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Rating: U
Author's Notes: A wintry walk for Merlin and Arthur. Guess the Christmas carol!
Spoilers: Set around mid series 2, but no real spoilers

Merlin looked around for Arthur in the Great Hall.

It was the midwinter feast, and the hall was decorated with evergreen boughs and full of richly-dressed nobles in varying degrees of inebriation after an extensive lunch. Uther smiled magnanimously at the head of the table, the firelight glinting off his crown, and Morgana sat next to him, resplendent in purple velvet. Merlin looked around again for Arthur’s red jacket and blond hair but failed to see him. At that moment, Gwen came past him, carrying a flagon of wine.

“Looking for Arthur?” she asked, having evidently noticed his confusion.

Merlin nodded, still craning his neck to try to see.

“He left about twenty minutes ago,” Gwen said helpfully. Merlin turned to her, but forestalling his next question, she hastily added, “I know because Morgana was wondering where he was going.”

Merlin grinned at her. “Of course,” he said, unconvincingly.

Shaking her head at him, Gwen continued on her way towards Morgana and Uther. Merlin hesitated. Arthur knew where he was, but on the other hand, maybe he should at least try to find him and see if there was anything he wanted. Once outside the hall doors, he quickly spotted Arthur. He had one foot on a windowsill, and with his elbow resting on his thigh and his chin propped on his hand, was gazing out of the window. He gave no sign that he’d noticed Merlin approach, until Merlin said softly, “Sire.”

Arthur looked round. “Merlin,” he greeted, gesturing towards the window. “Do you know who that is?” He moved back slightly so that Merlin could look out, seeing the roofs of the lower town, blanketed in snow, and the fields and woods beyond the walls. It was almost dark, even though it was barely past three o’clock, but he could just make out a figure who seemed to be gathering wood along the hedgerows, bent almost double against the wind. Looking a little harder, he realised he recognised the man; he was a peasant he knew by sight who lived outside the city. Merlin couldn’t remember what he did: a farmer? Woodcutter?

He straightened up and turned to face Arthur. “Sire, he lives a league or so beyond the walls, on the foothills of the mountain.”

Arthur looked blank, so he added, “At the edge of the forest? By the fountain?”

Arthur nodded. “I’ve seen a small hut up there.”

Merlin looked out again at the man. He must be freezing; it was no afternoon for being outside. He shivered slightly at the thought.

Suddenly Arthur seemed to snap into action. “Get me some of the leftover meat from the feast,” he ordered. “And bring some wine, and… see if you can get hold of some pine logs, and meet me back here.”

Merlin stared at him. “How am I supposed to carry all that?”

Arthur looked impatient. “I don’t know, Merlin – use your initiative. Do I have to think of everything?” he snapped.

“Fine, fine,” muttered Merlin, turning away. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him. “What for?” he asked suspiciously.

“What do you think?” demanded Arthur. “We’re going to take them to him. Nobody should be collecting wood on a day like today, and I bet he doesn’t have enough food either.”

“But it’s freezing out there,” Merlin protested.

“Precisely,” Arthur agreed. “Go on, then,” he added, giving Merlin a gentle shove in the direction of the kitchens.

** **

In the kitchens he ran into Gwen again.

“What are you doing?” she asked, as he packed meat into a small parcel.

“Arthur saw a man gathering wood beyond the walls and wants to take food to him,” Merlin explained briefly, trying to keep the resentment out of his voice.

Gwen said nothing, but merely glowed in the way she always seemed to when Arthur was bent on doing something particularly noble. Merlin scowled. It was alright for her; Arthur’s grand gesture wouldn’t result in her getting frostbite.

“If I catch my death of cold out there, I expect you to nurse me back to health,” he warned her severely. He poured some wine into a skin, and Gwen, choosing not to comment on his failure of logic, smiled at him and passed him a bag to put the meat and wine in.

“I promise,” she said teasingly.

“Good,” he replied grumpily, slinging the bag over his shoulder and heading out of the kitchen to the palace woodstores.

** **

Arthur was looking out of the window again when Merlin got back to him, but Merlin was relieved to see that he had fetched two thick winter cloaks.

“Give me the wood,” he ordered, taking the bundle from Merlin and handing him a cloak in return. Merlin put the cloak on; it was thick and warm and had a lined hood which he left hanging down his back for the moment. Arthur gracefully swirled his cloak on, Pendragon red contrasting with Merlin’s dark blue.

“Gloves,” Arthur added, taking a pair off the windowsill and handing them to Merlin.

“Thank you, Sire,” Merlin murmured, slipping them on. The leather was soft and supple, and they were lined with fur; although Merlin was well aware that they were only one pair of at least ten which Arthur owned, he appreciated the gesture that Arthur had made in lending them to him.

As they made their way through the castle, Merlin began to think that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Well-protected against the elements, his bag comfortably over his shoulder underneath the cloak, he felt that a crisp midwinter walk could actually be quite enjoyable – until Arthur opened the door and the wind almost knocked him off his feet.

** **

Camelot’s streets were slippery, but at least they were somewhat sheltered from the wind between the houses. It was a different story once they were outside the city. Following the direction in which they’d last seen the man, they turned into the wind and battled forwards. It was even darker now, with the moon casting an eerie glow on the snow, and Merlin looked up longingly at the cosy light emanating from the castle windows. He was sure the wind had got stronger since they’d left. Arthur strode confidently along the middle of the path, sure of his footing, while Merlin slipped and slid, half on the path and half on the bank beside it.

After the third time he’d slipped over and in the face of his increasingly bitter complaints, Arthur snapped, “Honestly, Merlin! Walk behind me; use my footprints if you have to.”

Despite being reluctant to follow behind Arthur like some kind of – well, servant, Merlin did as he was told and found the going easier immediately. The path was flatter in the middle, and as well as being able to step in Arthur’s footprints, the prince was also sheltering him from the bitter wind.

They could see a hut up ahead now, a dim light emanating from its windows and a small wisp of smoke coiling from the chimney.

“Is that the one?” asked Arthur, turning briefly to Merlin.

“Yes!” Merlin shouted back through the wind. Arthur nodded and strode onwards; the path was wider now, so he caught up with Arthur and walked beside him. They needed all their breath to fight their way through the wind, so they didn’t talk, but strode on in companionable silence.

Eventually they arrived at the ramshackle hut. Looking up, Merlin could see that it desperately needed repairs to its roof, and there were patches of rot in the walls. He noticed Arthur running an assessing eye over it too before he knocked loudly on the door, pulling his hood back to reveal his face.

After a few moments, it creaked open to reveal an old man with a white beard. His back was bent with age, but his eyes were sharp. “What-” he began impatiently, before he realised who his visitor was. “Sire,” he said, and Merlin wasn’t sure whether he was bowing respectfully or cowering fearfully; he wondered what this man had endured at Uther’s hands. Those who were isolated were often at risk of being accused of sorcery, without friends or neighbours to vouch for them or protect them.

“We bring you food, drink and fuel in celebration of the midwinter,” Arthur said regally, extending a hand to the man’s elbow to draw him upright. “Merlin!” he added impatiently.

Merlin hurried forward. “We have meat for you, and wine,” he said, drawing them out of his bag and handing them to the man, who took them disbelievingly. Arthur handed Merlin the pine logs, and Merlin added, “And pine logs – I can put them by your fire, if you’d like…” He trailed off, as the man continued to stare at him as if worried that this was all some kind of trick. But suddenly, he smiled, and drew back to let them in.

“Thank you, your Highness,” he said, as Arthur followed Merlin in. Turning around as he put the logs next to the man’s very small fire, Merlin saw him bow again, except that this time, he was sure that it was a genuine bow.

Arthur inclined his head. “We must get back to the castle,” he said to Merlin, mainly for the man’s benefit.

The man nodded; it had grown even darker outside, and it was clear that if they were to get back to Camelot safely they would have to leave immediately. Merlin suspected that a fear of being stranded and having to remain for the night was driving Arthur’s haste; although he didn’t mind sleeping outdoors while they were on a journey, he really was very attached to his comfortable bed and warm chambers.

“Bless you, sire,” said the man sincerely. “You are a good man, and you will be a noble ruler.” He bowed again as he held the door for Merlin and Arthur to pass through.

“Thank you,” murmured Arthur, looking rather embarrassed.

As they set off again through the cold, dark night, Merlin wondered if Arthur was aware that as well as creating goodwill, these small kindnesses were raising expectations for his future reign. A good man, a noble ruler, and maybe, just maybe, a friend to those with magic. Merlin’s heart lifted as he saw the lights of Camelot twinkling ahead, guiding them home.

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