Before he had even finished dressing, the delicious aroma of something familiar, yet wholly unexpected reached his nostrils and he almost fell down the stairs in his haste to investigate.
“Ah,” said Gaius cheerily. “You’re awake.” As he spoke, he ladled something hot and fragrant from the cauldron, into Merlin’s breakfast bowl and placed it reverently on the table.
Merlin slipped into his seat, a huge grin on his face. “Is that...?”
“Honey cake and custard? Why, yes it is. Your mother’s recipe.”
Merlin inhaled deeply. “Gaius! You made this?” His mouth was watering at the thought of biting into that sweet, moist deliciousness, which never failed to bring back memories of harvest time and morning mists, of wood fires and home.
Gaius laughed, ladling custard onto his own cake. “Don’t be silly Merlin; I am many things, but a baker I am not. Guinevere made it.”
Merlin was far too busy stuffing his face to respond. It took all of five minutes for him to wonder why Gwen would have cause to bake his mother’s famous honey cake. That was when he noticed some cloth-wrapped articles on the table next to him. He put down his spoon and poked the packages curiously.
Gaius reached over and patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “Happy Birthday, my boy.”
“I forgot!” Merlin spluttered.
He’d been so busy this last week running around the castle in preparation for the feast of Samhain that his birthday had totally slipped his mind. Gaius nudged one of the bundles towards him. “That one’s from me,” he smiled indulgently.
Gently, Merlin unwrapped the crystal and gazed at it in wonder. “What is it?” he asked. “Is it magic?” It seemed to shimmer and glow in his hand.
“The crystal itself is not magic, but can be used to amplify a sorcerer’s powers. With a simple incantation, this one can be bound to you alone, making it useless to anyone else.”
“Gaius!” Merlin breathed happily. “It’s wonderful. Where on earth did you get it?”
“Best not to ask, my boy. Just remember to keep it well hidden.”
“I will,” Merlin nodded gravely, rewrapping the gift. “And what’s this?” He pointed to a small bulky package wrapped in hessian and tied with string.
“From your mother,” Gaius smiled. “She wanted to be here, but it’s the last harvest before winter and no-one could be spared. She said in her letter, that she misses you.”
Merlin sighed. Samhain was a busy time of the year in Ealdor, he hadn’t expected her to come, but he missed her too. The pack contained some apples, several pairs of socks and a new set of underclothes. Merlin blushed and hastily stuffed them back onto the packaging.
The final package was carefully wrapped in plain but expensive material and tied with a silk ribbon. Merlin’s eyes went wide. There was but one person that he knew who could afford such extravagance.
“With his Royal Highnesses compliments,” Gaius beamed.
Merlin ran his hands over the ribbon, almost afraid to open it. Arthur was not exactly known for his present choosing skills, but whatever it was, Merlin was just grateful that the prince had thought to get him anything at all.
“How on earth did he know it was my birthday?” As he spoke, he tugged open the ribbon and let the material slide aside.
“I believe Guinevere told him.”
Merlin slowly withdrew the garment from its wrappings and held it up to the light. It was the softest shirt he had ever owned, and the colour... he’d never worn anything so vibrant before. “Wow!” was all he could think of to say. “It’s really...”
“Purple?” Gaius supplied helpfully.
“I was going to say, beautiful,” Merlin beamed happily. “I’ll wear it right now!”
After leaving Arthur’s breakfast tray to await his eventual rise from bed, Merlin went about his many and varied chores, culminating in a trip to the laundry to fetch Arthur’s second favourite shirt. Much to his surprise, the shirt was nowhere to be found, but he followed the sound of quiet sobbing to its source and found Petunia, one of the apprentice laundresses crying into a hankie.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned by her red eyes and even redder nose.
“His Highnesses’ shirt, Sir,” she wailed. Merlin usually corrected her on the use of the honorific but he was in hurry, and also getting slightly worried about the state in which he might find said shirt. “I forgot to press it, Sir. I’m so sorry! Please don’t let the King behead me!” And off she went again, sobbing and wailing into the tattered piece of cloth.
He patted her shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner. “It’s okay, no-one is losing their head. Just give me the shirt and I’ll press it myself.”
“Cook took it away, Sir. She said she could fix it up in no time.”
“Boudica?” Merlin shuddered. The cook was a formidable woman who claimed to be descended from a long line of warrior women. Merlin believed her. No-one set foot into the royal kitchens without her permission on pain of death. Even when he fetched Arthur’s breakfast in the mornings he had to wait in the hall way for a kitchen boy to bring the tray to him.
“Bugger!” He hurried off, determined to face any peril, up to and including Boudica’s infamous ladle, in the quest for Arthur’s shirt.
As it happened, the old harridan was far too busy with preparations for the feast to beat him about the head, so Merlin got away with a pilfered sweetmeat, the steam pressed shirt and a bloody good giggle at the antics of Percival and Gawain. Unfortunately, the shirt fell victim to a pitcher of red wine a few moments later, but Merlin used magic to sort that out.
Finally, Merlin bustled into Arthur’s chambers but stopped short. “You’re dressed,” he said in surprise.
“Yes, Merlin, I’m not an idiot!” Arthur replied, belaying that assertion by turning his back on Merlin and showing that he really was.
“Are you sure about that?”
Merlin had learned early on that whilst royalty were capable of dressing themselves, they needed servants to make sure they were ‘properly’ turned out. Merlin would dress Arthur for the feast later that day, and make damned sure not a hair was out of place, but for now, he was rather enjoying the view resulting from Arthur’s rucked up shirt!
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s just you’ve got...!”
“Merlin! I am trying to write a speech.”
Which brought them neatly to the other item Merlin carried. He knew how much Arthur hated speechwriting. He was a man of action really, not words, and Merlin had a bit of a knack for it so he’d done this a few times now.
“Do you want help?”
“Nooo,” Arthur said, never looking up from the parchment he was scribbling on. Merlin could see that so far he had penned the word ‘bollocks’ three times and ‘find out the name of the feast. It begins with an S’
“You won’t want this then?” he grinned, pulling the scroll from his pocket. “I spent all night working on it.”
Arthur gestured curtly for the scroll and read in silence for a moment.
“What do you think?” Merlin asked tentatively.
“Needs a polish,” Arthur replied sharply, handing the scroll back. Merlin hadn’t really expected a compliment and indeed, Arthur couldn’t be seen to give one. Obviously, it would be too much for him to say thank you!
“I’ll add it to the list.”
“Merlin, there aren’t many servants who get the chance to write a prince’s speech. Obviously it would be too much for you to say thank you?”
Merlin swore that sometimes Arthur could read his mind! Gathering up dirty laundry, he drew Arthur the dirtiest look he could muster and turned away, then remembered that his mother had brought him up to have good manners at least. “Thank you,” he said over his shoulder.
“That’s better! You’re welcome, Merlin.”
“Not for the speech, you utter prat,” Merlin shook his head, but couldn’t keep the smile from his face, “for the shirt.” He did a little twirl to showcase said shirt. “It was very thoughtful of you. And it fits perfectly.”
Arthur smiled smugly. “Of course it does. I got Gwen to pinch one of your old ones from your room whilst you were mucking out my stables, and had the royal tailor run it up.”
Merlin shouldn’t be impressed. He’d always known Arthur could be a sneaky bastard when he wanted to. “I love the colour. It’s very rich.”
Arthur cleared his throat, and if Merlin didn’t know better, he would say Arthur was nervous. “Yes, well... you’re very privileged to wear it. It’s not every servant that gets to wear Royal Purple you know.”
Merlin hadn’t known. He frowned down at the shirt then looked enquiringly back at Arthur.
“When a servant wears Royal Purple, it signifies that he has his master’s favour, trust and protection. Neither harm nor insult will come to you as long as you wear it.”
Which just made the gift even more special. Merlin smiled his very widest smile and went about the rest of his chores feeling like he was walking on clouds.
It turned out though, that wasn’t all it signified.
Merlin burst into Arthur’s chambers a few hours later, like he was being chased by a pack of wolves, making Arthur’s hand go instinctively to the sword he wasn’t even wearing.
“What’s wrong, Merlin? What’s happened?”
Merlin took in a lungful of air and let it out with a whoosh. “I’ve just been to the stables, where your head groom congratulated me on my new position...” Merlin paused for emphasis then yelled “...between your thighs!”
Arthur’s eyes went comically wide then a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Merlin was absolutely furious. “You knew! You knew, and you didn’t tell me! God, Arthur, half of Camelot thinks you’re shagging me. Including Gwen who’s not talking to me and it’s not even my fault!”
Arthur looked more than a little put out by Merlin’s outburst and wasted no time in letting him know it. “I’ll have you know that any servant of Camelot would be delighted to have people believe they warmed the royal sheets. But not you. Really Merlin, you are the most ungrateful servant I’ve ever had.”
“Bloody right!” Merlin spat angrily. “This might come as a shock to you, Arthur Pendragon, but not everyone in the kingdom wants to shag you. I’ve got a reputation to maintain you know? I was making real progress with ‘Tilda at the Prancing Pony. She won’t give me the time of day now.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. No girl would give you so much as a second glance.”
“Well they certainly won’t now thanks to you!” Merlin crossed his arms angrily over his chest and pouted sullenly out of the window.
A moment later he heard movement and then felt Arthur’s hand on his shoulder, turning him around. “Look, I’m sorry, all right? It never crossed my mind that you would take offence. I’ll have the tailor make you another shirt. A nice blue one? Or Pendragon red maybe?”
“The damage is already done, Arthur. Everyone’s seen me wearing this one.” Merlin sighed and met Arthur’s eyes. “Look, it wouldn’t have been so bad if it was actually true. At least I would be shagging someone. As it stands, I’m destined to spend the rest of my life with my virtue intact. Thanks for that.”
Arthur looked confused, and it had not escaped Merlin’s notice that his hand still rested lightly on Merlin’s shoulder. “The gift was simply a way to ensure your safety and position among the other servants and nobles, but... are you saying that you would actually consider such an arrangement?”
Merlin took a tentative step forward. “Arthur, when the King made me your manservant, Gaius took me aside and explained that might be part of my duties. Let’s face it -- it wouldn’t have been the worst thing you’ve made me do. But you never asked.”
“And that is because I never have, nor ever will take advantage of an unwilling servant.” Arthur closed the space between them a little more, his voice dropping an octave, becoming gravelly and low. “However, if it turned out that the servant were indeed willing, but due to some grave mental affliction, had never thought to make his willingness known in nearly six bloody years...”
Merlin was breathing harder. “Yeah?” he whispered.
“Then I would take him to my bed in a heartbeat.”
Merlin took one final step, pressing himself against the reassuring heat and bulk of Arthur’s chest and looked deep into his eyes. “Nah, I don’t fancy it,” he grinned.
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin and pulled him impossibly closer. “Well, you don’t have any choice now.”
“Fair enou..nmmpf!” Merlin’s words were swallowed by Arthur’s kiss.
It took a long time to get Arthur ready for the feast that evening. Much wine was drunk and Arthur accused Merlin of being a lightweight. There was talk of sacking should Merlin pass out during the feast from too much grape but mostly, there was kissing and groping and then a little more wine.
But despite Arthur’s opinion, Merlin wasn’t that drunk. He was just happy.
Very, very happy.
Arthur raised his tankard and said, “To the King!”
And Merlin promptly passed out.