A soft knock woke Dean, followed by the sound of the door opening. Disoriented in the new motel, he pushed his hand under his pillow for the grip of his gun only to grasp nothing. A flash of panic rushed through him, until he heard Sam sleepily grunt, “Hey, Merlin,” and then the previous day flooded Dean’s memory. Dean rolled over and sat up.
“Good morning, Sam,” Merlin smiled. He was carrying a bundle of leather and cloth, as well as a jar of something. “I’ve managed to find you something with sleeves. It’s not chainmail, I’m afraid, but it was all I could get. I hope it will be satisfactory. How are your arms feeling?”
Merlin walked over to where Sam was sitting up in bed in his loose t-shirt. It was odd to have someone who wasn’t family in the room when they weren’t even dressed, but although Sam looked a little uncomfortable, Merlin didn’t bat an eyelash. But then, he seemed to pull double duty as Gaius’ assistant, so Dean figured that Merlin was probably used to treating half-dressed patients under the physician’s care.
“Little itchy,” Sam said, twisting his arms experimentally. “A little sore. It’s fine. I’ve had worse.”
“If the stories are true, that tells me nothing,” Merlin smiled. “I’ll change your bandages while I’m here and have a look for myself, if you don’t mind.”
“Uh, okay,” Sam said. Merlin immediately reached forward and started unwrapping Sam’s arms. Dean contemplated rolling over and going back to sleep, but then figured he might as well take the opportunity to call first shower-
“Uh, Merlin? Where do you bathe around here?”
“Oh, just ask one of the servants to draw you a bath. You’re fairly close to the kitchens, so it shouldn’t take long to fill the tub. Give me a moment, and I’ll give them the request myself and ask them to bring you some breakfast as well – I’m afraid you two have slept through the knight’s breakfast in the dining hall.”
Dean hadn’t even considered what a lack of indoor plumbing would mean for bathing.“Uh, maybe I’m not that dirty,” Dean sighed. “But, yeah, breakfast would be good.”
“I wouldn’t mind washing my hair,” Sam said, blowing a slightly greasy lock out of his face. “I don’t suppose you guys have any shampoo, though.”
“Sham-what?” Merlin asked.
“Uh, soap? For the hair?” Sam tried. Merlin gave him a look, but then nodded.
“I think I know what you mean,” Merlin said. “I’ll send Mary for something.”
When Merlin left, Sam put on some pants and Dean used the chamber pot. Even the crappiest motel back home had indoor plumbing – the thought that one of the servants would actually have to clean the pot made Dean grimace in sympathy.
He splashed some water on his face from a small basin sitting on a dresser, rubbing a hand over the day’s growth of beard – he’d have to see about getting a razor at some point. Merlin returned and started spreading fresh salve on Sam’s wounds, a little hurriedly, while Dean dressed.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay long today,” Merlin said. “Clarissa covered for me a lot yesterday, and when I ran into her this morning she wasn’t feeling well. I think she may have overworked herself, so I told her to take the day off and rest and I’d cover for her today in repayment. Only, it means that I’ve got to attend Gwen as well as Arthur. So, instead of being able to polish Arthur’s armour this morning while he read his documents, I had to braid Gwen’s hair...which I’ve thankfully become quite good at... but now I’ve got to figure out how to both attend Arthur at court and polish his armour before noon. In any case, if you need anything, Gwaine and Leon are next door, and Mary and Callum will be here shortly with your breakfast and to help with Sam’s hair – so you should have everything you need, and I once again apologize for-“
“Merlin,” Dean cut in. “Breathe.”
“Sorry,” He said sheepishly. He carefully started re-bandaging Sam’s arms. At the knock on the door Merlin called, “Enter!” before Sam and Dean could.
Mary came in carrying a bucket of water and a small cloth bag, holding the door for Callum who was carrying two trays of food. They gave quick bows to Sam and Dean.
“Breakfast, My Lords,” Callum said.
“And when Merlin is done, I can assist with your hair, My Lord,” Mary said to Sam, with a small, unsure smile.
Dean watched Sam smile back reassuringly. Callum bowed briefly again when Dean thanked him for the food. Callum disappeared out the door, giving Mary an odd smile on his way out.
There was sausage, fruit, and bread on the plates – not a bad breakfast.
Merlin finished off the last of Sam’s bandages and straightened up.
“All done,” Merlin said. “Again, if you need anything, just ask the servants, or one of the knights. Gwaine or Leon will fetch you at noon. You’re to ride out for the hunt then, Arthur and I will be joining you.”
Dean sighed, earning an apologetic look from Merlin, but Arthur wanting to ride out with them was hardly a surprise.
“Thanks Merlin,” Sam said, and Merlin left with the used bandages.
“I can wash your hair now, if you like, My Lord,” Mary smiled. She began emptying the contents of the cloth bag onto the table. There was a battered cup, some small bottles of liquid, and a hairbrush.
“That’d be great,” Sam smiled, eyeing the bucket of water. “How do we do this?”
Mary turned the chair around at the end of the long table opposite Dean, so that its back was to the table. She set the bucket of water on the table, and directed Sam to sit in the chair. She gently pulled Sam’s head back until he was looking up at her with his head over the bucket. She then carefully used the cup to scoop up water and poor it over Sam’s hair.
Mary uncorked one of her bottles and started massaging some oil into Sam’s hair, and while she did she chatted away – like it was a weird medieval hair salon, and there was no way Dean wasn’t teasing Sam about this later. She mostly talked about the weather, and how she used to attend the ladies at court, but that she much preferred the Knights, because there were far less laces to deal with. Sam just said ‘uh huh’ and ‘hmm’ the whole time Mary talked, but that seemed to work just fine. Dean even found himself doing the same while he ate.
Once she had rinsed out Sam’s hair, she dried it in a towel – mussing Sam’s hair for so long that when she pulled the towel away it stuck out every which way and made Dean laugh.
“You can eat while I brush it for you,” Mary offered Sam, picking up the hairbrush.
“I can brush it,” Sam blushed.
“Oh, it’s no trouble!” Mary insisted. “You have such nice hair, I’d be my pleasure.”
Sam blushed more and wouldn’t meet Dean’s gaze, but he dutifully pulled his chair over to his breakfast plate and didn’t object when Mary picked up the hair brush and started slowly working on Sam’s hair.
“I helped the Lady Mithrin’s maid with her hair when she came to court,” Mary started explaining. “And of course, back when the Lady Mor-... that is... years ago, when we had a Lady at court and when the King was still the Prince and had not yet married, we used to have more Lady visitors – and even those that brought their own maids would sometimes require a spare hand. When the Queen was only a maid, sometimes she would have me wash her Lady’s hair while she tended to the mending – nowadays, of course, the Queen has Clarissa and I have enough work keeping up with the knights, but I always did enjoy attending to the Ladies’ hair, and so it was a pleasant surprise when Merlin asked if I could attend you this morning. You do have such beautiful hair...”
“Wait a moment,” Dean interrupted, a slow smile creeping over his face. Mary stopped talking and looked up at him. “Are you saying that this is a service that’s usually only requested by Ladies?”
“Aye, My Lord,” Mary answered without blinking. “’Tis why I was surprised – but pleasantly so. Usually the knights just dunk their heads in the bathwater.”
Dean smiled as Sam’s eyes widened briefly before closing in what could only be mortification as realization sank in.
“Well, they don’t know what they’re missing, do they?” Dean winked.
Mary hummed her agreement.
They spent the rest of the morning exploring the castle. Dean wanted to see as much as he could before they killed the last vamp that
afternoon and Merlin sent them back home. Sam didn’t even give him a hard time about it, which Dean knew meant that he was just as curious as Dean. Yes, it was inconvenient to be summoned across dimensions against their will, and Dean really hoped that Cas wasn’t freaking out about them being missing back in their own universe, but if he looked past all that... well, it wasn’t every day a person got the chance to see Camelot.
They found a library, which Sam very much wanted to stay in, but apparently the grouchy old caretaker didn’t like strangers touching his books – so instead they climbed towers and surveyed the landscape. Eventually, they found themselves walking along the top of a wall that overlooked what could only be the training ground. Among the figures in chainmail having mock duels with swords and maces and shooting crossbows at wooden targets, Dean recognized Gwaine, Elyan, and Leon. It looked awesome.
“You want to check it out?” Sam smiled.
“Yeah,” Dean nodded, and they headed back for the stairs – trying to find their way through the maze of the castle to the training grounds. Eventually, they came upon a corridor they recognized from the previous night – the one that led to the armoury.
While Dean was still tempted to go out and watch the training close-up, the opportunity to check out Camelot’s weapons was too good to pass up. All the knights were at practice, the armoury would be deserted. Dean knocked Sam’s arm and nodded his head towards to the door Sam shrugged and followed.
The armoury wasn’t empty though. Sir Percival was sitting on a bench in the corner polishing armour with an old rag.
“Oh,” Dean said, caught off guard and freezing partway into the room so that Sam nearly crashed into his back. “Hi, we-”
Percival immediately held a finger to his lips, and then looked to a corner of the room. Dean followed his gaze and realized that Merlin was curled up fast asleep. His head was pillowed on his folded up jacket and he was covered in one of the knights’ red capes.
“Sorry,” Percival whispered. “I don’t want to wake him. Can I help you with something?”
“No,” Dean whispered back, as he walked over to stand closer to Percival so that their voices wouldn’t disturb Merlin. “We were just exploring. What, uh... why’s he sleeping in here?” Dean knew Merlin had his own room. Dean had helped Merlin carry his bed back into it after all the blood had been mopped up.
“He was falling asleep sitting up,” Percival replied. “So, I offered to finish polishing Arthur’s armour for him while he caught a few minutes sleep.”
“That’s nice of you,” Sam said, running a finger over the intricate design caved into the shoulder of Arthur’s armour.
“I do what I can for him,” Percival said, with an odd sad tone. “It never feels like enough.”
“What do you mean?” Sam asked, and Dean felt a wave of affection for his brother when he recognised the tone. Sam would have made a good therapist in another life.
“Before we came to Camelot, Lancelot used to talk about him all the time,” Percival replied. “He said that Merlin was a true friend, loyal to Arthur, and the bravest man he knew, but he also said that Merlin needed a friend to watch out for him. Lancelot never told me why... but I see it now – Merlin does not know his own limits. He rides into the heart of battles unarmed at Arthur’s side and he often overworks himself. When Lancelot... left us... I swore to myself that I would watch over Merlin, and Gwen, in his memory. I have at times failed.”
“Kid looks okay to me,” Dean offered, with another glance at where Merlin still slept in the corner.
Percival nodded, and gave Merlin’s sleeping form a small smile.
“You’ll watch out for him then, when you ride out with the King shortly?” Percival stated.
“Of course,” Dean said. “Though, judging from what Sam tells me, the King is more likely to stupidly put himself in danger than Merlin is.”
“And if he does, Merlin will be a step behind him,” Percival said. “And only Arthur carries a sword.”
“Just because someone is unarmed, that doesn’t mean they’re defenceless,” Sam interjected. Percival gave him a bemused look, but before he could ask anything, there was a growing clatter of footsteps and loud voices coming down the hallway.
Leon was first into the room, the rest of the knights filing in behind him.
“Finished?” Leon asked. “Arthur will have dismissed court by now, Merlin needs to get to the kitchens.”
“Finished,” Percival confirmed. “Thank you for allowing me to miss training.”
Gwaine was already in the corner shaking Merlin awake.
“Already?!” Merlin’s whine broke the silence, and a good number of the knights chuckled, but in the next moment, Merlin was moving as though he had never been asleep – putting back on his ragged jacket and scooping up Arthur’s amour.
“Thanks Percival,” Merlin smiled. “I owe you one.”
“No, you don’t,” Percival sighed, but Merlin was already half way out the door calling “See you after lunch, Leon!” as he left.
“You fellows should have come to practice,” Gwaine grinned at Dean. “I would have loved to test your skills.”
Sam laughed. “You’d probably win. We don’t have a lot of practice with duelling – our enemies are usually the tooth and claw type.”
“Speak for yourself,” Dean said, hitting Sam. “I bet I could take him.”
There was a laugh from the other knights, and Leon leaned over towards Dean. “Gwaine’s the best swordsman in Camelot...” there were nods of agreement among the nights, and then Leon added, “...except for the King.”
“We’ve yet to prove that,” Gwaine argued.
From there the conversation led to arguments about how fair fights were when you had a duty to protect your opponent, and whether or not King Arthur could best Leon at archery... and Dean loved every minute of it.
Sam observed quietly while they followed the knights to the mess hall for lunch. He preferred to watch Dean – they’d only been in Camelot for a day and a half, and already Dean had established friendships with the knights. Sam could tell that Dean was having the time of his life.
After the meal, Gwaine and Leon took Sam and Dean to the stables to get horses. Sam didn’t bother to lie about their horse riding experience. Traveling on foot wasn’t too uncommon, Sam hoped. Leon nodded and selected two horses that he said would be easy for novice riders, and told the stable boys to saddle them.
There was a brief wait in the courtyard until Arthur strode out of the castle with Merlin on his heels. Merlin checked Arthur’s saddle and waited until the king was mounted before scurrying to his own horse and scrambling onto it. Arthur smiled up at the castle, and Sam saw the Queen standing by the open door. She waved, a gesture which Arthur returned, and then Sam saw Merlin give her a nod.
“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur ordered, as though Merlin was holding them all up, and Arthur turned his horse and the party was off. Thankfully, Sam and Dean’s horses seemed to know to follow the others without much guiding.
They rode through the lower town and out onto a road surrounded by farmers fields. The horses slowed as they took a fork left towards the forest. They passed by an orchard, where Gwaine reached out and plucked an apple from a branch. He took a bite that Sam could hear even over the noise of the horses’ hooves on the hard ground.
“Didn’t you just eat?” Arthur asked from the front of the line.
“‘S dessert,” Gwaine said around a second bite, but then he sighed, and kicked his horse forward a little more. “Fine. Merlin?” When Merlin looked back, Gwaine threw him the apple, “Catch!”
Merlin’s hands shot out automatically and he only fumbled the apple a little. He smiled in confusion, but then dusted off the side of the apple that Gwaine hadn’t bitten and took a bite. His smile turned a little wicked as his gaze slide to the side of Arthur’s face.
“Oh don’t you start too,” Arthur muttered. “Get rid of it.”
“We shouldn’t waste food, Arthur,” Merlin said.
“I should have learned my lesson about putting the two of you together by now,” Arthur answered.
“Well, you’ve always been a bit slow, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Merlin said, before taking another bite.
Sam smiled. Leon and Gwaine were biting their lips, but it was Dean that let out an audible huff of laughter that caused Arthur to stiffen.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, and there was no longer humour in it. “That’s enough.”
“Yes, My Lord,” Merlin replied, and he tossed the apple to the side of the road. Gwaine looked at it forlornly as he rode past.
The trees bracketing the road ended and a small cottage came into view. A man in a large brimmed hat was harnessing an ox to a wooden cart. Sam was surprised when Arthur slowed his horse to a stop and looked back at him and Dean.
“What’s our plan?” Arthur asked.
“Sam tells me you make good bait,” Dean said, and Sam’s stomach dropped at his tone. “So, the plan is for you to go do what comes naturally, and we’ll make sure you don’t get killed, Your Highness.”
Sam had been too worried about riding a horse and too distracted by the banter between Arthur, Gwaine, and Merlin that he had completely forgotten to worry about the fact that Dean was still pissed at Arthur for last night. Sam tried to give Arthur an apologetic look, but Arthur was too busy glaring at Dean.
“Very well,” Arthur ground out, and then kicked his horse into motion. Merlin followed along with the rest of the knights.
“Dean,” Sam said through his teeth, but Dean’s gave him a quick sequence of hand motions told Sam the plan in three seconds, and Sam nodded and turned his horse to follow the others.
The man in the hat saw them approach and stopped what he was doing. Sam could see from yards off how nervous he was. Sam spurred his horse to run quicker, and dismounted right after Arthur did.
“Sire,” the man bowed low, his face disappearing completely into the shadow cast by his hat’s brim. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“We’re tracking a beast,” Arthur said, his authoritative tone completely different than the way he had just been talking with Merlin and his knights. The man fiddled with his long cuffs. Sam moved towards the cart, and the man shot him a brief anxious glance. “We were wondering if you’ve seen anything suspicious, since you live so close to the Darkling Wood.”
“No, nothing, Sire,” the man said, his voice shaking. “It’s been quiet here.”
“Nice hat,” Sam commented, carefully drawing the man’s attention away from Arthur. Sam nodded toward the cart, where Sam could see a large blanket covering the load it contained. “What are you transporting here?”
“A-apples,” the man answered, moving his body to block Sam from coming any closer, “for the market.”
“Shouldn’t you have transported those this morning?” Arthur asked, and the man’s gaze darted momentarily back to the King. It was the distraction Sam needed.
“Show us your teeth!” Sam commanded, while in one move he unsheathed his sword and swung it menacingly in front of the man, not actually close enough to connect, but close enough to cause the man’s survival reflex to kick in.
The man leapt a step backward, a second set of teeth descending menacingly as he snarled. Sam heard all the swords around him draw, but before the vampire could leap, a blade severed his head from behind. The body fell to the ground and the head rolled away on the grass.
Dean bent over and used the dead vamp’s shirt to wipe off his sword.
“Proof enough, your Highness?” Dean asked.
Arthur’s slack jaw clenched tightly closed.
“Someone needs to make sure there aren’t any more in the house,” Sam said, trying to avoid any arguments between Dean and Arthur. Arthur nodded and he and his knights turned to circle and search the house. Dean went with them, but Sam noted that he let Arthur take the lead.
“Do you think he was fleeing?” Merlin asked, his attention on the hitched cart.
“Let’s find out,” Sam said, and he reached over and pulled away the blanket.
“Shit,” Sam swore. Under the blanket was an unconscious man, dried blood caked around his collar.
Merlin immediately scrambled up into the cart.
“He’s still alive!” Merlin tore a strip off the man’s shirt to hold to his bleeding neck. Just then, Arthur and the others came out of the house.
“Check his teeth!” Sam ordered Merlin, as Arthur and the knights ran over.
“What?” Merlin said. “I need to get him back to Gaius-”
“Check his teeth,” Sam repeated. He stepped up onto the cart and pulled Merlin back forcibly.
“Hey!” Merlin protested, but Sam forced his fingers into the unconscious man’s mouth and felt along the gum lines.
“He’s human,” Sam sighed in relief.
“He’ll be a corpse if you don’t let me get him back to Gaius,” Merlin said, hitting Sam on the shoulder.
“Merlin,” Dean reprimanded, “We needed to be sure.”
“Sorry, My Lord,” Merlin muttered.
“There was no one in the house,” Arthur announced, once Sam had jumped back off the cart.
“Someone needs to ride ahead and alert Gaius. This man’s lost a lot of blood,” Merlin continued talking as though Arthur hadn’t spoken. “We’ll have to leave him in the cart. I fear he’s too weak to be put on a horse.”
Sam watched as Arthur signalled Leon, who mounted his horse and quickly rode back toward Camelot.
“Merlin, you drive the cart, Gwaine will stay with you and lead your horse,” Arthur instructed.
And so, Dean and Sam found themselves riding alone with King Arthur back to the castle, as the ox-pulled cart was significantly slower. To say the trip was awkward would have been an understatement. Sam wasn’t actually sure who was angrier, Arthur or Dean.
“Do you think that’s the last of them?” Arthur finally spoke as the lower town came into view.
“Should be, yeah,” Dean answered.
“So you’ll be leaving then?” Arthur asked curtly. It was clear that Arthur wanted nothing better than to see the back of them.
“We’ll wait a bit,” Sam answered, because Sam wasn’t sure how much time Merlin needed to unsummon them. “Just to make sure that there are no more attacks, and then we’ll be out of your hair, I promise.”
“If you’re mad at me about the bait comment,” Dean said. “I’m not apologizing. You didn’t listen and it got my brother hurt.”
“Dean,” Sam sighed.
“No, he’s right,” Arthur looked back at Sam briefly. “I didn’t trust you when I should have. I still don’t trust you.”
“People rarely do,” Sam shrugged. They rode into the court yard and dismounted.
“Who are you really?” Arthur asked, turning to them, while the stable boys came running to take the horses.
Sam tried to keep his expression relaxed, even while his heart picked up its pace.
“What do you mean?” Dean said. “We told you-”
“Merlin called you ‘My Lord,’” Arthur said.
“Isn’t that...isn’t that what servants do?” Sam tried for a smile.
“Not Merlin,” Arthur shook his head.
“Are you jealous?” Dean joked. Sam really wanted to kick him.
“He also acts as though he’s afraid of you,” Arthur continued as though Dean hadn’t spoken, “but Merlin’s not afraid of anyone, even when he has every reason to be. He’s an idiot that way.”
“Don’t know what to tell ya,” Dean shrugged. Arthur furrowed his brow at them and visibly readied another question.
All of three of them turned at the Queen’s voice. Arthur’s expression changed immediately into a reassuring smile as he climbed the stairs to join his wife halfway.
“I saw Leon on his way to Gaius. Is someone hurt?” the Queen asked.
“We found another victim that still lived....” Arthur began to report. Dean put his hand on Sam’s forearm and pulled him away from the King and Queen.
“I think we better make ourselves scarce while he’s distracted,” Dean muttered, and Sam couldn’t have agreed more.