Why you should never eavesdrop
Merlin was no stranger to visiting nobles. He had become rather well-acquainted with who was who since arriving in Camelot what felt a lifetime ago.
And he also wasn't a stranger to eavesdropping. It was a necessary evil in his mind, seeing how there were many people who came with a plot against the crown, the Kingdom of Camelot, or the king and prince. The young man knew that the enemies of Uther Pendragon would stop at nothing to at avenge the deaths of their loved ones in the Great Purge. That meant taking out his master, the Prince (now King) Arthur. Merlin had thrown himself in front of many, many attacks to keep the blond Prince safe, as it was foretold that Arthur would become the Once and Future King who would unite all of Albion and bring about an era of peace. And Merlin, according to a very ancient and (more-or-less) reliable source, was magic incarnate and destined to help the blond idiot create a better world for both those of the Old Religion and those who were of the new.
That meant Merlin had to keep the Kingly prat from being killed before he completed his task. And that placed another certain task of eavesdropping on those who he suspected fermenting a plan against the Crown.
Unfortunately, he had never expected that he would be keeping an eye on Lord Aziraphale.
Lord Aziraphale had come to King Arthur's court nearly a week after his coronation. He had come, a white-haired man with the temperament and body of a scholar, asking humbly if he could join Camelot's army. The man brought a scroll that proclaimed his lineage and after Geoffroy of Monmouth had claimed its legitimacy, Arthur had welcomed Aziraphale into the ranks. At first, no one expected him to last very long. Most of the time, the white-haired man had spent his time holed up in archives with Geoffroy. But there was a running bet, mostly in the inner circle and among the Round Table knights, on how long the man would last. However, everyone who had laughed at the Knight behind his back ate their own words when he entered his first battle. There was a small diplomatic convoy that was returning with from a very tense peace talk when they had been beset by bandits. It was a very outweighed fight, with the bandits easily outnumbering the Camelot knights. Merlin had immediately gone into what he called 'Protect Arthur Mode' as the fight raged. But as he tried to get off his horse, his foot got caught on the hold and he pitched forward, twisting his ankle painfully.
He was unarmed and was injured getting off his horse (he never lived that down for years after the incident), and the Knights were too busy trying to get themselves out of the trouble to worry about him.
A bandit had spotted him, struggling to get to Arthur, and had charged. Merlin had panicked, something that he never really did, as he couldn't use his magic. Thankfully, and much to his shock, Lord Aziraphale had come to his rescue, standing over the hurt servant for the rest of the battle and fighting off the bandits that thought it would be a good idea to attack them. Merlin had found himself struck dumb at the white-haired knight's fighting style. It was barbaric and yet, beautiful in some strange way. The man moved around with such speed that it was almost impossible to keep track of him as he whirled around and swung at the men that came at the two of them.
After that, there were no more jokes or laughs and snickers behind the man's back. They all readily accepted him as one of their own.
And the servants in the castle liked the man as well, though for a completely different reason than the knights. The man would always send smiles and bright greetings to those who he passed in the corridors. Sometimes, if he would be feeling extra kind that day, he would press a coin or two into the hands of those who helped him in certain tasks. Merlin received five coins after polishing and sharpening the man's sword. And when he tried to refuse the coins, the knight had smiled and closed his hands, gently ordering the younger man that if he did not want the coins himself, he should send it to his dear mother.
Basically, he was the best.
Of course, something happened that caused Merlin to fear that the knight was in cahoots with those who plotted against Camelot and her people.
It was after Arthur had sent Lord Aziraphale to defeat the Infamous Black Knight about three years after the knight had first appeared in court. When the man had returned, he announced the successfulness of the quest, but he came back different.
There were no more greetings or bright smiles in the hallways. No more coins discreetly pressed into the palms of the servants. He had shut himself into the archives or in his rooms, only coming out to accept supper from a trusted servant. Lord Aziraphale came jumpy and jittery, almost as though expecting someone to accuse him of something he knew he did was traitorous. His eyes flittered around nervously, jumping almost a mile high when someone snuck up on him.
With a heavy heart, Merlin feared that he was consorting with Morgana or at least the wicked woman had done something to him that caused him to be like this. The sorcerer kept a close eye on the knight whenever he could, watching for any signs that he could be doing something to hurt Camelot. But there was nothing until the Commoner's Ball in late autumn.
The Commoner's Ball was something that Merlin enjoyed immensely, even though it had only been created a couple of years ago to celebrate the people of Camelot and their resilience in the face of danger. Despite the criticism it gained from some of the council members and nobles who were still sympathetic to Uther (surprise, surprise) and Agravaine, the people loved it. It was the one day out of the year, right before the Autumn solstice when the weather was still warm but not overly hot, and rather enjoyable. There were games, music and laughter throughout the immediately kingdom, ending with a feast in the castle's dinning hall. The doors to the castle were opened to the public and allowing the people to come and go as they please. And the best part of the Commoner's Ball was that all the servants were able to have the day after the ball off if they chose. Although Merlin didn't have the full day off since he was the King's Manservant, but it was the thought that count.
By the time of the Commoner's Ball, Lord Aziraphale had returned to his normal self and while he stayed holed up in the castle archives for the day, everyone was happy to see that blinding smile and his cheerful, kind demeanor return that night for the feast.
Merlin was perched in the corner, his eyes occasionally darting out among the crowds as he darted out to refill the goblets of the peasants and the nobles that enjoyed the Commoner's Ball. He saw the Royal Pratness himself, standing out amongst the patchy clothes with his ceremonial cape, talking to a village leader about the current harvest results. Merlin smiled as he watched as Gwaine tried to lure Percival into a game of 'let's see who can drink the most ale before they blackout'. Gwen and Lord Aziraphale were speaking to each other, the latter looking more relaxed and happier than he had been in weeks.
The manservant's smile widened.
It was good to see the white-haired knight like that again.
Figuring that there were more things to look at other than his friends and the knights, Merlin directed his eyes to the peasantry, of which were still pouring in, though not as heavily. The young man's brow furrowed as he caught the scent of brimstone, the smell filling his nostrils uncomfortably. He glanced around the room as he tried to see if anyone else noticed it.
None of the partiers seemed to be affected by it.
Merlin's heart started to pound a million miles per hour as he glanced around. Something across the room had him zeroing on the entrance.
A man was walking into the castle dinning room. He wasn't anything spectacular or special looking: tall, lanky and rakishly thin, his cheekbones stick out like a starving man. He wore black clothes that stuck out against the dull, yet colorful drab of everyone else. Merlin didn't really know why he was staring at this man. Was it his gait, not really hurried but not really relaxed?
No….it was the air of power that Merlin could sense swirling around him like a hurricane. It was a dark power, like Morgana but infinitely more powerful and much darker. And as the man started to weave through the room, the hairs on Merlin's neck stood razor straight, almost as though in anticipation of a lightning storm or something. It was the colliding of power, both purely dark and purely light. It sent Merlin on edge. He had only sensed something like this before, when he went up against the Callieach. It made no sense why he felt like this. Sure, his magic was powerful, but it wasn't as powerful as the man that strolled in.
No one paid the man any attention as he weaved through the crowds of people like a snake. Not even when he snagged a goblet off a passing servant. The woman just startled, looking down at her tray with wide eyes as she mouthed a count. Her brow furrowed as she glanced around, wide eyed and afraid before going back to serving the drinks. The man glanced back, his dying ember red hair tumbling around his shoulders, and smirked. The smirk grew even bigger as he turned towards where Lord Aziraphale and toasted.
Merlin whipped his head around to where the white-haired knight was and found himself surprised that the other man had stopped talking to the Queen and gone deathly pale. His crystalline blue eyes were wide and there was a light that Merlin couldn't recognize. Gwen placed a gentle hand on the man's forearm, and asked him something, but Merlin was too far away to hear what she asked. Judging the way Lord Aziraphale patted Gwen's hand, he was probably assuring that he was fine and needed to excuse himself for a moment. He downed the rest of his wine, his hands shaking, before politely making his way out of the room, following the red-haired man into the hallway. Merlin lingered in his spot for a moment, feeling rather unsure if he really wanted to trail the blond knight. If he didn't trust Aziraphale of all people, then how could he trust anyone in this God-forsaken world?
After twenty minutes of shifting from foot to foot, eyes lingering on where the knight left, Merlin excused himself form the party to find Lord Aziraphale. As soon as Merlin emerged from the dining hall, he took a moment to center himself, looking left and right before deciding to go left. He whispered a spell that muted his footsteps, as the halls often had a bad habit of echoing steps in the dead of night. His eyes flashed gold and his feet went from echoing to silent as though he was walking on carpet. Mentally, the sorcerer prepared himself for a search that would last the rest of the night, but it turns out he didn't have to search long. Voices arguing met his ears, clearly at the end of the first hall that Merlin turned down. He slowed his steps, blanketing his presence with another psell as he got closer and closer to hear the conversation.
It went a little bit like this:
"-oing here, Crawly?" Aziraphale was asking, shout-whispering.
"Crowley. And just thought I'd pop on over and see what gig you've got going on, s'all" the second voice answered lazily. "And I have to say: you've got something right cushy here. I'll give ya that."
"You're not supposed to be here!" The worry and anxiety in the knight's voice had Merlin's anxiety spike.
Was the man with the red hair trying to get Aziraphale to betray Arthur? But no, Aziraphale was kind and loyal to a fault. The only way Aziraphale would do something so vile is by threatened. Was the man blackmailing Aziraphale? Holding his family, if he had one, hostage?
"If they find out-"
"They're not going to find out." The second man assured Aziraphale. "Gabriel's a right prick but he's hardly got two brain cells together. Same goes for the other Archangels."
"Grrrrrr. It's Crowley. Honestly, Angel, how many years has it been since the Flood?"
"Oh, right. I'm sorry, Crowley." There was a pause and Merlin imagined Lord Aziraphale fiddling with his fingernails worryingly. "But you shouldn't speak of the Archangels that way."
Huh? Okay, now I'm completely and utterly lost. Maybe if I listen longer…
"Well, it's true!" Crowley grounded out. There was a long drawn out sigh. "In any case, as much as I'd love to toss words with you, and that's such a shame we couldn't do it now, I've got to head out. I'd only really popped in to do some tempting."
"Don't you dare the King and Queen!"
And just like that, all doubts about Aziraphale's loyalty vanished in a puff of smoke. But Merlin had come this far. Why not finish it?
"Calm down, Angel. I'm not gonna touch your precious monarch. I'm actually here for the King's Uncle."
"Agravaine? Why him?"
"Oh, ya know. He's got a lot of hate for Arthur considering that Uther killed his wife using magic to conceive. And I've been tasked in finishing sowing the seeds for a full-out betrayal. I mean, he's already working for Camelot's enemies."
"Hmmmmmm, I've always suspected him working with that traitorous wench Morgana."
"Oh, watch it Angel." Merlin heard the joking tone underneath the sentence but couldn't focus on anything else other than the relief he felt when it clicked that Lord Aziraphale realized and had come to the same conclusion that Arthur's weasel of an Uncle was a traitor working for Morgana.
"Well, it's true!" Aziraphale sighed heavily. "I best be getting back to the feast. I'm sure my absence had been noticed and the King sent Merlin after me."
"Alright. I'll see you in a couple centuries then. Ta!"
Merlin panicked when he realized the conversation had ended and he looked like he had been snooping. He backtracked a couple of steps and waited before moving forward, timing it so he could (literally) run into the knight.
"Oh my!" Aziraphale exclaimed as he quickly righted the two of them. "Merlin. Ah dear boy, you startled me."
"My apologizes, Sire." Merlin humbled. "King Arthur sent me to find you. Is everything alright?"
Aziraphale answered all too quickly but figured that it was his normal nervous air. "Yes. Quite. Everything's…. everything's tickety-boo." He cleared his throat tightly. "Let us returned, shall we?"
The knight turned and walked off. The sorcerer was confused and would be for the next millennia as he waited for his King to return. It would only click and become clear when he wandered into a bookshop in SoHo and reunited with a very familiar face.
Of course, at the time, he never understood what happened and thoroughly learned his lesson on why you should never eavesdrop.