A TRICK OF THE LIGHT
"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world."
Gwaine had never stayed behind to clean up after a tavern brawl before.
Too busy running, he grinned to himself, bending down to scoop up yet another shard of broken pottery. The knight had a fondness for new experiences but, truth be told, this one left him feeling more than a little flat. Guilt was a poor companion – and apparently so was Sir Leon when it came to ale-induced high jinks and gambling misadventures. Much as Gwaine admired the man for his moral fortitude, virtue had never been known to sway the toss of a coin. If it could, Gwaine would have taken holy orders long ago. As for remarking upon the cleverness of his 'system', just as it was about to yield magnificent results… Gwaine's sigh was heartfelt. He still couldn't tell whether or not Leon had done that on purpose. Some kind of lesson for the hapless knight, perhaps? Risking a sly glance through his heavy mane of hair, Gwaine studied his companion, who was currently hefting barrels back into place under the watchful eye of the rumpled tavern owner. Leon's face was solemn and his bearing was a study in abject disapproval.
You let me down, said the stiffness in his back. You let yourself down, said the sorrow in his eyes. You're a knight of Camelot, said the crease between his eyebrows. Why can't you act like it?
Gwaine dropped down onto his knees. He could almost feel the weight of Arthur's sword upon his shoulder. So many expectations. Easy to become a knight when there was a kingdom to reclaim, but now, when things were - well, as hopeful as they could ever get around here? That was the heavy burden, just as he had always suspected it would be. He could fight like a storm, fierce and wild, when the need arose, and he would fight to the death for any man, woman or child in a heartbeat – but the rest of it? The pomp and ceremony, and the need to be so very noble all the time… Did I make a mistake after all?
"Are you finished?" Leon's voice broke into his reverie. All the barrels were hefted, then.
"That's a good question," Gwaine said lightly, relishing the double meaning as he rose to his feet with a slight drunken wobble. He gestured like an overly dramatic bard, taking in the whole room with one sweep of his hand. "Floor's clear. Tables are righted. Coins are in the coffer, to pay for the rest of the damage." My winnings, he added silently, hiding a twinge of regret. "You tell me. Think they'll let us leave yet?"
"They're not keeping us here, Gwaine. You know that. We chose to stay. We're Knights of…"
"Camelot. Yes. I'm aware of that, thank you." Really, had old King Uther made some kind of ridiculous decree that his knights should utter those words at least once every day? Embroider them on samplers? Maybe he should ask the new king. There was plenty of room for change in Arthur's reign, as far as Gwaine could see, and he had plenty of suggestions. "You like sewing, Leon?"
"I beg your pardon?" Leon looked puzzled.
Gwaine chuckled. Already, his frustration was melting away in the warmth of his returning humour. After all, this would be an excellent tale to tell Merlin… once he had embroidered it. "Nothing. Just a random question. Keeping you on your toes. That's my role, as your knightly brother. Call it training in the ways of the world. You've led a sheltered life, my friend, here in your pretty kingdom. I plan to help you with that." He slapped the taller man hard on the back. Leon frowned, still trying to fathom the twisted workings of Gwaine's mind. Give up, Gwaine advised him secretly, with a wicked look.
Leon's only response was a weary sigh.
Offering one last nod of apology to the tavern keeper, both men turned to leave the Rising Sun at last. Gwaine could smell freedom, crisp and clear. Well, maybe not clear – they were in the lower town. Fragrant living was a rarity, even here in Camelot. Another decree for Arthur, perhaps? Scented candles for every peasant hovel? Stricter bathing laws? Were there bathing laws…?
Now you're rambling, Gwaine scolded himself. How much did you drink tonight?
"Wait," said Leon, holding up his hand.
Gwaine stumbled into him. "What's that, now?" So close… "A broken stool? A puddle of ale?"
"Try a wounded man," Leon chided him quietly. He pointed to a shadowy corner of the room that had escaped their notice until this very moment, as a shaft of moonlight, beacon-bright, dipped through a hole in the roof to point their way.
Full of regret, Gwaine moved quickly, followed by his friend. The sight was sobering. Together, they crouched down beside the stranger, a young man, pale of face and hair, with a nasty bruise upon his temple and a sheen of sweat across his skin. He was lying on the dirty floor in a tangle of limbs, like a fallen bird – limp and wrong, somehow. Leon felt his pulse and hissed with dismay.
"We should fetch Gaius at once. I've no aptitude for healing."
"Too slow. I'll take him there myself." Gwaine started to lift the fallen stranger, who was heavier than he looked. "I caused this, Leon. I need to make it right."
"Nonsense. We were both at fault." Leon's claim was a generous lie. "We'll carry him together."
The candle was reaching the end of its life; a tiny flame that battled on with flickering courage as it sank into a pool of melted wax. It could foresee its own extinction yet it burned with all of its tiny might.
Beside it, Gaius slumbered peacefully, his cheek resting on a jumbled sheaf of scribbled notes. There was a pot of ink upon the table, a jar of sticky paste and a collection of murky bottles. Damp had made their labels indecipherable but some were newly christened; an arduous task at the end of a very long day.
"Beorhtne," Merlin whispered from the doorway, and the flame grew strong. So easy, with a candle. Far more complicated with a man… The thought was a bitter one. Merlin dismissed it quickly but the sour taste lingered.
"I shouldn't need to remind you, Merlin," said a muffled, weary voice. "Next time, close the door."
Gaius lifted his head, blinking like an owl who has wakened in daylight. There were creases on his cheek, and several inky words, printed backwards. Stepping closer, Merlin studied them surreptitiously. Flatulence. Ease. Digestion. Tickled, he tried not to laugh. "It's late," he protested. "No one's out there. Let's face it, anyone with any common sense is sleeping."
"Yes," said Gaius pointedly. "I was." The twinkle in his eye gave the lie to his grumpy demeanour. Or was that just a reflection of the candle flame…?
"Not at all. I was dreaming that I had an assistant who actually… what's the word I'm searching for? Assisted. Merlin, I asked you to re-label these bottles five days ago. This afternoon, I gave Sir Elyan what I thought was a simple remedy for headaches. Only a fortunate instinct warned me that something was amiss. I went back and switched the bottles, just in time as it transpires."
Merlin couldn't help himself. "What had you given him, really?"
"A sleeping draught. Highly potent. If he had taken it…" The corner of Gaius's mouth twitched. "Yes, I know; it all seems very amusing here and now. But what if he had been on duty? Out on patrol? On a horse?"
"Alright, alright." Merlin held up his hands. "I'm sorry, Gaius. Here, let me help you finish while the flame's still bright enough."
It was an effort to hide the weariness in his stride, and the stiffness of his limbs as he went back to close the door, crossed the room again and sat down next to his dearest friend. An unsuccessful effort, in fact, since Gaius was no fool. "Merlin, I'm sorry," he said gravely. "We're both tired. This can wait; of course it can."
"Sir Elyan might disagree. But I won't." Merlin's smile was broad, and full of relief. "You've got… something, by the way." He tapped his fingers against his own cheek, pointedly. "A little…"
"Ink? Grease? Thank you, Merlin."
As Gaius scrubbed at his face unsuccessfully, much to Merlin's amusement, there came a scuffling noise from the 'empty' corridor. Merlin gave a guilty start and avoided his guardian's eyes.
"Gaius?" called a familiar voice. "You awake in there?" At the same time, someone – surely not Gwaine – knocked politely.
Merlin and Gaius exchanged glances. A visit from the errant knight at this time could mean only one thing. Trouble.
"Come in," said Gaius, warily – and Trouble burst into the room.