Title: Poetical Days
Merlin, Arthur, technically gen.
Even in hindsight, Merlin maintained that the problems did not begin with him writing poetry. They began when Arthur caught him writing poetry.
It didn't help that the poem in question was an overwrought description of the anguish of life tempered by a desperate hope that the promised prince, the last hope in times of darkness, heart-wrenching in his golden beauty, would break in on the despair to restore hope amidst the waning of mortal life.
That bit really did not help.
And Merlin had repeated the word 'hope' three times in two lines. That wasn't going to win him any prizes for poetic expression.
In Merlin's defence, Arthur was newly returned from a three-week hunting trip and hadn't been expected back in Camelot for at least another two days. It was entirely reasonable that Merlin should take pen and parchment to Arthur's chambers where he could write in peace under cover of having Very Important Chores, rather than in his own room where Gaius could be depended on to find lots of urgent things for him to do.
In fact, really he was lucky that Arthur had only caught him writing poetry. Writing poetry while using magic to polish Arthur's armour would have been much worse. Even writing poetry that was more obviously about the trials of being a sorcerer in Uther's court would have been pretty bad.
None of which helped when Arthur was declaiming Merlin's half finished poem in a high falsetto voice and breaking into laughter every other line. 'Pain like the heavy beat of dragon wings that disturb our mortal rest' wasn't that funny.
"Honestly Merlin," insisted Arthur, "this really is terrible.."
Merlin gathered up Arthur's hunting jerkin and dirty shirts to take to the laundry in dignified silence.
The next morning, beyond a couple of snide comments over breakfast and a declaration that Merlin was the world's worst poet as well as the world's worst manservant, Arthur seemed to have let the matter go. Even that was partly due to Merlin murmuring " eyes as blue as... the blue of freshly crushed flowers... blue flowers crushed among freshly strewn rushes..."
It wasn't his fault! If he'd waited until after Arthur left the room, he might have forgotten the metaphor.
It was clear that Arthur would never let him hear the end of this, but with any luck it would get tucked away in a box in his mind marked "strange things Merlin does" without much further drama.
Then Merlin followed Arthur to an audience with his father -- something about the price of wheat in eastern Albion -- only to find that the King had summoned the castle minstrel and was listening to the Lament of the Wanderers Wife, played in a minor key with extra vocal twiddly bits at the end of the chorus. The kingdom's most senior nobles stood around looking sombre and matching tears ran down the faces of the King and the musician.
Arthur grabbed Merlin by the scruff of the neck and pulled him back out into the corridor.
"What did you want to do that for?" asked Merlin. "I was listening to that."
"You were listening to caterwauling about a poor, poor maiden abandoned on her wedding day," said Arthur. "You don't have a musical bone in your body, but you were listening to it. My father cancelled the normal business of court for it. Does none of that strike you as the least bit odd?"
"Perhaps the King sees himself as a patron of the arts," suggested Merlin.
Arthur growled in frustration and spent the next few hours hitting Merlin with sticks in the name of teaching him self-defence.
On their way back into the castle for lunch, they passed Gwen, crying into her apron.
Arthur stood, looking slightly awkward while Merlin patted her shoulder and asked what was wrong.
"Morgana's best dress," she sobbed. "I wanted to trim it with new blue ribbons, but they only have pink or red in the market."
"Um... I'm sure Morgana won't mind her old ribbons," tried Merlin.
"Oh no, no, she won't. But this morning she's lamenting the missing fruit of her withered womb and the future she has lost with the King's refusal to find her a husband. I just wanted to do something nice for her!"
Merlin soothed Gwen as best he might and sent her back inside, then turned to look at Arthur in horror.
"Morgana hates the thought of an arranged marriage," said Arthur. "She's sabotaged three out of the last four delegations asking for her hand and she only let the fourth one go ahead because it was Siward of Essex and no one in their right minds would arrange a diplomatic alliance with him. And I refuse to believe she would 'lament the fruit of her withered womb'!"
"And Gwen has plenty of real things to cry about," said Merlin. "I can't see her being upset over ribbons when she endures..." He trailed off. It was probably not appropriate to mention the judicial murder of her father to Uther's son.
Arthur winced but obviously took the point.
"You're right," said Merlin. "Something is very badly wrong."
That afternoon, Sir Meliot climbed halfway up the ivy below Morgana's window to declaim love poetry to her, before losing his grip and falling into a cart of manure (the poetry scanned much better than his attempts, Merlin noted jealously, but at least he didn't stink); two kitchen boys got into a fight over which one had the deepest sorrow in his soul and Sir Clodrus went missing and was found halfway to the forest, braiding daisies into his hair.
"But it makes no sense," Merlin shouted. "Why would an enemy sorcerer afflict all Camelot with bad poetry?"
"Have you got any better ideas?" asked Arthur. "It must be some kind of magic."
Merlin agreed glumly. It was clearly time to consult Gaius.
They found him in his chamber, leaning his forehead against the bookcase, sighing softly and murmuring to himself about how he would never be worthy of the favour of his benevolent and handsome King.
And that was something Merlin didn't want to think about ever again.
"Are you sure this isn't normal?" Gaius asked once Arthur had explained. "I don't feel at all unwell."
"Wouldn't that be the point?" asked Arthur.
"Well then, it would seem to be some kind of magic affecting people's emotional state. But Merlin's right, I can't see what anyone would hope to achieve. And you two are not affected at all?"
"I'm not affected," corrected Arthur. "Merlin, on the other hand is gone beyond insanity."
Merlin blushed. He had hoped not to have his poetry rolled out before Gaius.
"Though actually," Arthur continued, "Sir Fergus was behaving completely normally at lunchtime and so were Cedric and Cador." Merlin looked at him blankly. "No one in my hunting party is showing any symptoms. It must be something that was done while we were away "
"Then that makes even less sense," said Merlin. "If anyone was attacking Camelot surely they would want to include you. And I still say it's a really stupid thing to do."
"More to the point," said Gaius, "we've had a very quiet few weeks. I don't believe there have been any visitors to the castle, not even traders. And while it could be one of the local people, it seems a strange way for someone to show their magic if they'd been hiding it for years."
"It seems to be restricted to the castle," said Arthur. "We might find out who if we track down how it was done."
An hour and a half later, Gaius had them making lists of anything new or changed in the last few weeks.
Merlin had worked his way methodically through the different kitchen supplies; replenishment of the grain stores, apples from the south orchard, flour from a new miller. ("It's not going to be in the flour," said Arthur disdainfully, but Gaius perked up and had them sneak down to the storerooms to get him samples to test. It wasn't in the flour.)
"This is no use," said Merlin in the end, shoving his chair back on the table and scowling. "Camelot is a castle, even in a quiet week there must be a hundred people who have business here. We're not going to track it down this way." He kicked petulantly at the rushes on the floor and tried to ignore the seductive phrases forming in his mind about impossible tasks and unsung heroes.
"Flowers," said Arthur suddenly. "You compared my eyes to crushed blue flowers." Merlin scowled harder.
"No, I've got it," insisted Arthur, kneeling on the ground and plucking an almost invisible petal from among the rushes Merlin had disturbed. "Do the rushes on our floors normally come with flowers attached?"
"When rushes are gathered," explained Gaius after much poring over old books, "there will often be other plants caught up in them and normally that would be no problem at all. But this particular flower has a known mood-altering affect."
"See," said Merlin, "not a deranged sorcerer at all."
"It's about the first time anything's happened in Camelot that I can't blame on a mad warlock," muttered Arthur.
"The flower's properties are released when it's petals are crushed," continued Gaius, "and with people walking all over the rushes that must pretty much have all happened within a few days of them being put down. With no more exposure, the effects should wear off in a few more days. Unless... "
"Unless more rushes are gathered from the same place with the same flower mixed in with them," finished Arthur.
"Fortunately," said Gaius, "this flower really is quite rare and as it also has medicinal properties, I would be quite happy to gather it all from the reed beds. And when I say 'I', of course I really mean Merlin."
Late that evening, Merlin balanced precariously on the prow of a punt, Gaius sitting comfortably in the bottom and directing their course.
"I really don't see why I have to be the one to wade through rivers in the middle of the night," he complained. "Just because Arthur's the Prince. Isn't defeating an evil flower knightly enough for him?"
"Now really Merlin," said Gaius, "you're not thinking. The thing about wild flowers is that unless you unearth every root they grow back again. And we really don't want a repeat of this week. The two of us alone in the dark means we can use your magic to kill this off for good."
"Good plan," said Merlin, feeling a bit more cheerful. "And I can do magic from the boat, without getting wet. I like this plan."
"Not so fast," said Gaius. "This really is a rare plant and I really could do with as much as we can gather for my stores. Here's a basket, and be careful to pluck the flowers at the stem; if you crush the petals, you're going to be reciting bad poetry for at least a week longer than anyone else."
"Thanks a lot," muttered Merlin, lowering himself over the side of the punt and wading gingerly into the dark cold water.