous quirk of his eyebrows that was just begging for trouble.
Arthur raised one of his own eyebrows and pouted as he made his way out of the water and pulled himself onto the rock beside his friend. Before answering he picked a blade of grass, stuck it in his mouth and began swinging his legs.
“And why would you come out with such an outrageous statement?”
“Where to begin…” Merlin said, looking up into the sky as if the answers he was looking for were hidden there. “Well, there’s the constantly nightmarish job, for starters.”
“The what job?” Arthur snapped suddenly, looking quite affronted.
“What do you mean?” Merlin asked, baffled, almost flinching at the hard stare the prince was now casting in his direction.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” Arthur said, turning away stiffly. “And don’t go acting all innocent either. I know you see them too…”
Merlin tried to understand what he was getting at before he realized the mistake he’d made by mentioning ‘nightmares’. Dreams and nightmares were not something to be mentioned at the present. The effects of the cube were still existent. The visions weren’t half as bad as before, but they were still dreadful. Merlin would often find himself jerking awake, a cold sweat on his brow and adrenalin pulsing through his veins. He wondered how long it would take for the aftermath to wear off – it had been almost two weeks since the whole dammed thing had ended.
As he glanced in Arthur’s direction, he found the prince looked almost scared – something Merlin rarely witnessed. It was clear that the dreams haunted Arthur just as badly as they did him.
“Sorry,” he said quietly, busying himself by pulling a few stalks of grass out of the dusty ground.
“Its alright,” Arthur sighed and folding his arms over his chest. “Anyway, I’m not that much of a slave driver…am I?”
“Well –” Merlin began with a gleeful glint in his eye.
“Don’t answer that,” t he prince said quickly before he could go on.
Merlin grinned. He noticed he had a strand of pondweed behind his ear and pulled it off. Suddenly, there was a sharp shock of pain racing up his arm as he reached for the weed, and he quickly glanced down at his forearm. The hole was still there. It was better, miles better in fact, but it still ached from time to time, especially when his arm was jolted. He looked at the raw flesh with contempt. It brought back bad memories.
Merlin didn’t notice Arthur was now staring at the wound he had caused with a great deal of shame. The prince knew it had been an accident, but he still couldn’t forgive himself, even if Merlin had.
He gingerly put out a hand and touched the edge of the injury softly. Merlin flinched and withdrew his arm, leaving Arthur feeling terrible.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean –”
“It’s fine, Arthur,” Merlin sighed and pulled his sleeve over the gash. “It doesn’t really hurt any more.”
They shared a smile for a moment. Merlin had never been able to lie.
“It’s getting late,” Merlin decided while observing the thin slither of sun left on the horizon. “We should be heading for home.”
“Well, that’s why I came back,” Arthur informed him. “Gaius was mentioning something about getting him some herbs.”
“Herbs?” Merlin repeated. “Which kind? Maybe I can pick them up on the way back.”
“Parsley and Chive, I think,” Arthur responded, standing up and stretching leisurely. “Come on, I know where we can get some.”