One Night at the Tavern
“Merlin…” Arthur’s voice was a warning.
Arthur tried a more wheedling tone. “Merlin.”
“Arthur, no. I don’t want to go.”
“Yes, you do,” Arthur insisted stubbornly.
“No, I don’t!”
“Come on, Merlin. Why not? It’s not like you aren’t at the tavern every other day of the week…”
Actually, he wasn’t…but Arthur didn’t know that. The king blamed all his disappearances on the tavern these days, despite evidence to the contrary. Merlin sighed deeply when he realized that he probably wasn’t going to get out of this.
“Arthur…” Merlin whined.
“Merlin, you know it’s good for morale if I show up at the tavern once in a while.”
“Good for whose morale?” Merlin muttered disgruntledly.
Arthur gave him that look. Merlin shut up.
As if sensing that Merlin’s resolve was wavering, Arthur wrapped a steering arm across his friend’s shoulder. “That’s it; you’re going. And I hope you brought a full purse. I’m looking forward to winning your pay back tonight.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, let out a long-suffering sigh, and let himself be dragged through the door of The Rising Sun.
~ ~ ~
Two hours and five pints of mead later, Merlin was face-to-face across a gaming table from Arthur.
The pleasant wooliness in his brain and the haze around the edges of his vision told Merlin he probably should have stopped at four pints…perhaps even three. But first Gwaine and then Arthur had egged him on, called him a lightweight (which he was…but it wasn’t nice of them to call attention to it)…and, stubbornly, he couldn’t let the teasing stand. Instead, down went pints four and five and now Merlin was more than a little tipsy and giddier than he had a right to be.
Of course, Arthur wasn’t faring much better. The unnatural glaze to his eyes and flush to his cheeks testified to that. Still, he wasn’t so far gone that his voice slurred…only drunk enough to be exponentially more annoying and prattish than usual.
“Come on, Merlin… Ante up! I’ve got more of your money to win…” Arthur slapped his stack of six silver coins into the betting bowl and raised an imperious eyebrow at his manservant until he did the same.
And, fuck, if Arthur wasn’t the luckiest bastard Merlin had ever seen! If he didn’t know his master better, he’d call Arthur out for cheating. But Arthur would never cheat; he would win honestly and just be a smug arse and rub it in Merlin’s face instead.
It wasn’t long before Merlin’s stack of coin had dwindled considerably, the way it always seemed to do when he got roped into these “boys night out” evenings with Arthur. Thank goodness that Gwen almost always found a way to spirit Arthur’s winnings back to her friend, or else Merlin would probably be destitute by now.
The more Arthur won, the cockier he got. He picked up his mug and downed the rest of his mead in one swig, banging the empty container onto the table with a thud. Then, with a shit-eating grin plastered to his ruddy-cheeked face, Arthur shook the dice cup an inch from Merlin’s nose and called, “Seven…” as the dice rolled out: a five and a two.
Arthur crowed in delight as he scooped the silver coins out of the bowl and stacked them precariously on his side of the table. Then he bowed to the clapping crowd that had gathered around to watch the progress of the match between king and manservant.
Merlin felt the tips of his ears burn hot with embarrassment. He’d walked into the tavern with a pocketful of coin; now he only had ten silver left to last him the next month. If Gwen didn’t take pity on him again, Merlin would be lucky if he could subsist on that. And it rankled even more that he’d lost it back to the man who’d paid it to him in the first place!
His pleasant buzz now sobering to frustration, Merlin scooped up the remaining coins and grunted, “That’s it. I’m done…” and turned to storm out.
But before he got three steps from the table, Arthur’s voice taunted, “Oh, what’s the matter, Merlin, you great girl’s petticoat! Can’t take the fact that you are as useless at dice as you are as my manservant? Or are you just afraid of me?”
An unnatural hush fell over the patrons of the pub. Even to them, it seemed as if the king had taken the insulting banter the two often engaged in one step too far.
Merlin’s expression turned thunderous. Instantly, his memory dredged up a similar moment played out in the market of the Lower Town eight years before: a prattish prince that needed taking down a peg or two. And now, as then, he was just the warlock to do it.
“Afraid of you?” Merlin turned on his heel and speared Arthur with a mutinous look. “Never.” Chin up and back ramrod-straight, Merlin stalked back to the table and slammed all ten coins into the betting bowl. Then he leaned across the table and hissed, “Ante up…” at Arthur through clenched teeth.
Arthur stepped back, shocked at Merlin’s response to what he meant to be friendly teasing. He frowned, trying to remember exactly what he’d said. Whatever it was, it was clear that Merlin didn’t find it funny. “Merlin,” he said hesitantly. “You don’t really have to…”
Merlin’s stormy expression grew darker. “I said. Ante. Up.”
Strangely cowed by Merlin’s aggressive behavior, Arthur picked up ten silver coins and placed them into the bowl.
Even with his mind clouded by alcohol, Merlin knew what he was about to do was stupid. The magic he had to use to protect Arthur or Camelot was dangerous enough to his health, let alone use it for something as petty as this. The last thing he needed was to expose his gift playing at dice in a packed tavern. But Merlin was hurt and angry because he was certainly not a coward, and the pain of not being appreciated got the better of him.
He picked up his dice cup and let the magic flow through his veins and along the surface of his skin. Merlin closed his eyes and, under the guise of blowing into the dice cup for luck, whispered the spell: Hieran!
His face was the picture of fierce determination as the dice rolled out. “Ten.”
When the dice stopped tumbling, a pair of fives stared up at the ceiling.
Before the hooting catcalls had even begun to die down, Merlin said sharply, “Again.” He tapped his fingers on the side of the bowl to indicate he was leaving his winnings in the pot.
In stunned silence, Arthur slid twenty silver coins on top of Merlin’s winnings.
Merlin blew his whispered spell onto the dice. As they tumbled out of the cup, he called, “Eight.”
Arthur’s mouth gaped open as the dice came up double fours.
Men around them cheered and a few even came up and patted Merlin on the back. Arthur rolled his eyes.
A tiny smile cocked the corner of Merlin’s mouth. “Again,” he said, leaving his coins where they were.
Both of Arthur’s eyebrows raised in astonishment. “What?”
A cheeky grin blossomed on Merlin’s face as his eyes twinkled. “Ante up, Sire…” he said, tapping the bowl’s lip.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Arthur counted out forty silver and heaped them onto the mound of coins. A moment later, he swore under his breath as Merlin’s “Nine,” materialized as a six and three.
Merlin waited until all the hooting and celebrating around them died down before he asked, “Had enough, my Lord?”
Arthur glared at his friend for a long moment before he barked out a laugh. “Why? You going to try for four in a row, Merlin? Not even you are that stupid…”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed at the jibe. Cabbage head, he thought. When will he ever learn? “Care to put your money where your mouth is, Sire?”
Arthur’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. “You…Merlin, you can’t be serious!”
In response, Merlin slowly tapped the side of the betting bowl. A collective gasp filled the air around them.
“Merlin, I don’t even have eighty silver left!”
Merlin shrugged. “That’s all right, Sire. You can owe me the rest. After all, I do know where you live…”
Gwaine’s guffaw could be heard in the background, but the two men were focused only on each other.
“This is crazy!” Arthur cried, trying to make his friend see reason. “Merlin, the chances of you rolling four straight…”
“Are the same they are every time I roll,” Merlin finished. Cocking a Gaius-like eyebrow at the king, he goaded in much the same manner Arthur had done, “What’s the matter, Sire… are you scared you’ll lose to your manservant?”
Arthur straightened his shoulders self-consciously, “No.”
“Then prove it.”
Defiantly, Arthur scooped up the remainder of his silver and plopped it onto the tray. “Fine. Do it. But don’t come crying to me when you’ve got no money for anything this month…”
Both of Merlin’s eyebrows rose at the surly challenge in Arthur’s voice. He kept his eyes trained on Arthur’s face, except for the brief moment when he closed his eyes to cast his magic. “Two.”
The roar of the assembled crowd was deafening as the dice landed on double ones. Merlin hooted with glee and pumped his fists into the air triumphantly. The next moment Gwaine surged forward to pick his friend up at the knees and jostled him in the air in celebration. “Good on you, mate! Good on you!” he cried with a laugh, setting Merlin down again before they both toppled over.
Arthur ruefully shook his head, but accepted the well-meaning consolatory pats on the back from some of the other patrons. Gwaine rounded the table, slung an overly-friendly arm around the king’s shoulder and teased, “Seeing as you’re out of coin, Princess…let me buy you a pity drink!”
Merlin chuckled as he opened his coin purse and collected his winnings. He could barely pull the strings taut, it was so full. He gave Arthur one nod of rebellious satisfaction and headed for the door.
Once Merlin had placed his hand on the door latch, he stopped, turned around, and stared at Arthur. Almost as if he could feel his servant’s eyes on him, Arthur turned and met Merlin’s eye. The room quieted into an uneasy silence as they waited for what would come next.
“You know…” Merlin pondered aloud in a tone that sounded way too amused to be innocent, “I may be a girl’s petticoat, but I still beat the smalls off of you, my Lord…” And as raucous laughter surrounded him, Merlin bowed in mock-salute and stumbled out the door into the night.