There's something personally humiliating about recognizing that the pristine state of one's room and the blinding shine of one's armour aren't actually a sign that Merlin's improved in either demeanour or skill. Feeling faintly wary, Arthur notices the disturbing cleanliness of the stone floor, the line-straight edge of the rugs, and braces himself before he looks at the precise folds of blankets on his bed.
No rat droppings. He doesn't wince at all.
It's like a good servant works here, which Merlin is not, and while Arthur tried his best to sleep his way through mathematics ("I am a prince. I have servants to build bridges if I want a bridge!" "Of course, Your Highness. Please examine your figures here; perhaps you did not mean for your bridge to collapse into the river?"), two plus two is not five and he doesn't need to remember how to calculate angle and force to know that Merlin's unhappy with him (an understatement, Arthur realizes, when he sees his socks are rolled into perfect spheres. He shudders).
Humiliating because knowing these sorts of things are beneath him (like bridges, but even more so), and he can ignore it all he likes (which he does), but he can still feel it, emanating from the neatly hung clothes sorted by colour, shoes matched beneath like an accusation.
In a world like this one but with a proper manservant, this would be his due. This is not that world, more's the pity, and so the fact that his chain mail looks like it came fresh from the blacksmith does not herald a miraculous change in his servant's personality.
There's a sharp double-tap at the door like the death-knell from the church, and Arthur braces himself before he sprawls deliberately over the meticulously made bed and tries not to feel uncomfortable that the blankets are now wrinkled. "Come in."
Merlin comes in, dinner tray balanced on one wide-spread palm, and looks at Arthur with what he probably thinks is blank subservience but comes closer to extreme constipation. "Sire. I've brought your dinner."
Arthur marvels that Merlin can manage to make "sire" sound like "chamber pot". "Put it over there," Arthur says, deliberately pushing his heel into the bedcovers, not acknowledging the twist of guilt for the streak of mud he leaves behind.
The best defence, in Arthur's view, is an aggressive offence (why defend when one can attack? A mystery Arthur has yet to solve); getting up on both elbows, Arthur smiles. "You're late."
It takes time and observation of Merlin (which Arthur will fall on his own sword before he admits to) to see the quick bunch of muscles in his jaw.
"I was cleaning the chamber pots. Sire."
It's strange, Arthur thinks, fighting the urge to flinch (chamber pots are actually beneath Merlin's station, which Arthur thinks he should tell Merlin. Eventually); one day, one impossibly long state dinner, and one dagger, and he goes from domestic peace (and attractively compliant chambermaids) to a war with intermittent battles that seems destined to stretch the rest of his life (and Merlin is neither attractively compliant nor a maid) or until he gets rid of Merlin (and he doesn't even pretend that's going to happen anytime soon). As Merlin starts to lay out the dishes, Arthur's eyes narrow on his hands. "Did you bathe?"
Merlin puts down the goblet so carefully Arthur can almost see it fly through the air toward his head and manage to go nowhere near. Lifting his head, Merlin looks two inches to the left of his eyes. "Of course. Sire."
That's really quite annoying. Pushing off the bed, Arthur looks down at the small cauldron. It doesn't look promising. "That is not rat."
Merlin doesn't look up. "I wouldn't know. Si--"
And if Merlin says sire one more time, Arthur will never be able to hear it again and not visualize rat stew in chamber pots. "Merlin. Look at me."
After what feels like the entirety of a state dinner, Merlin lifts his head. "Is there anything else?"
Arthur opens his mouth and can't think of a single thing. Sword, sharp. Floor, clean. Gauntlets--somewhere. "I suppose not. You may go."
With a disturbingly low bow (and worse, he doesn't even lose his balance, and Merlin always loses his balance), Merlin turns away, slipping out of the door so silently it's almost like a year ago all over again, perfect service and perfect servants and God. Damn it.
Poking warily at the probably-not-rat stew, Arthur thinks that could have gone far better.
Normal people (i.e., Arthur) express temper in ways that make sense--and also emphasize that they are, in fact, angry. Throwing things, stomping, killing several large, dangerous forest creatures--they cleanse the spleen and clear the mind, leaving one refreshed (or so they say). And they're visible. So no one calls anyone insane when one says "My manservant's current exemplary service is a petty temper tantrum and I'm heartily sick of clean clothes and efficient cleaning. Make it stop."
"I think the sheets were ironed," Arthur says as Morgana stabs a needle into an impossibly small piece of embroidery. It's all for show; she's been working on that piece since her fourteenth birthday. Gwen, quietly engaged in making sure Morgana never runs out of lace, looks up, eyes widening.
"You're complaining about Merlin's improvement?" Morgana asks in the dulcet tones of that particularly dense daughter of baron something of someplace terribly unimportant, whose prettiness was completely overshadowed by the most terrifying breasts Arthur has ever seen. "I seem to remember--"
"Ironed. With. Lavender."
Morgana looks at Gwen, who nods knowingly. "Lavender oil and water. It helps avoid scorching."
No, Arthur's sheets hadn't been scorched. Not even a little.
"Ah." Looking at her needlework, Morgana stabs her embroidery again and then sets it aside as a job best suited for someone with skill. "So Merlin is--cleaning up after you, obeying your every whim, and keeping your stables in a state of cleanliness on the order of a sickroom. And you're complaining?"
The problem is, there's no way to make anyone understand how very wrong this is. "He says sire. Constantly."
Gwen's head snaps down so quickly that Arthur tells himself he did not see her smirk.
"Your fortitude in the face of suffering does you credit." Smoothing her skirt impatiently, her eyes flicker to the window again, and yes, Arthur is in fact aware this is her usual time to take Gwen and pretend to collect flowers while jumping about with swords in the woods, but right now, he needs help. Leaning forward, her eyes go wide and soft, in that way that Arthur's shins learned in the schoolroom to beware of at all costs. "Do tell me more."
"I despise you."
"I despise you more." Smiling sweetly, Morgana glances out of the window and gives up. "If we must complain of our servants like old women," God, Arthur realizes in horror, they are, "then perhaps we should get some wine and knitting for you."
Arthur narrows his eyes. "I found some practice blades inexplicably left in the granary. I returned them to the armoury, of course." Before Morgana can find her eating knife--she, for one, has terrifyingly accurate aim--he holds up a hand. "I will fetch them for you, provided you promise me you will take an escort from now on." It won't restrain her so much as give everyone some kind of plausible deniability, because it's not like sword calluses aren't obvious, and Arthur's very tired of nodding emphatically at his father when Morgana explains away new cuts and bruises as strange and mysterious interactions with the latest model of loom.
Luckily, Uther has no idea what a loom does, but there's no reason to tempt fate. One day, he just might ask.
Morgana hesitates, emanating suspicion. "I will choose who goes with us."
"Fair enough." Standing up, Arthur turns to leave--with completely unresolved servant problems--and then remembers the reason he had to flee his quarters in the first place. "But today, I'll accompany you."
Morgana blinks up at him, and while she doesn't smile, he knows she wants to, head tilting slightly before she stands up. "Meet you in the granary?" she asks sweetly, and while Arthur doesn't approve of her unmaidenly interest in bladed weapons, he's beginning to feel that perhaps he can make an exception today.
"I will see you then."
"He's dyeing the drapes," Arthur pants, pushing himself up on one arm. "Now get that away from my throat."
With a glittering smile, Morgana draws back with an elaborate bow. Her form is better than half the knights; Arthur takes a second to imagine that particularly obnoxious new squire facing her across the tournament field and almost sighs. If only.
Then, "Wait. Dyeing the drapes? How--"
"Do you think I know anything about dyeing things? There's a tub and some sort of coloured herbs and now everything matches." Sitting up, Arthur tries to impart the full horror of walking into his own room and watching Merlin's narrow-eyed concentration in arranging the folds. "Or would, if the bed hangings hadn't vanished. He's trying to drive me mad and I won't stand for it."
"So I see. Gwen, chin up." Arthur watches Morgana circle Gwen, eyebrows drawn together sharply, before she nods, taking her place a few feet away. "Arthur, call the time."
"I--oh very well, five minutes. Begin."
It's different from working with his knights in ways beyond the most obvious, being that these aren't knights. Setting both arms on his knees, Arthur picks out the differences one by one. Even in practice, there's always a danger of things going too far, too quickly; misjudging by a hair a man's reach or speed can mean dismemberment or death. Arthur doesn't train the men of Camelot himself because he enjoys the monotony of yelling at fumble-fingered idiots for hours on end (though he won't say he doesn't enjoy it); he does it because no one should die on the practice ground and those trained beneath his hand rarely make those kinds of mistakes.
Morgana was taught as he was, and as children they faced each other a thousand times. Her form and reach are as good as any, and her speed may be even better; the difference is that line that Arthur had crossed before his fifteenth birthday and that she never has. Morgana's taught Gwen every trick, and as the daughter of a blacksmith, she knows her weapons probably better than Morgana, but it shows in her every movement as well. They aren't searching for blood, and even in practice, a knight always does.
Thrust and parry, feet moving in perfect time, as exquisite as a court dance, as perfect as an exhibition. Remembering them facing the bandits, dusty and bloody, Arthur wonders how much difference desperation makes, knowing your life hangs in fragile balance between your skill and that of your opponent; even the smallest thing can decide who walks away and who doesn't.
They break off instantly; they're not even scratched. Standing up, Arthur dusts himself off and reaches for Gwen. "I want to show you something."
Eyes wide, she stills, letting him lift her arm, position her body. "Shift your weight to your left leg," he says, bracing a hand on her waist. "Lean forward. Morgana, the last pattern. Start at the beginning, quarter time. Gwen, follow me."
Frowning, Morgana obeys, and Arthur thinks of the squires he's trained, the way he guided their bodies. "Begin."
Morgana had trained Gwen as she herself had been taught; she moves at the lightest touch, perfectly in step. Morgana nods her approval, catching the sudden blow, turning into the second, and it's formal and easy right up until Arthur takes Gwen's arm and pushes it out, turning her hip with his palm, and Morgana stops short just as the blade touches her heart.
"You never showed me that," she says, eyes flickering between Gwen's sword and Arthur.
Arthur hesitates. "There was never time. Gwen, can you remember?"
Stepping back, Arthur watches critically as they move back into position. "Three quarters time. When I know you both have it, I'll teach you the counter."
Morgana gives him a sidelong look, then nods.
Arthur won't admit it, but it's one of the most relaxing afternoons he's had in a long time. It's different teaching people that he knows he'll never lose to war, will never bleed out before his eyes. There's pleasure in the pure spectacle of it without the edge of fear that rides every second during even the most innocuous of tournaments. Gwen and Morgana weren't trained to kill, although they can; his knights are trained to kill, and failure is measured in the number of enemies that still draw breath.
Sending Gwen ahead, Morgana straightens her skirt over her breeches and falls into step with him, becoming a lady for an escorted walk in the safety of Camelot's shadow.
"You said you'd remove your spleen with a spoon before you taught me another move," she says conversationally, arm sliding through his. "What changed your mind?"
Arthur keeps his gaze on the castle in the distance. "I'd prefer you never have to fight, nor Gwen," Arthur says, because it's true. No matter how good she is, and she is, she'll never match a knight for height or strength. Skill will be all she ever has, and even the greatest skill might not be enough. The bandits pace vividly through his mind, with Merlin's mother's bruised face looking back at him like an accusation.
He's gone to war for his father, taken villages in his name as ruthlessly and mercilessly as any bandit. But their populations are not his enemy and he's never pretended he can look upon people bound to the soil as commodities to be disposed of as cheaply as an outgrown tunic. Uther wasn't born into the highest nobility of Albion, and perhaps because of that, he values the land he holds and the people he protects in ways that few of the old nobility ever do.
Standing on the battlements of Camelot, Arthur had been ten years old when his father showed him the land that he would one day rule. "Your birth entitles you to what I've won," Uther told him, voice quiet. "But never forget that birth is a gift as well. These are your lands and your people; their blood is what drives this kingdom, their labour that sets food on your plate and gives you the leisure to learn how to lead men. You will be their king, and I hope you will be a good one. But first, you're their protector. You are what stands between them and what would threaten them, and their enemies are yours as well."
Arthur's ridden through the remains of villages with bodies left rotting on the ground and bodies that still breathed, even when no sense remained. He knows, better than Morgana, perhaps even better than Gwen, what happens to women in war. And Albion is not a land of peace.
Arthur takes a breath. "We will not find peace in my father's lifetime," knowing she knows this. Her father fought by Uther's side and died for him in yet another meaingless battle in this useless, senseless war that has torn Albion to ribbons since long before Arthur was born; driving Rome from their shores had done little more than turn them on each other. "Nor, I think, in mine."
His life has always been this; he was bred for war and he wants to love it less than he does. Perhaps if he were less skilled, he would.
"You won't fight me, not really," she says slowly. "Why?"
"Because I never lift my sword unless I mean to kill with it. A knight can stand against that; he must or he has no place here. You may fight for your life and you do it well. I fight because that is what I am. And that you cannot stand against."
"You could teach me that."
Arthur sees Merlin's mother's bruised face, the frightened, determined faces of the village women. They weren't his then, the subjects of a careless, selfish king; now they are, in all but name. And one day, they will be in fact; he knows that like he knows he'll be king.
"There's only one way to learn it," Arthur says, catching her eyes. "And that I cannot teach." Then, "But, provided I have time, which is rare as I am in fact, crown prince and have many, many duties, I'll work with you both. Gwen--" Arthur stops, taking a breath. Morgana's vulnerable, but her rank would protect her from much. Gwen... "She should know as well. So she can protect you both, of course."
Morgan's mouth tips upward, but she lowers her head. "You think Merlin's still dyeing the drapes?"
God. He'd almost forgotten. "How is it you have an obedient maid and I have--" Arthur searches for a word to describe Merlin. There are no words to describe Merlin. "Merlin."
Laughing, Morgana slips her arm through his. "The relationship between a woman and her handmaid--or a man and his manservant--is a complicated and precious thing. Think of it as a marriage--"
Arthur stops short. "I will not."
Morgana's stronger than she looks; with a stumble, she has him moving again. "A marriage," she continues mock-piously. "As a vassal submits to his king, as a woman submits to her husband, a servant submits to his--or her--master."
Arthur gives her an uncertain look, thinking vividly of the last visit of Baron Something Odd Name, who had brought both wife and mistress to Christmas court, and how the castle had echoed with the screaming matches between all three over the course of a month. It had been highly entertaining. "I've met few wives who submit as they should," Arthur says sceptically. "Or any, for that matter."
Morgana smiles sweetly. "Exactly."
This is ridiculous, but Arthur has a bad feeling that doesn't make it less true. "I don't see--"
"For example," Morgana says, as if he hadn't spoken, "when Gwen asks, may I go the Midsummer Fair?" Oh God, she knows. "I tell her yes, and to enjoy herself, and assure she has enough money in her pocket to do what she likes. And later, when I say, are they making fruit pie for dinner, Gwen brings me three."
"Is that why I always miss the pie?" Arthur says, outraged. "The cook tells me--"
"Yes. That is why you miss pie." Patting his arm, Morgana's eyes fix on Gwen's tiny shape just entering Camelot, mouth softening into a smile. "You miss a great deal, Arthur."
She makes a sickening kind of sense. Arthur thinks bitterly of the last of the apple pies. "It's nothing like a marriage," he says.
"Except for tupping him over your bed, it might as well be. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can go back to cheerfully mocking his services and he can stop making the chambermaids nervous that they are no longer needed. Please do so. Gwen's reassured three this week, and hysterics are not pleasant to listen to, let me assure you."
Arthur doesn't sigh, but it's a very close thing. "I'm not apologizing. I had the right to his services that night." He had turned his ankle during practice, which had been bad enough, but listening to the happy chatter of half the castle planning to join the Midsummer festivities had just been too much. Merlin's utterly nauseating cheer had been too much. "I taught him chess."
"He knew how to play chess. Gaius taught him."
"I knew that." The liar. The filthy little liar. "I have every right."
"Yes, you do," Morgana agrees with suspicious placidity, turning her head away and effectively setting him on notice the conversation is over. Though he's not sure how, Arthur thinks he just lost.
He just wishes she'd stop smiling.
They've barely made it to the granary when Gwen suddenly stumbles in, face ashen. "Your Highness," she says breathlessly, then leans over, hand braced on her chest. Morgana is beside her almost before Arthur can find the breath to ask her what could be the matter. "I--"
"Sit down, Gwen," Morgana says firmly. "You are unwell."
"I can't, my lady. They--your father requires your presence immediately." Taking a deep breath, she leans against Morgana briefly, and Arthur watches a little wistfully as Morgana smoothes the damp hair from her sweaty hairline. After a moment, Gwen straightens, and Morgana steps back, staying in easy arm's reach. "There--there was a fight on the training ground--"
God damn it. "Who?" He reaches to pull her along with him, but a single searing glance from Morgana aborts the gesture. "I'm not their nursemaid. Knights are--"
"Not the knights, sire," she says quickly, "One of the ones you are evaluating." Blinking, she looks at him, and for no particular reason at all (for every reason, because Gwen wouldn't run herself into this state for just anyone), Arthur knows exactly who the other participant was, and it's about as believable as Gwen announcing she could fly. "And Merlin, Your Highness."
Oh bloody hell.
"What--" Arthur breaks through the crowd by sheer intimidation; he's good at it, and he doesn't have to enjoy snivelling subservience to recognize that it has its uses.
(Though perhaps, just perhaps, sometimes, he enjoys it, too.)
"...requested he fetch my hauberk..."
So it's started, then. Kind of his father to wait.
Arthur takes a second to study a filthy, bruised, and uncharacteristically belligerent Merlin, a grim Gaius, and the son of the second highest noble in the land, who Arthur's privately called Pustilius for so long that it's an effort to stop himself from doing so now.
On one hand, this is not good by any stretch of the imagination; on the other, Pustilius (Posterius?) has a spectacular black eye, a split lip, and just might be limping. Arthur would not be human if he didn't enjoy the sight of that.
"...attacked me, Your Highness!" Pustilius (fine, he'll ask someone later) says, pointing a thick finger at Merlin. "An unprovoked and vicious assault on my person. I demand recompense."
The attention of the room swings to Merlin, currently standing as straight as possible between two guards who stand at least two heads taller and three times wider. The contrast is almost pathetic. Honestly, if Arthur couldn't see the split knuckles on both hands, he wouldn't believe this. Uther seems equally dubious. "Merlin--attacked you?"
"During training," Pustilius insists (again), waving toward the collection of embarrassed-looking knights for confirmation. "I required his assistance and he attacked me!"
Uther looks at Merlin. "Is that what happened?" he asks, already three quarters ready to call Merlin guilty and be done with it; a year and numerous savings of the crown prince is what gives him that one quarter possibility of a reprieve.
Merlin doesn't hesitate, lifting his head to meet the King's eyes with that exact level of defiance that Arthur remembers from ages ten to eighteen. That's when he learned to hide it better. Right there, the last quarter reprieve is lost. "Yes. Sire."
Yes, chamber pot. How does he do that?
With a sigh, Uther leans back. "Very well. The penalty for laying hands on a member of the nobility is flogging. Thirty--"
Thirty. No. "Father, if I may?"
From the look on his father's face, Arthur knows he's done Merlin no favour by interrupting. "Is there something you wish to add?"
From the corner of his eye, Arthur sees Morgana's tight-lipped rage, just begging for an excuse to erupt, Gwen's tear-streaked face, Gaius' barely-checked fear. But mostly, he sees Merlin, who just had a death sentence handed down to him and doesn't seem to care. Ten could cripple him, though Gaius doubtless would be able to give him some treatment to alleviate the worst. Twenty would be a slower death than thirty, but death would be the best that could be hoped for. Thirty--
"He's my servant," Arthur says, straightening. He can do this. "As a member of my household, his discipline would fall to me."
Surprisingly, Uther looks interested and nothing like Arthur just pulled that out of absolutely nowhere. "And what would you decide?"
Arthur's been tested since the day he was born; there's nothing new in his father turning any given event into Solomon and the baby redux. "I'd need time to consider the matter," Arthur says carefully. "Perhaps--"
"You indulge his appalling behaviour!" Pustilius snarls. Arthur turns cool eyes on him; the malice is unmistakable. "I demand I be allowed to administer the punishment myself."
Arthur almost sighs in relief. Uther straightens so slightly that probably only Arthur recognizes the coil of anger beneath it, eyes narrowing as he takes Pustilius' measure and finds him wanting.
"The discipline of Camelot's servants is not your concern."
Pustilius, who is even stupider than Arthur had ever truly believed, straightens to his considerable height. "Then I challenge him."
For a second, Arthur can't parse that into anything that makes sense. "You--what?"
"Challenge him. My honour and the honour of my house have been insulted. I challenge him."
"You--can't. He's not a knight."
Pustilius raises his chin, and for the first time, Arthur realizes his nose is broken as well. Perhaps that's why his voice sounds so irritatingly nasal. "I can and I do."
"He's a peasant. He has no honour to defend." Arthur looks over at Merlin at that moment, or he might have missed the narrow-eyed flash of utter rage. Oh, holy hell. "I am perfectly capable--"
"I accept," Merlin says, because he's just that stupid.
For some reason, Arthur is convinced he can actually feel everyone's breath let out. There hasn't been anything this interesting since Lord and Lady Somewhere's sudden burst of fisticuffs during the banquet in their honour and the food fight after. This will be the best attended match in Camelot's history. After all, Arthur winning is old news. A not-knight against a peasant is new and interesting and by the way, what the hell just happened?
"Very well," Uther says, looking almost pleased, snapping Arthur's attention from Pustilius to his father in shock. "So ordered. In two weeks time. If that is acceptable, Lord Percivance?"
Pustilius, Arthur mouths to himself, and promptly forgets he ever heard another name.
Pustilius bows, mouth curving into a lopsidedly smug smile. This can get worse, Arthur knows, but he can't think of how and has no desire to find out. Keeping his back straight (slumping is a sign of weakness and causes ill humours and humpbacks, or something), Arthur strides across the room, taking Merlin's arm in a firm grip, not missing the wince that Merlin tries to hide, and shifts his hand automatically. Trying to look stern and also like this is no odd thing at all, Arthur pulls him from the guards, noticing Morgana and Gwen are already slipping unnoticed from the room.
"Arthur?" Uther says, confirming Arthur's suspicion that the next order would have been "Confine him to the dungeons" because why not make this as easy as possible for Pustilius?
"Sire?" Don't look uncertain. "With your leave, I'll take my manservant to be treated and discover why he so--disgraced himself." He can almost feel Merlin's glare and ignores it handily.
Uther studies him for a second, eyes unreadable, then nods. Arthur bows, jerking Merlin down with him, knowing that rib won't be happy, but there's nothing else to be done. Straightening, Arthur ignores the crowd (did everyone get an invitation to witness this? Was there some sort of system in place?), trying to look like he's being careless when he all he wants to do is push Merlin into some sort of bed and tie him there until he heals or learns some sense. Maybe both.
Once they're in the hall, Arthur keeps his silence; Gaius will be along soon enough, and he needs the time to think. Pustilius is an idiot, but Arthur's seen him fight and he's dangerous. Of course, this is Merlin; Pustilius doesn't need to be dangerous. He can just be competent. Hell, he can sit on Merlin and end the match in slow, undignified suffocation.
"Do not speak to me or I will flog you myself," Arthur lies between clenched teeth, slowing for the stairs, taking all of Merlin's weight than he can. Broken ribs can pierce lungs, and God knows Uther's men aren't gentle. "Unless you feel you are about to die and rob me of the privilege of ending your sorry excuse for a life."
Merlin doesn't answer. It's probably the smartest thing he's done all day.
Gwen's waiting at the door of Gaius' room, hands twisting together. Jerking his head at her, Arthur pushes open the door, feeling Merlin sag just as they get inside. Catching him, Arthur waits as Gwen hurriedly clears Gaius' table and lifts Merlin onto it. When Merlin tries to sit up, Arthur carefully places a hand on his chest and shoves, with the greatest care, until Merlin's prone again.
"Gwen," Arthur says, holding Merlin's angry, pain-glazed gaze. "Please watch for Gaius and inform me when he arrives."
When the door closes, Arthur spreads his hand carefully, feeling the shift of bone beneath with a hard swallow. "If you move again, I'll use rope," he says roughly. Merlin's eyes open, pain-glazed and vaguely surprised. "I might anyway."
Pulling back, Arthur glances at the closed door. Excellent. "What happened?"
Merlin hesitates, then takes a shallow breath. No blood, not yet. "It is as he said."
Merlin eyes flicker away. "I lost my temper pandering to another overblown--"
"Very nice. I'd almost believe it if you'd stutter a bit. How long have you been thinking up that excuse?" Merlin sets his lips in a flat line. "Tell me what happened." Silence. "Merlin. I'm ordering you--"
"I was angry," Merlin says, voice so flat that Arthur doesn't believe a thing he says. "He was demanding and I refused. And when he said--when he didn't stop, I was irritated, so I hit him."
Arthur leaps on the stuttered space. "Said. What did he say?"
"It doesn't matter."
If he didn't look so incredibly pathetic, Arthur would beat him himself. "Merlin--"
Merlin turns his face away. "I've forgotten."
Before Arthur can think of a response to the utter transparency of the lie, there's a sharp knock on the door. Taking a deep breath, Arthur turns toward it, burying the anger as the door opens and Gaius comes in, Gwen on his heels.
"Merlin," Gaius says, and Arthur turns away, almost embarrassed by the tenderness in his voice. Knowing his presence an inhibition, Arthur turns to the door, stretching fingers he hadn't realized were clenched into fists.
Arthur keeps walking, waving off whatever the man wanted to say.
Closing the door carefully behind him, Arthur turns sharply, slamming one fist into solid stone, pain shooting up his arm in an arrow of pure heat that's not nearly enough to cool the rage. It's not nearly enough to so much as blunt the sharp edge of anger--at Merlin, for apparently losing his mind; at Pustilius for existing at all; and most of all for that smile that Uther gave when he agreed to this nonsense.
Every day is a good day to reinterpret King Solomon's decision, apparently. What Arthur wants to know is what point his father is trying to make.
After a few seconds, Gwen comes out, eyes widening as she sees him cradling his hand. "Sire? Are you--"
"Find out what happened," Arthur says shortly. "I want the names of every witness today. If someone heard what was said, I will know what it was."
Gwen hesitates, then bows quickly. "Yes, sire. Gaius asked me to--"
With another bow, she lifts her skirts, running down the corridor and vanishing around a corner. There's no reason to linger here like a sulking child, and there's daylight to put to use.
"How is young Gawain?" Uther asks, deceptively casual over their suddenly planned father and son dinner, which tells Arthur that Uther is bravely hiding from Morgana. A fool his father is not. Looking up from his soup, Arthur remembers why he prefers to eat in his room; meals with his father never promote good digestion or restful sleep.
"Well," Arthur says, because while Gawain did limp off the field, he did it under his own power. "He'll need a few days for the swelling in his knee to go down."
"Very good." The dark eyes study him thoughtfully, searching for weakness; what you search for, of course, you'll find, one way or another. Arthur looks at his soup and wonders if his father's ever had rat stew. Probably not. No one would take such liberties with the King and laugh about it afterward. No one can ever come that close to him.
"Is there something wrong with the soup?"
Arthur spoons up a mouthful and pretends he wouldn't rather be walking on hot coals. "Fine. Quite good, really."
"Good. Perhaps then you will take a moment to explain your actions regarding your manservant's punishment."
And with a mouthful of soup, too. Arthur swallows, feeling it lump cold and thick in his throat. "He is my responsibility," Arthur says calmly. "I thought that's what you would expect of me."
"He's one of my subjects and a member of this household, subject to my will, Arthur." Uther leans back, goblet drooping lazily from one hand, every inch the somewhat disappointed father.
Arthur forces his fingers to loosen from their grip on his knife. Merlin's not his, and Arthur controls the instinctive retort. He's Arthur's, like Ealdor, the village that he lead and bled to protect, no matter what borders on maps might claim. Setting his spoon aside, Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Do you find fault with my actions?"
"No," Uther says unexpectedly, setting the goblet aside. "Nor am I surprised. But I am concerned. You defend him a great deal, Arthur."
"He's earned my protection."
"He attacked a member of this court and the son of a man with great power and influence--"
"Who speaks soft words to your face and would as soon shove a knife in your back as kneel at your feet."
Uther doesn't disagree, another surprise. "What your servant does reflects on you," Uther says, motioning for more wine. Almost instantly, a woman materializes at his side. "And his actions were indefensible."
"Thirty blows would have killed him," Arthur says flatly. "I don't repay loyalty with a death sentence."
"He is a servant."
"He is mine. As the knights are mine in the field, where my will is theirs. There can be only one general to command the army. You taught me that."
"This isn't the field."
"In the matter of my household, there is no difference."
God help them all, Uther looks pleased. "Can he fight?"
"He's practiced with me."
"I think he may need more." Uther takes a drink, looking, of all things, amused. "It will be a busy two weeks for you."
Teeth locked behind smiling lips, Arthur thinks that Solomon should have grown up with Uther; maybe it would have given him some perspective on wisdom. "Yes, it will be."
Arthur spends a restless night that brings a dawn filled with clarity and a chambermaid he sends away, dressing himself in the pale morning light. Merlin isn't an idiot (mostly), and he survived the bandits (who, granted, weren't all that skilled, but he did survive). Arthur's the greatest warrior in all of Albion; everyone says so. More than that, he believes it, believes it with all his soul when he steps onto the field of battle or the practice ring.
He can teach Merlin in two weeks.
After a breakfast brought by an attractively compliant chambermaid (who he forgets when he notices the lack of fruit, because Merlin has made some kind of mission out of Arthur finding a relationship with things not meat), a quick bath (lukewarm. He'll admit this much; Merlin is a wizard when it comes to bath temperatures), and a check of the armoury, Arthur feels confident enough to present himself at Gaius' doorstep and explain to Merlin in very short words how he won't be dying messily after all.
"Your Highness." Gaius bows, head lowered, but not before Arthur sees the black circles beneath his eyes. It's a warning, but almost not enough of one. Merlin hasn't been moved from the exceedingly uncomfortable table all night. Arthur's shared a tent, a pallet, and cold ground with Merlin and knows to the muscle how Merlin sleeps, loose limbed and comfortable in summer, tightly balled in winter, and numerous variations that include waking faced with an unhappy fox and Merlin trying to crawl under him (apparently, Merlin's read far too many ballads on the friendliness of woodland creatures). The careful straightness of his body beneath the blanket tells the story of the injuries better than even Gaius could.
Ribs, Arthur remembers abruptly. "How is he?" For some reason, Arthur can't quite make himself move.
"He has a lump on his head," Gaius says, voice carefully neutral, more damning than hot anger could ever be. "Two ribs and a wound to the back of his left calf. There's a cut on his right wrist, but it's not deep."
Head, ribs, hamstring, finger tendons. Arthur learned anatomy from this man in books and later, from the cooling bodies of the men he led into battle. Pustilius was fighting to mutilate, to maim, to cause the greatest damage and yet leave Merlin alive. He's just not very good at it.
"Will he recover?" Arthur makes himself approach the table, keeping his voice even, uninterested, because otherwise he's not sure he will be able to stop himself from hunting the man who did this through the castle and taking payment in blood.
Gaius hesitates. "I think so. I've stitched the wounds and there was no damage to the tendons. But it will take time."
And time is what they don't have.
Looking down, Arthur looks at the too-pale, sweat-streaked face. There's an empty cup on the chair, but even Gaius best infusions can't keep Merlin free from pain, mouth tight even in sleep.
"He does heal quickly," Gaius says, with an odd inflection that Arthur can't quite read. "And the damage was superficial."
"Ribs," Arthur says flatly, "do not heal that quickly."
"They were likely simply bruised. He has not coughed blood, in which case a few days should see him on his feet."
So Arthur can take a sword to him and beat him into a warrior. He's never allowed Merlin to face him without every safety he could devise, and to teach him, they can have none of those.
"Has he said..." Arthur bites down before he can finish the sentence.
"No, Your Highness." Gaius looks down at Merlin, face softening in a private look that Arthur isn't meant to see. "He's quite stubborn, but I know he regrets causing you trouble and embarrassment on his behalf. When he wakes, I'm sure he will tell you so."
"That would be a first." Arthur waves away Gaius' automatic protestations; it's not like he's wrong. "When he wakes, I wish to speak to him."
"Of course, Sire."
Not chamber pot. Arthur smiles tightly, turning on his heel. Once outside, he looks thoughtfully at the stone and stretches his hand. Punching walls, while satisfying, isn't conductive to thinking. The plan needs modification.
Arthur turns, sharp words already on the tip of his tongue that melt at the earnest worry on Gwen's face, his very own living, breathing omen. With a slow smile, Arthur says, "Merlin's still sleeping. Do tell him I will speak to him later."
Gwen nods, mystified. "Yes, sire."
"Excellent." On his way down the hall, Arthur doesn't whistle, but it's a very close thing.
Morgana says "You want me to do what?"
Arthur rocks back on his heels, feeling utterly brilliant. "I surprise myself with my genius as well. Be ready."
It's three days, actually; so it was bruising, then. Arthur makes him walk up and down Gaius' lab, studying the slight limp in one leg, the shift of his body, the hand that fights the urge to reach up and hold his side. "Satisfied?" Merlin snaps. Arthur raises an eyebrow but can't bother himself to comment on the lack of respect. The drapes still linger in his memory.
"No, but you were always that skinny, so I can't blame Pustilius for that."
Merlin frowns. "Who is--"
"Never mind. He's well enough for a walk, then." Arthur smiles brightly at Gaius, not looking at all like he's doing anything but taking Merlin for a refreshing walk. Gaius smiles back, hiding his suspicion, as Arthur has never taken anyone for a refreshing walk in his life.
Merlin doesn't bother to hide his suspicion at all. "Why are you being so--friendly?" Gaius looks faintly horrified, cut with carefully hidden amusement, but Arthur's in far too good a mood to care.
"I worry about your health. I miss decent baths." Merlin's mouth opens, then shuts tight, and it's post-Midsummer all over again, but this time, there's nothing for Merlin to clean in malicious obedience. All he can do is stand there and radiate disdain while wrapped in a blanket. "Come along, then. Fresh air and such."
Merlin's eyes narrow, but after a glance at Gaius, he nods meekly enough, abandoning his blanket and following Arthur to the door.
Once outside, Arthur steers them toward the grassy expanse that borders the forest. "This way. Better air."
"The air here is fine," Merlin says, bewildered, but he comes along, obviously unsettled. "Where are we going?"
Sliding an arm around Merlin's shoulders (and incidentally ready to catch him if his knee gives out before they get there), Arthur grins. "A place in the forest. Excellent air."
"Did you hit your head?" Merlin says worriedly, already reaching up to check. Arthur bats his hand down and ignores the warmth at Merlin's instinctive worry. "Gawain said you didn't take a blow, but--"
"I'm fine." Speeding up their pace, Arthur sees a glint of metal in the woods. Excellent. "Come now. Air will do you good."
Merlin twists his head around. "Sire--" Not chamber pot, but very close. Arthur tightens his grip. "Ow! That hurts!"
"Think how much it will hurt after single combat in two weeks," Arthur says airily and feels Merlin slump.
"I'm trying not to think of that," Merlin mutters. "Tell me about flogging again?"
So Arthur does, with relish, right up until they emerge in the clearing, where Merlin stops short and stares at Morgana and Gwen--or more importantly, at their swords. "Oh," he says.
Arthur claps him on the back before pushing him down on the nearest log. "We'll start with demonstrations. So you can see the many ways you could die and how to avoid that. I don't want to train someone new. I'm not sure anyone could quite compete with your surprising talent with dye."
From the look on Merlin's face, Arthur may never get a hot bath again. Sitting beside him, Arthur gestures. "You may begin."
Morgana's a good instructor, Arthur thinks, watching her put Merlin through his paces. He knows the basics--Arthur had made sure of that before Merlin was in his service a week--but that isn't enough.
Slight limp on the left, weak right hand where the tendons had almost been cut, a disturbing propensity to pause and think before doing; Arthur catalogues every flaw by habit, building from there. He can evaluate at glance, knows by the end of a single fight his opponent's every weakness and every strength. He's hoping he'll find Merlin's strength soon, because Merlin has enough weaknesses to supply a hundred knights with some to spare.
After thirty minutes, Arthur calls him back when his left leg begins to tremble. "That wasn't too bad," Merlin says, sounding breathless. Arthur nods; if Merlin were fighting air, it wouldn't be bad at all. Arthur reaches for his right wrist, ignoring Merlin's protest to watch his hand. A slight tremble: not much, but it's there.
"How's your vision?" Arthur asks casually.
"Fine. He didn't hit me that hard." Merlin tries to pull away. "I'm just tired."
Merlin hesitates, which is damning all on its own. "Not often now."
Letting go, Arthur sits back, watching Morgana and Gwen smoothly perform what Merlin had nearly broken his ankle trying to do at half-speed.
"To satisfy honour isn't to the death," Arthur says quietly. "The point is drawing first blood."
Merlin nods, mouth tight, knowing it's as good as a lie; then again, he knows Pustilius. Arthur had put off knighting Pustilius from instinctive dislike, but Merlin's living proof of what Arthur had felt every time he had watched Pustilius fight.
"They're not my conventions, sire. Nor does he seem aware of them."
Arthur grits his teeth. "Give me something to tell my father," he says finally, surprising himself. "What he said to you."
Merlin stiffens. "Sire--"
"For the love of God, if you lie to me--"
"It's not important." Merlin is looking at Gwen and Morgana, but he's not seeing them at all. "This--it is not your concern--"
"Of course it's my concern!" Only Morgana and Gwen mere feet away keep him from shouting. "What you do reflects on me. Insulting a member of my father's court--"
"Of course. I apologize, Your Highness." Arthur controls the twitch; Your Highness is used only under duress; such as, when someone is telling him to say it. There's no chamber pot in it. There's nothing at all, like they're strangers, like--like Arthur's his employer and nothing else. "I never meant to shame you."
"Arthur?" Like magic--and right now, Arthur would find it quite acceptable if a sorcerer showed up, because it looks like magic might be the only way out of this--Morgana appears in front of him, looking worried and annoyed both. "Merlin, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Merlin says in a small, broken voice. Arthur turns to stare at him. "Just a little tired."
Being Morgana, she falls for it like a tree. "You've overdone it," she says, a reproachful edge in her voice that's all for Arthur. Before Arthur can defend himself--I'm trying to keep him alive and in one piece, thank you very much--Morgana eases Merlin to his feet. Like two halves of a whole, Gwen mirrors her on Merlin's other side, and while Gwen would never so forget herself as to express reproach, he really has no idea what to call that expression that isn't quite what one would call respectful. When Merlin's on his feet, Gwen pulls away, already gathering their things with nothing more than a glance at Morgana's face.
It takes everything in him not to stand up and pull Merlin away from Morgana; surprised by the intensity of his reaction, Arthur finds he can't move at all, watching them leave. Gwen takes the time for a graceful obeisance, which he'd appreciate far more if she weren't conspiring with Morgana to take Merlin away.
"Tomorrow," he says with all the authority he can muster, finally getting to his feet. A chambermaid has doubtless laid a bath and food will be waiting for him. Perhaps wine. Perhaps she'll be waiting there as well, and for a few minutes, it will be like nothing's changed but his brilliantly red drapes.
Watching Gwen steady Morgana when she trips, the absent ease between them that's familiarity and affection both, Arthur thinks that of all the times he's envied Morgana his father's approval, the way she can speak when he can't, to act when he won't, he's never envied her so bitterly as he does this moment, that she has someone who is so much a part of her, someone who will never let her fall.
Merlin gets better. But not good enough; if Arthur had been training him for a year and doing nothing else, he wouldn't be ready. Merlin moves like no one he's ever seen, half here and half not at all; Arthur has a feeling that if Merlin truly wanted to, he could vanish into the background so thoroughly almost no one could find him. Useful in any circumstance but the middle of the tournament ground when facing a blade.
Arthur could train that out of him--given time and patience, and when it comes to this, to Merlin, Arthur has both of those and more; he could teach Merlin to carry his body like a weapon.
"Again," he says, ignoring the slight tremble of Merlin's leg, the way the sword dips slightly before he straightens. "Watch your left side. A shield is only as good as the man who wields it. And it can't protect you from every blow. Your first defence is not to be where the sword is."
"Brilliant," Morgana says acidly. "Useful, that." She concentrates on Merlin's left side, though, and Arthur bites his lip at the slide of the shield that Morgana doesn't take advantage of, how Merlin leaves his side open too often, stopping only when he stumbles and almost falls.
Merlin could have died thirty times while Arthur watched.
"Enough," Morgana says finally. Merlin shakes his head stubbornly, but he can't control the shaking of his hands and even shoving the tip of his sword into the ground can't hide that. "Let's get you back--"
Arthur looks at her. "I'll take him back."
Morgana frowns, looking at Merlin as if for permission, and worse, Merlin hesitates before he nods. Handing Gwen her sword, Morgana paces Merlin back to the log, hovering like a hen with one chick. "Arthur--"
"Stay here," Arthur tells Merlin firmly. From the way Merlin sighs, there's not much chance he's moving anytime soon. Following Morgana out of the clearing, Arthur looks back to see Gwen approach Merlin, crouching to reach for him, small fingers resting with casual ease on one thin shoulder, and makes himself look away.
When they're out of earshot, Morgana turns on him. "He'll be slaughtered."
Yes, that's not obvious, but thank you for that brilliant observation. The sky is also blue and my father is doing this because there's a lesson in it. "He's improving."
"It's not good enough." Pacing in a short circle, she looks at anything but him. "There's only one week more. It won't make a difference. Even a month wouldn't make a difference."
"What would you have me do?"
"Talk to Uther. Tell him--"
"My father is always open to rational conversation. I wish I'd thought of that."
Morgana blinks; it's fairly rare he surprises her, and he wishes he could enjoy it more. "Send him away--"
"Marvellous idea. Pustilius isn't known to carry grudges. I'm sure he won't send someone after Merlin to avenge that tattered rag he calls his honour."
Morgana catches her breath. "Why do we bear him here?"
"Because his father is too powerful. Father spared him because he preferred to keep bloodshed among the nobility at a minimum in hopes it would reconcile them to his rule." There's a lesson there, too, though Uther doesn't know it. The nobility is the source of their knights, and Uther's own law requires only their oath and their skill. Arthur won't make that mistake. The men he leads will belong to him and him alone, and that the nobility of Camelot will never truly be.
"So there's--" Morgana licks her lips, looking away. "What if you spoke to him?"
Arthur doesn't need to ask to know who she's referring to. Nor does he feel the need to answer.
She studies him, looking for hope, and he can see the moment she doesn't find it. Lips pressed together, she turns away. Arthur follows her more slowly; she still carries a knife and just might try to use it.
When he arrives, Gwen has already gathered everything, sharing Merlin's log, mouth curled up in a fragile smile that almost hides her fear. Merlin's talking to Morgana, more animated than he's been since before that blasted Midsummer festival, bright and startlingly vivid.
Gwen leans her head on Merlin's shoulder, fingers resting on his wrist while Morgana laughs, steadying herself against his knee, and Arthur has to look away, unable to breathe.
Merlin doesn't so much lose the animation as have it drained right out of him the second Morgan and Gwen leave. It's not very flattering.
"I don't care what you said to him," Arthur hears himself say into the silence.
Merlin looks up, startled. "What?"
It's impossible to stand still; Arthur doesn't even try, pacing the clearing. "To Pustilius. Whatever his name is. I don't care. I don't care if you insulted his lineage and implied his mother plied her trade among the wolves. It doesn't matter."
Christ, Morgana was right; maybe this is like a marriage. At least he and Merlin get along better than most of the couples at court; so far as he knows, they have yet to try and stab each other to death in their sleep or run away with a disturbingly underage stableboy or chambermaid in a fit of pique. Considering that Arthur's future wife will be chosen less for compatibility than for her political value, Merlin may be the only marriage he'll have that won't end in bloodshed or a great deal of fortifying wine.
Merlin frowns. "I don't understand."
Arthur comes to a stop in front of the log. "I don't care if you insult every knight in Camelot. God knows they do it to each other enough. The songs alone..." Arthur could live the rest of his life without listening to a few dozen drunken men with neither vocal talents nor understanding of rhythm empty a tavern of people running in defence of their sanity. "Never mind. That's not why--that's not why I'm angry. Not with you."
Merlin looks concerned, the way he does when Arthur's bleeding copiously. It's not reassuring. "Are you feeling--"
"So your men say, quite loudly. Without prompting. While Gaius treats them."
Arthur stops short. There's the faintest trace of a smile curving the corner of Merlin's mouth. "Do they now?"
Merlin nods solemnly. "Even while Gaius sews them up."
"They've been inattentive."
"It's been that sort of week." Merlin shifts on the log, looking anywhere but at him. Dropping on the log beside him, Arthur sighs.
"The drapes are very nice. Very red."
"Your bed hangings are currently drying in the kitchen garden," Merlin says mischievously. "It's difficult to get that particular shade of prat red, you know."
Arthur stops the shudder before it starts. "I won't apologize for Midsummer." Hesitating, he looks at Merlin, at the warm smile he's never seen Merlin turn on anyone else. "But perhaps next time, I'll--consider your objections."
"I would have stayed if you'd just asked." Merlin looks away quickly, flushing, as if he'd said something he hadn't meant to. "Gwen said it wasn't terribly interesting anyway."
Arthur swallows, throat tight. "I'll keep that in mind."
The silence stretches out between them, waiting for--something.
"I am sorry." Merlin says suddenly. "About Pustilius--Persivance--"
"Pustilius," Arthur says darkly.
"Him. I didn't--think. He was very--" Merlin's eyes narrow in memory. "Irritating."
Any other knight would have probably knocked Merlin around and then left him bruised but otherwise unhurt; a knight of Camelot wouldn't have baited Merlin at all. And only Pustilius would go to Uther.
Then again, Pustilius isn't a knight of Camelot.
"What did he say to you?" Merlin's smile vanishes, and Arthur backtracks immediately, wanting it back. It's been too long since he's seen it turned on him. "Very well, if you insist on the secret, so be it. How do you feel?"
"Quite well," Merlin says, sounding so relieved that Arthur raises an eyebrow. Standing up, he does his best to look quite at ease and perhaps could even have carried it off if he hadn't been listing to port so badly. "Another week--"
"Yes, another week." Arthur catches him when his left leg collapses; he's so light, it feels as if a breeze could steal him away. Arthur tightens his grip, shifting Merlin's weight and picking up his discarded sword.
"Let me take that--"
"Just hold on," Arthur answers, pulling Merlin's arm over his shoulder. "Let's get you back. And eat something. Does Gaius never feed you? Need I supervise that as well as your swordsmanship?"
Merlin mutters something, pale skin flushing, and Arthur listens to the cadence of his voice as they return to the castle, Merlin's long fingers locked trustingly over the curve of his shoulder.
Gaius isn't in; frowning, Arthur leads Merlin to the table, hearing Merlin's sigh of relief when his feet no longer touch the floor. "Where's Gaius?"
"With your father. I think." Even that short walk had exhausted him; Merlin sinks back onto the table with a groan. "I pity your knights if this is what they go through every day with you."
"They know what to expect." Arthur says absently. "Where--never mind, I remember." Opening the cabinet, Arthur studies the array of bottles with a frown. "At least he uses Latin for his labels," Arthur says. "He used to threaten to put them in Frankish if I kept skipping my lessons."
"Because that was the lesson I was skipping." There, third row. Taking out the bottle, Arthur opens it, sniffing only long enough to feel nauseated. Yes, this one. "Sit up."
Merlin does, eyebrows drawn together tightly. "What--"
"I wasn't told he hurt your back."
Merlin blinks, mouth open. "How did you know--"
"I'm a prince. Omnipotence comes with my exalted station. Take off--or don't, I'm not sure you can mange to remove your shirt without tearing it. Though truly," and Arthur takes a second to study it with narrowed eyes, "it would be no great loss. The household has competent seamstresses and I certainly pay you enough. Please consider dressing appropriately to your station."
Not chamber pot. And oddly, still not what Arthur wants to hear. "Never mind. Hold still."
Steadying Merlin with one hand against his shoulder, he pulls up the thin cloth, and it's only years of watching the thousands of ways men can kill each other that keeps him from reacting. Tucking the shirt up under the hand on Merlin's shoulder, Arthur ghosts the line that bisects Merlin's back with one finger, so perfectly straight he couldn't have been moving at all when it opened up his skin. Without treatment by someone of Gaius' skill....
"Looks nasty, but it's shallow enough. Hold still." Dipping one finger into the salve, Arthur pretends it doesn't smell of the garderobe. It doesn't work, but he pretends it does.
"You shouldn't--ohhhh." Merlin shivers at the first touch, going quiet and very still. Arthur's treated his men before, far from Camelot and Gaius' skill, unwilling to trust their lives to hired leeches who put their faith in superstition and bleeding ill humours away, so there's nothing unfamiliar in this, as impersonal and clinical as--
As it's not, at all; it can't be. He doesn't want it to be. Taking a breath, Arthur forgets the smell, focusing on the carefully sewn cut. It's not deep, but Arthur suspects it was meant to be. Working the salve into the wound, Arthur follows every shift of Merlin's body, lightening his touch as he nears the vulnerable spine. He'd never realized how well he knew Merlin, reading his body as easily as he reads his own.
"There might be a scar," Arthur says huskily. Merlin nods, a bare rise and fall of his head. Arthur straightens briefly; Merlin's hands are white-knuckled, locked around the edge of the table, but Arthur doesn't think it's from pain. "Almost done."
"I--" Merlin swallows audibly. "It's--it's fine, Arthur. Sire."
For his age and rank, Merlin's skin is remarkably fine; Arthur eases the shirt higher, sliding his thumb along the faintest line just below the first knob where neck and shoulders meet. "What was this?"
"Hunting," Merlin says thickly. Arthur snorts. "Really. We all had to at home. We--me and Will would go out for a day or so."
"Were you any good at it then?"
"As I needed to be." Arthur skims a thumb down the knobs of Merlin's spine from nape to the loose waist of his trousers and feels Merlin lean back into it, breath catching. "It's different. When you--you know. That you won't eat otherwise."
"Granted." A small, easily ignorable part of Arthur's mind is appalled at what he's doing; a willing chambermaid is one thing. A wounded--servant is another thing entirely. Under a death sentence, for that matter, and while neither of them say it, Arthur knows Merlin knows it. Resting his hand on the curve of Merlin's back, Arthur releases a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "I wish for you to leave Camelot."
Merlin stiffens; Arthur tightens his grip on Merlin's shoulder and reaches for Merlin's hip, holding Merlin in place. "Sire--"
"Albion is large and even Pustilius can't hunt you forever. I'll find another way to satisfy him and my father."
When Merlin stills, Arthur lets go, shirt covering the glistening wound. Circling the table, Arthur looks at the bent head, waiting until Merlin looks up, defiance mixed with resignation, as if he's already given up.
"You'd die for me," Arthur says flatly, holding Merlin's gaze. "I'm asking you to live for me."
"What would the court think, if I ran away? What I do reflects on you--"
"Don't you dare throw that back at me--"
"In this, it does. On Gaius. On--on Camelot. On you." Mouth tight, Merlin looks down. "There's nowhere else. This is my home. I can't--I won't give that up."
Arthur brackets Merlin between his arms, hands pressed into the rough wood of the table hard enough to ache, forehead pressed to Merlin's, breathing him in: an afternoon in the sun, the scent of fresh leaves and new grass and clean sweat, Merlin warm and familiar and valued beneath it. "I can't watch you die."
Tentative hands cover his, warm and rough with new blisters and new calluses that won't do anything more than delay the inevitable. "I'll try not to die, then."
The sound of the door jerks Arthur back into the room, but what he regrets most is the loss of Merlin's hands. Stepping back, he turns to the door just as Gaius comes in.
"Merlin, are you--oh, Your Highness." With a bow, Gaius looks at Merlin with a frown. "What have you--"
"His back gave him some trouble," Arthur says flatly. "It needs to be examined." Before Gaius can answer, Arthur turns away, salve still slicking the fingers he locks behind his back.
Arthur opens the door to his father's study; the steward breaks off mid-sentence, bowing as Uther looks up. Arthur glances at the papers scattered over the desk, recognizing supply reports, household accounts brought for his father's approval, the neat columns of numbers that represent the treasury. Uther's crown is set aside, dressed in an old doublet worn thin with time, very little the glittering man that presides over Camelot's court.
Yet Arthur thinks sometimes that here is where his father is most truly King; stripped of ornament, bent over accounts and studying reports, involving himself in the minutia of the land and the people he rules and loves more than his own life.
Uther raises a hand to his steward. "Leave us."
The courtesy surprises him; Uther tends to prefer an audience when dealing with his son. The man bows to them both, gathering his papers in both arms. Arthur keeps his gaze on his father.
When the door shuts, Uther leans back in his chair, every inch the faintly dissatisfied father. "Is there something you wish to say?"
He knows; Arthur fights the urge to straighten under the steady gaze. "I wish to take Merlin's place when he faces Percivance."
"Persivance will not accept the exchange." Hands folding on the desk, Uther watches him thoughtfully. "And you know that as well as I."
"There is no possible way Merlin can hope to challenge him," Arthur answers, hands locked behind his back, salve slick between clenched fingers. "Percivance knows that as well."
"I would guess that is why he challenged him." Because he wouldn't dare to challenge you is unspoken; Arthur clenches his teeth. "I will not order it, if that's what you desire. Your manservant accepted his challenge--"
"When the other option was flogging, he can be forgiven for thinking it the lesser of two evils."
Uther's mouth tightens. "Careful Arthur--"
"He is not yet well enough to return to his duties--"
"But well enough for you to instruct him daily." For a horrified second, Arthur wonders if Uther knows of Morgana and Gwen's participation, but no. His expression remains stern, not homicidal. "His own actions condemned him, Arthur."
"He was provoked."
Uther shrugs dismissively; Merlin is dead and burned already as far as he's concerned, with no more thought given to him than an aged horse or broken sword. Arthur feels his fingernails break skin, blood welling up hot and sticky against his palms. "He should have considered the consequences more carefully before assaulting a member of the nobility."
"He will be killed," Arthur says flatly. "And publicly, for the amusement of this court. I did not think we were willing to revive the circuses of Rome, but if we are to do so, let me suggest we not begin with spending the lives Camelot's subjects so cheaply. Perhaps we could begin with prisoners of war and watch them fight for our amusement--"
"Enough!" Uther stands up, both hands braced on the desk, face reddening. "You forget yourself."
"I do not forget what is owed to the people who depend on--"
"He broke the law, Arthur." Uther says, voice hard. "He chose his method of punishment. If it costs him his life, it will serve as an example--"
"An example of what? What possible good could come of this? To show we care so little for our people that we allow them to be slaughtered like sheep for our entertainment? Is that the kingdom you have built?"
Arthur was seventeen the last time he pushed his father too far; a room full of knights watched as Arthur found himself kneeling at his father's feet, mouth smeared with his own blood. As an example, it had been both instructive and lasting. The memory of humiliation had checked him more times than he can count, tasting blood every time he bent before his father's will. His pride would never allow him to be shamed like that again, before his own men and his father's court.
He had arrested Gwen for witchcraft; his men slew her father like a common criminal; he's watched sorcerers burn and ordered their executions himself. There might be shame to be put on his knees, bloodied by his father's hand before the court, but now he thinks it can never match Gwen breaking before his eyes, the scornful rise of Morgana's chin, or the chilled turn of Merlin's back. It's not the crown prince of Camelot they condemned, not the knight, not the disappointment he is as son and heir; they looked at Arthur, the man who should have protected them, fought for them, and found him lacking.
He's not seventeen; he's slept in a dungeon for a flower; he helped a child sorcerer escape his father's justice; he left Camelot to follow his conscience to Ealdor and led peasants in insurrection against bandits.
Arthur doesn't flinch when his father circles the desk; he can't taste blood, not this time. He sees Gwen's father burned on a pyre for a mistake; Gwen curled small and pale in the dungeons; Morgana's bruised wrists and haunted eyes; Merlin falling beneath the sword of a man not fit to wipe his boots, whatever his birth might be.
So he waits for the blow; he would take it before his father's court, if it meant this time, he wouldn't break. He'd take it before the world itself, if it would spare Merlin's life.
Uther stops less than an inch away; Arthur looks at the man who is his king and his father, and forgets how to be afraid.
"If Percivance withdraws," Uther says, voice low, "I will consider this matter closed." Arthur blinks. "Otherwise, your servant will die. If you interfere, you will spend the last hours of his life in the dungeon. Now. You have wasted enough of my time, Arthur. This behaviour is beneath you. You may go."
Pustilius is an idiot.
Arthur leans against the walls, barely hidden in the shadows, watching as the man comes in, playing absently with a heavy pendant circling his thick neck that Arthur's often thought would look far better if the chain were far, far tighter.
"It's strange," Arthur says. "There were no fatal wounds."
Pustilius stiffens, reaching for the sword that's no longer in the chair by his bed. Narrowed eyes dart here and there, looking for the source, and somehow, against all odds, miss Arthur entirely.
It's irritating. Arthur sighs, stepping into the full candlelight, waiting patiently until Pustilius finally looks his direction. Shock strips the colour from his face before he recovers himself, but nothing can erase that second of utter fear.
"You don't have the subtlety to wound without killing, and so the wounds were too light. You meant to maim him."
Pustilius straightens, trying imposing and failing. "I have no idea--"
"You don't notice anyone below your rank. You never have. It's beneath you. So why would you notice him?"
"I told you--"
"Your squire was with you. There was nothing you required."
"I resent these insinuations--"
"You never notice servants. Yet you noticed him."
Pustilius stills. "What do you think, Sire?"
"That you were too afraid to challenge me."
For a second, Arthur almost thinks the man is going to try to deny it. His expression shifts, affronted innocence replaced with what Arthur's felt since the first time they met. "It's been a long three years, Arthur. I should have been knighted when I arrived."
Arthur nods, unsurprised. "And you thought this way would work?"
"I thought you needed the reminder of who I am."
Arthur leans back against the wall. "Remind me, then."
"Better born than any of the men you call knights. And far better born than the man who forced my father to kneel and beg for what was his by right of birth." Arthur straightens, but Pustilius only laughs. "Please. You can't kill me. You need my father. Uther can't hold the kingdom if we rebel."
"You cannot win."
Pustilius smiles. "In a civil war, the winner is the last one standing. It might be you. Or it might not. Not everyone is so comfortable beneath your father's boot."
Arthur hadn't brought his sword; good luck or bad, he's not sure. Pustilius' death is something he would enjoy too much. "So you plan to kill my servant for revenge."
"I won't kill him when he faces me this week. But he won't walk away from that field, Arthur. Nor will he crawl. A man needs hands and feet for that. I want him to be a living reminder of what I am due."
Arthur swallows; somehow, his hand found its way to his knife, fingers clenched so tightly he can feel the metal imprint itself into his skin. "Do you think you can continue here after this?" Arthur says softly.
"I can. And I will. Or there will be war. And you value your power far more than you could ever value one servant's useless life."
Pustilius smirks, turning his back; so stupid, Christ, Arthur can imagine how it would feel to bury his knife in that broad back.
"If you were offered the knighthood in exchange for withdrawing, would you accept it?"
Pustilius snort, turning to Arthur with a triumphant smile. "No. I'll have my knighthood either way. Your father will insist after this. I'm sure a physician of Gaius' reputed skills can ensure he will live a good long while in--whatever condition I permit him to be left in."
Pustilius sits on the bed, looking at Arthur with naked amusement. "It is late, Your Highness, and I'm quite tired. It's been a very long day."
Arthur waits, watching Pustilius' smirk, pasted onto his face like an ill-fitting garment to an uneven body, letting Pustilius see the many ways Arthur would kill him if he could. Some of them might even involve a blade.
When the smirk fades to trembling uncertainty, Arthur pushes off the wall. "Have a pleasant evening."
The corridors are silent; Arthur pauses long enough to catch himself on the wall, bile sour on the back of his tongue. Then he straightens and walks away.
Gaius freezes, and not only because he didn't hear Arthur come in. Leaning against the doorway, Arthur glances at the table, at the new stains that Gaius hasn't had a chance to sand away that mark the places that Merlin had bled for the easing of Pustilius' pride.
"Sire?" Turning around, Gaius frowns, a glass bottle in one hand. "Is something--"
"My father couldn't purge the realm of magic without using it. It's polite fiction that he had no sorcerers in his ranks, hoping, quite futilely as it turned out, to buy their lives by betraying their kind. You were not the least of them, and yet you lived. You must have been very good."
Gaius closes his eyes. "Sire--"
"Kestrel Inn was where Elwyn of Cornwall made her final stand, and before the night was over you watched her burn in the city square. Some said it was the protection of God, and maybe some even believed it, that you walked through fire without a scratch."
"That was--a very long time ago."
"I remember very well. Camelot is anathema to bards, but minstrels who bowed before my father's will are willing enough to tell the tale of that night. How you faced her, a powerless physician cloaked in your own righteousness and brought her low. We both know what part of that story is a lie."
Arthur sees his hands shake as he sets the bottle down, eyes flickering to Merlin's door and then away. "I cannot."
"Cannot, or will not?
"I cannot." Gaius opens his eyes. "I went on my knees before your father and swore when the purge was done, I would never use magic again."
"I don't care if you swore on God's own throne--"
"And it left me." Gaius' mouth twists. "Some sorcerers are made from study, and some are born. I haven't worked magic in over fifteen years. There is little left of what I was." Something hot and angry flares in his eyes. "Do you think I would scruple to use it if it would save him?"
"Then find me someone who can."
Gaius' eyes widen. "This is treason--"
"It is treason to cross my will. My father will not live forever, but you will not see the end of his reign. You won't burn. But you will wish you had."
"The next words you speak will be directions to a sorcerer who will do as I command or you will never speak again. I will cut out your tongue." Arthur's not sure when he took out his knife; he just knows he wants to use it more than he's ever wanted anything in his life.
"He won't have to go very far, sire."
Arthur's head snaps around; Merlin's leaning against the door of his room. For a second, the blue eyes look into his in resignation, then there's a flare of brilliant gold. Arthur watches with a curious lack of surprise as his knife settles in Merlin's palm.
The gold fades, swallowed by the blue, before Merlin looks away, shoulders slumping in defeat. "I'm sorry. I didn't--I couldn't tell you."
No, Arthur thought distantly; he couldn't. Merlin sat outside the door of Gwen's cell when she was arrested and held her hand when her father died. He hid a sorcerer with Morgana and brought her poultices for her bruised wrists to ease her pain. He watched from Arthur's window as sorcerers faced the axe or the pyre, watched Arthur stand beside his father and ordered the deaths of men and women for no better reason than what they were born.
Merlin hadn't told Arthur, the man who should have protected him, should have fought for him, because he found him lacking.
Merlin's head jerks up, eyes wide. "Sire--"
"Use it when you face him. In whatever way will save you."
Merlin's eyes flicker to Gaius, then away. Licking his lips, he looks at Arthur. "I can't."
"If you will not obey, perhaps you can be persuaded. You will do what you must to survive that fight, or Gaius life is forfeit."
Merlin straightens abruptly; Arthur makes himself ignore Merlin's flinch of pain. "Sire--Arthur--"
"You will use it. Or Gaius will be accused of sorcery against the crown and I will light his pyre with my own hands. I hope that this is clear."
Arthur doesn't remember the walk to his room, newly cleaned by an attractively compliant chambermaid who smiles honey-slow in invitation.
Whatever she sees tears the smile away; bowing awkwardly, she turns toward the door, almost stumbling to get away, and Arthur looks at a room that's been touched and cleaned by unfamiliar hands. The vivid drapes are the only thing of Merlin that remains.
Merlin cares for his clothing and his chambers and his weapons, arms him for tournaments and for hunts and for battle. Merlin's slept at his side and fought at his back and saved his life. Merlin argues with him and fights for him and doesn't know that he's supposed to fear him.
He's a sorcerer, his fate in Camelot written on the sharpened blade of an axe, and yet he stays, polishing armour and serving wine and risking treason with every breath he takes to protect Arthur. And Arthur can't protect him; he can't even make Merlin protect himself.
Arthur asks permission to go on a hunt; his father raises an eyebrow but nods acceptance. Pustilius declines; he can see the crossbow bolt Arthur would place in his back without a moment's hesitation every time Arthur looks at him.
Arthur doesn't see Morgana or Merlin at all. He's not sure if he should regret that.
Six days have never passed so quickly or so slowly; Arthur forgets what it was like to sleep. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees Pustilius standing over Merlin's bleeding, breathing body; he sees the blood-splattered room Gaius will take him to afterward and try to save whatever Pustilius leaves of him. He drives his knights mercilessly through Camelot's forests, a gruelling, endless chase broken with exhausted collapse that brings nothing like rest.
Camelot's dark when they return; he told himself he wasn't counting the days, but it's a lie that his men recognized long before he did. He's too exhausted to think of sleep; it's hours until Merlin faces Pustilius and after that...
Pushing open his door, Arthur frowns at the candlelight, then the mess of clothing and equipment he abandoned on the floor for the chambermaids to deal with.
"I told the chambermaids they weren't needed any longer," Merlin says from somewhere in the shadows. "If you throw that, I'm not sure I can get out of the way in time. It's tricky, and you have better aim than that sorceress."
Arthur lowers his arm, unclenching his fingers from around the hilt of his knife. Taking a breath, he drops it on the table, then pauses to look at what appears to be food. Still hot. "You will not commit treason to save your life, but will for my dinner? I'm not sure whether to be touched or appalled."
Merlin ignores that, no surprise. "Take a bath first," Merlin answers, emerging from the far side of the bed. He looks somewhat better than he did when Arthur left, but candlelight can lie as easily as men. "So there weren't any rivers about?"
"None that I was interested in exploring." But he can't help staring at the bath, steaming temptingly only feet away. At least now he knows how it was always the perfect temperature. "I should have known."
"Hmm?" Merlin turns him slightly, fingers quick on the laces at his throat before he frowns, peering at Arthur curiously. "Is there blood in your ears?"
"Probably." He's too tired to react appropriately and gives up trying; closing his eyes, he gives himself up to Merlin's familiar hands. "I used to have squires do this, you know." They'd been terrible, torn between the terror of touching him at all and touching him far too much, clumsy in their eagerness until he'd sent them away, unable to stand another moment of their company. Merlin from the first was so much easier; he'd learned his skill from Arthur's body alone.
"I know." The heavy metal pulls away with a grating sound; Arthur had forgotten how his arm felt without the weight of the vambrace. "They ran away or you ate them or something. The stories were never clear, but I understand their ghosts haunt the armoury. Have you--have you even taken this off since you left? It's buckled completely wrong." Merlin's fingers slide between leather and the chafed skin of Arthur's wrist. "I didn't know you could do this to metal."
Arthur can't remember dressing in the first place. "I prefer competent assistance." Yes, he's tired. He just complimented Merlin. "Or as close as I can get to it."
"Better." He can hear the laugh buried in Merlin's voice. "Hold still. Your mail is glued to your tunic and--oh. That's your skin."
Arthur shrugs, obediently following the pressure of Merlin's fingers against his neck, tipping his head forward at the gentle push. There's a distant, sharp pain, the scratch of metal against his face when he lifts his arms, before Merlin moves away briefly, mail set aside. When he returns, finger slide in the collar and he hears a knife slicing the cloth from neck to hem, cool air brushes across his bare skin. "There, that's--oh."
He doesn't have to look to know what Merlin must see. "Finish."
Merlin peels away the linen and wool with careful fingers, pulling it free from caked blood and days of sweat, tossing it somewhere in the mess of clothes already on the floor. Warm, callused hands skim the length of his bare back, over old bruising and sore muscles. Arthur sucks in a breath at the press of fingers against his skin, hard so abruptly he can barely think.
"You were injured." Merlin's palm rests lightly against his back, a centre of vivid heat.
"I'm used to it."
"That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt." Merlin hesitates. "Let me get--"
Merlin snorts softly before circling around, giving Arthur an irritated look before he goes to his knees. Arthur's mouth goes dry at the first touch of fingers on the tangled laces of his trousers. "Christ, Merlin."
Merlin looks up, hands stilling. "Arthur?"
That's what he's been waiting for.
Reaching down, Arthur gets a handful of rough wool and pulls, hearing seams split before Merlin can find his balance. Pushing Merlin against the bedpost, Arthur pins his wrists on the other side, looking into eyes that flicker amber and gold in their depths. "Use it."
"If I do, what makes me different from Tauren or, or Edwin? Or any of the other sorcerers that come here and use their powers to hurt people?"
"I don't care about them."
"That's not a good reason."
"It's my reason."
Merlin looks away. "You'd hate yourself. And you'd hate me for being the reason you--" Merlin licks his lips, eyes closing briefly. "Have you ever beaten a servant?"
Arthur tightens his grip on Merlin's wrists once. "Trick question."
Merlin's mouth softens, corner sliding up in amusement. "Fine. Would you beat Morgana?"
"No. Though I have been tempted."
"And you won't spar with her."
"No. Are we playing twenty questions? Because I have one, and I think it's my turn."
They're too close to the same height; Merlin doesn't intimidate easily, even now. "Because she's not your equal. Because the disparity of skill between you gives her a disadvantage that cannot be evened. Because--"
"You've used your magic before.
Merlin ducks his head. "It would be so easy," he says finally. "I've thought of nothing else. And sometimes--sometimes I almost convince myself that it would be such a little thing. But even I have honour, Arthur--"
Arthur steps closer, leaning close enough to breathe into his ear, "I meant--."
Merlin swallows, shaking his head. "And if he were a bandit, or a sorcerer, or a marching army, it would matter not at all. This--this isn't any of those things. And you know the ban on charms in single combat is older than the purge."
"If it were me that would face an unequal contest, would you do it?"
Merlin stares at him helplessly. Arthur doesn't need his answer; he can read it in his face.
"But not for yourself." Pausing, Arthur takes a deep breath. "This has nothing to do with honour, because yours is mine. It is my duty and my right as your master to protect you, or to give you the means to protect yourself."
"By taking advantage of someone who cannot defend themselves from what I can do?"
Something's shaping in the back of Arthur's mind. Merlin's somehow managed to convince himself that this makes any kind of rational sense, so Arthur sets it aside for now. "Were your ribs broken?"
Merlin blinks, then winces. "Yes. Gaius--we found a--thing. To help with that."
Sliding a hand beneath Merlin's shirt, Arthur trails his fingertips across unbroken ribs that never pierced a lung. Merlin shivers, eyes half-closed, mouth softening as his head tilts back against the post.
"It was about me." Merlin's eyes open, startled. "What he said to provoke you. You cannot lose an opportunity to defend me, can you? Even when you're still angry with me."
Merlin almost smiles. "You would have done the same for me. And have."
"Was it true? What he said?"
Studying the sudden hot flush, Arthur thinks he can guess. "Tell me."
"He--he said that your preference for--for taking--that it would be difficult for you to rule a kingdom when you made no secret you preferred to lie with your servants."
Not so far from true, then.
Shifting his grip on Merlin's wrists, Arthur drops to his knees, shoving the thin cotton higher. The mottled bruising is yellow-plum, shading in sick green to clear skin. Arthur ghosts a touch over the darkest bruising where blood flooded beneath the surface of the skin, then presses his lips against it, feeling the shift of muscle, Merlin's sharp intake of breath.
Pulling back, Arthur touches it. "This is mine."
Freeing Merlin's wrists, Arthur unfastens the laces of his trousers. Merlin's breath hitches, one hand falling to Arthur's shoulder. Carefully, Arthur eases the material away, running both hands down the back of Merlin's thighs until he finds the healing ridge of the scar just below the knee. "And so is this."
"What--Arthur." Merlin's voice breaks, fingernails scratching restlessly against the side of Arthur's neck.
Arthur reaches up, pressing his thumb against Merlin's wrist, rubbing against the scar before turning his head, brushing a kiss against it. "This too."
Sitting back on his heels, Arthur tugs once, and Merlin obeys, bare thighs spread across Arthur's own. Curling his fingers in the loose cloth, Arthur drags the shirt over Merlin's head, pressing his forehead against Merlin's as he slides his hand up the length of bare back, fingers spread along the scar he claimed days ago. "All of it," Arthur says thickly.
Merlin's eyes are dilated black, as wide and dark as the sky outside. "You can have anything of me you want. You know that."
Arthur close his eyes, swallowing. Cupping the back of Merlin's head, he licks his lips, tasting days-old blood and fresh sweat. "Swear it."
"I swear, Arthur." Merlin's hands flex on his shoulders, and Arthur wants his touch so badly he can barely think. "You can have anything."
Arthur pulls back, taking Merlin's face in his hands, catching and holding his eyes. "Swear that there is nothing you will deny me."
Arthur runs his thumbs over the high jut of Merlin's cheekbones, wishing he could leave fingerprints here, everywhere. The world seems to still around them as Merlin's eyes widen, lips parting. Flickers of anger and fear chase each other through his eyes, but then they settle, coalescing into a relief so intense Arthur can almost taste it. "I swear it."
"I accept it," Arthur whispers against his lips, and kisses him, shifting until he can stretch Merlin out on the floor, cushioned by the rug and the clothes Arthur ripped from the cupboard before he'd left, before he'd realized he'd left half of himself behind. Arthur swallows every broken sound, every breath Merlin gives him, reaching between them to shove both their trousers farther down, pulling away long enough to toss them aside. Merlin's as desperate as he is, one leg hooking over Arthur's hip, cock leaving shining trails behind that Arthur follows with his tongue. Tangling his hands in Merlin's hair, Arthur kisses him again, pinning him to the floor with the weight of his body, biting Merlin's lip as their cocks slide together, not wet enough and too good to think of stopping. And it's not enough; it's not even close.
"Merlin," Arthur says; he can barely understand himself, but Merlin stills, blinking up at him with pleasure-glazed eyes, pale skin dappled in candlelight-gold, the healing purple at his ribs and the darkening red blotches where Arthur left the mark of his teeth. It takes a long second for Arthur to remember what it was he meant to do. Standing up unsteadily, he jerks open the cupboard, finding the bottle of oil disturbingly stored exactly where it was supposed to be.
Merlin smiles up at him with swollen red lips when Arthur kneels, eyes flickering to the oil before he starts to turn over. "Don't," Arthur says, easing him back to the floor. "I want to see your face."
Nodding, Merlin watches him, fingers clenching in tunics and trousers, eyes falling shut when Arthur slicks his fingers and lifting his hips when Arthur slides them inside him. Arthur traces the pale skin of his inner thigh to the knee, curling a hand behind it and easing it up until Merlin reaches out, grabbing his wrist. "It's--you can--" and loses words after that and Arthur can't wait another second.
Bracing a hand on the floor, Arthur guides himself inside, sucking in a breath at the tight heat that opens to him slowly, inevitably, watching Merlin's tongue catch between his teeth.
Settling, he pulls Merlin's leg over his hip, cupping Merlin's jaw. When Merlin's eyes flicker open, Arthur rocks his hips slowly, feeling the tension winding through Merlin at every movement. "Give this to me," he says, leaning down to lick open his mouth, tasting fresh blood from his bitten tongue. The tension eases, just a little, and Arthur takes a breath when he can, slicking Merlin's lip with his tongue before he rocks again, harder. "There. Let me. Let me--"
"Oh!" Merlin twists up, looking startled, opening up to him. "Arthur, please--"
"Perfect." Kissing him, Arthur grins, shifting his weight and thrusting back in, fascinated by the quicksilver changes of expression, the hunger that begins to match his own. Merlin's hands unclench, one settling on his hip, short nails digging into the thin skin every time Arthur moves into him. Reaching down, he feels Merlin's cock swelling against his belly and finds for the oil by touch, pouring it between them and closing his fingers tightly along the slick, hard length, shuddering himself as Merlin gasps, hips jerking up involuntarily. "Yes. Do that. Merlin..."
He doesn't understand the words, the roll of consonants that slide from between Merlin's lips as easily as his native tongue, but he can feel it, the glittering warmth that surrounds them. Tangling his hand in Merlin's hair, he watches the gold consume the blue. "Yes," Arthur whispers; if he listens long enough, he thinks he can learn what Merlin's saying. "I want this, too."
"Arthur," Merlin breathes, and Arthur can feel the tremors start, sudden tightness surrounding his cock.
"Come on," Arthur murmurs against his lips. "Give it to me, Merlin. I want to feel it."
He pushes Merlin's knee higher, sliding his tongue into Merlin's mouth when Merlin stills, tasting his name with a wash of heat slicking his hand and both their bellies. When Merlin goes limp, flushed and slick with oil and sweat and his own release, Arthur licks down the column of his throat and comes with his mouth buried in Merlin's shoulder, almost shocked by the strength of it.
It would be polite to move, but Arthur can't make himself do it. Reaching up, Arthur runs his fingers through the sweat-slicked hair, kissing the line of his jaw, the soft skin just below his chin as Merlin's hand sliding lazily down his back, bonelessly content beneath him.
Pushing himself up on an elbow, Arthur looks down at Merlin's flushed face, mouth a swollen, pink smear, and wants him again so badly he's almost shaking with it.
Merlin opens his eyes, blue still faintly rimmed in gold. Arthur runs a thumb across Merlin's cheek. "I want to know everything."
Merlin nods sleepily, head tilting to reveal the long stretch of his throat. Arthur's getting hard again just looking at him. Merlin hesitates, eyes flickering down, then up, meeting Arthur's. "Again? Really?"
"Yes." The stone's hard beneath his knees, and even a pile of clothes aren't as good as a bed. With an effort, he draws himself out, and it's like he never finished at all. Merlin hisses softly. "Get on the bed."
Merlin pushes himself up slowly, glancing down the length of his body before curiously running his fingers through the mess on his stomach. Getting unsteadily to his feet, Arthur reaches for him, circling his scarred wrist and pulling him to his feet, turning his head to suck those fingers into his mouth, licking away the taste. When he pulls back, Merlin's staring at him like he's watching a miracle. "Bed."
He's never been obeyed so quickly in his life; it's a pity that it won't last. Kneeing Merlin's thighs apart, he pins his hips to the bed and takes Merlin's half-hard cock in his mouth and two fingers inside him, still slick and open, closing his eyes as Merlin twists beneath his touch, breathing his name like a benediction.
Arthur wakes long before dawn, watching it paint the sky in soft pinks and delicate golds; Arthur remembers mornings when he'd wake to see Merlin at the window, watching the sun rise over Camelot with a wondering smile.
This morning, it's less likely; Merlin's all warm, tangled limbs, sleeping the sleep of the utterly exhausted. It takes time for Arthur to find the motivation to move, easing Merlin off his chest and onto the bed, brushing careful fingers through the hopeless mess of dark hair. Merlin makes a protesting noise, reaching across the body-warm bedding for Arthur.
"Go back to sleep." Arthur picks up Merlin's hand, brushing a kiss against his wrist, and Merlin settles with a sigh, boneless and safe in Arthur's bed, streaked with blood and dirt from Arthur's body, darkening bruises smeared across the bare skin of his throat and shoulders. Noting the dark circles beneath his eyes, Arthur wonders if he'd slept at all the last few days.
Sorcerer, he thinks at the sight of the fragile length of Merlin's spine, the soft, swollen mouth open in sleep, dark lashes swept down on too-pale skin. He needs someone to watch out for him, more than anyone Arthur's ever known.
Slipping reluctantly from the bed, Arthur finds an uncreased shirt and breeches he'd somehow overlooked piling on the floor. He can't remember removing his boots, hunting the room until one shows up beneath the bed, the other improbably sitting on the chair.
Picking up the apple left from last night's dinner, Arthur takes a bite, palming his knife on the way out of the door. The hall isn't empty; Gwen is hovering a few feet away, hands twisted in her skirts. Seeing him, she straightens, then blinks, eyes widening.
Arthur reflects that he currently is not in the proper state for a prince. And his ear does itch. He fights the urge to scratch it. "Gwen?"
Her eyes flicker away, then back with something like morbid fascination. "I--Merlin, sire. Gaius said he hadn't been back tonight."
"Oh." There is that. "I required his services. Gaius is awake, then?"
Gwen nods. "I don't think he's slept, sire."
"Come with me." Turning, Arthur takes another bite of the apple. "Do you know which chambermaid is assigned to Pustilius?"
She nods, a faint frown creasing her forehead. "Yes, sire. Bettina."
"Is she fond of him?"
An unmistakable look crosses Gwen's face, and Arthur files that away, not letting his own expression change. He should have known. Pustilius wouldn't hesitate to abuse the chambermaids if he felt free enough to attack Arthur's own household. He watches her face, weighing truth against her own fear, her trust in him. "No, sire. I do not think she is."
"That," Arthur says, taking a final bite, "is good to hear. After we see Gaius, there is something you will do for me."
Pustilius hasn't even dressed yet; Arthur eyes the tray lying on the bed in disfavour before crossing to the foot of the bed. "So I've been informed you're leaving," Arthur says. Pustilius jerks, straightening, hand groping for his eating knife.
"I--" He turns to look at the empty tray, frowning, then back at Arthur. Holding up the knife he'd taken from it before the man awoke, Arthur turns between his fingers, then throws it, watching in satisfaction as it buries itself in the headboard an inch from Pustilius' ear. Arthur would give the man credit for courage when he doesn't flinch, but he's reasonably sure he isn't truly awake yet. "I am not leaving. Sire."
"You are. You will make your apologies to my father for the suddenness of your departure. He will be, in all honesty, quite pleased."
"No." The blue eyes narrow. "There is nothing you can do. I will have my knighthood, and you may have your crippled servant."
Circling the bed, Arthur goes to the window, pulling back the heavy drapes. Pustilius makes an unhappy sound as sunlight floods the room, then frowns at the sounds that drift inside. "Perhaps you might want to look outside."
With a frown, Pustilius pulls himself out of bed, lumbering toward the window. Looking out, his frown deepens. "You--you're burning a sorcerer?"
"This morning, two of my knights will be alerted by a frightened chambermaid of an object she found within the bedroom of a great lord. It will be studied and found to be a charm to incite dissent. Among the ingredients that will be discovered within it is a lock of my servant's hair."
Pustilius straightens, the colour draining from his face. "You do not dare--"
"There will be questions, accusations. Speculation that your father's oath to purge magic from his lands was not sincere. I daresay my father will be obliged to order me to investigate. I imagine it will not be hard to discover evidence." Letting the curtain fall, Arthur smiles into Pustilius' eyes. "There is no protection of rank for sorcerers."
Pustilius seems without words. Arthur wishes it could always be so.
"You will leave," Arthur says softly. "All I will permit you to choose is the method."
"This will mean war."
Arthur shrugs. "I will fight you. Your people will not rise against me, for they hate you fully as much as I do, and that you know. None will come to your aid, because I will offer up their choice of your holdings for their own. When I am through, there will be nothing left of you. Not even a memory."
"I think you've forgotten who I am. Let me remind you. I am the son of the man who brought your father to his knees and keeps him there. You've insulted my honour. And you will pay for it."
It's ridiculously easy to duck the first punch, even easier the second; Pustilius never learned the difference between skill and rank and how the latter does not confer the former. When he turns again, hands raised in fists, Arthur presses the tip of his blade against the thick, vulnerable throat. For a wild, hopeful moment, he thinks Pustilius will try to fight anyway. "Please," Arthur says softly, watching blood well around the point of the blade. "Give me a reason."
But he doesn't. Eyes closing, he slumps in defeat. "I will leave."
"That's the first sign of intelligence I've ever witnessed from you," Arthur says, stepping back with a vague sense of disappointment. "I would suggest morning as an excellent time to travel. You have until noon."
Turning his back, Arthur goes to the door; Pustilius doesn't have the courage, even now, to so much as move.
"Also. I would pray for my father's life," Arthur says, pausing with a hand on the open door. "The dawn of my reign will see you on your knees before me. I won't kill you. But what I let live will no longer be a man."
Pustilius makes an odd, broken sound before Arthur shuts the door behind him, turning to Gawain. "Accompany him to the border of his lands. If he gives you trouble; well, there are many bandits on our roads. No questions will be asked."
Gawain bows. Arthur brushes a hand against his shoulder in acknowledgment. "You will be rewarded."
As he passes, Gawain straightens. "I desire no reward other than to serve you, sire."
Arthur smiles at him, watching him light up as brightly as a new morning. "I will remember that."
"My bath is cold. Merlin. Merlin."
Merlin pushes up from the blankets, looking around the room blearily, finding Arthur with a confused look that changes to horror. "Did you leave the room--" He stops, mouth opening and closing, then with a flicker of gold and a breathed word, steam rises from the bath. "Did no one ask you if you were dying?"
Arthur winces, reaching up to run a hand through his hair and finds it more difficult than expected. Vaguely, he wonders if he should acquire a decent mirror. Or use it, even. "It can't be so bad as that. No one said anything."
"Perhaps because they thought you were returned from the dead." Getting out of bed, Merlin frowns at the clothes that cover the floor of most of the room. The pale morning light highlights every bone; Arthur can't look away, breath catching in his throat. "I--suppose I need to clean this up, then." He looks at Arthur in irritation. "Was it necessary to walk on them with muddy boots as well?"
"Could we return to my problems, not yours?" Now that he's thinking about it, his knees are aching, and vaguely, sometime two or three days ago, something bit him. Somewhere.
Merlin gives him a narrow look. "Get in your bath, sire," he says, like he's speaking through his teeth. But there's no sign, Arthur notes, of chamber pot. Arthur hears another whispered word as he places one foot in the tub and turns to watch, fascinated, as Merlin's clothes float up from the pile and fly neatly to his hand.
Enchanted, Arthur almost forgets his bath. "Show me more."
Merlin blinks. "You want to see--" Merlin gestures helplessly with his shirt, then seems to remember he's naked. Arthur bites his lip against a laugh as Merlin dresses, waiting until Merlin turns back around, flushed and oddly shy. "I mean--will you sit down? There's--Arthur, did something bite you?"
Arthur follows his gaze to his own forearm as he lowers himself into the water, seeing the edges of something very red that looks like it will start hurting any second now. "Ah. Yes. Apparently so."
"You're sort of an idiot, aren't you?" Going to the cupboard, Merlin blinks at the neat arrangement of bottles and minutia, as if he hadn't been the one to turn Arthur's rooms into a pattern of terrifying organization. Picking up the salve, he closes the cupboard carefully and turns back to the tub.
Arthur grins as Merlin comes close enough to capture, reaching to wrap his fingers in Merlin's shirt, pulling him down into a kiss, licking slowly into the warmth of his mouth before pulling back, pressing another kiss against the soft skin of his temple, the point of his jaw. "Show me what you can do."
Merlin lets out a shaky breath. "What do you want see?"
Reluctantly letting him go, Arthur breathes out as muscles he didn't know were tensed begin to ease in the hot water. With a groan, he sinks further and pretends he never has to get up again. "Surprise me."
Closing his eyes, he feels Merlin kneel behind him, one hand cupping the back of his neck. "That's specific." Careful fingers smear the salve over his arm, so lightly Arthur can barely feel them. Though that could also be the slowly emerging pain. "I could--could show you--what Gaius showed me. Something that won't be suspicious, that I can use today."
Arthur tilts his head back, trapping Merlin's hand against the side of the tub. "There is no need. Pustilius left unexpectedly."
Merlin looks down at him, brows drawn together tightly. "Did he."
"Your punishment is mucking the--well, actually pristine stables. It doesn't seem like much punishment, does it? Perhaps there are more drapes that do not suit your aesthetics?"
Twisting around, Arthur braces a hand on the edge of the tub, catching Merlin's hand under his. "I don't ask your permission to protect you," he says slowly, measuring every word. "That is my right and my duty. But I would prefer to have it."
Merlin studies him thoughtfully, head tilted, then nods, eyes flaring gold. Arthur watches with wondering eyes as the clothes begin to sort themselves around them.
"What else can you do?"
"I don't know. I mean--I'm not all that practiced and--Arthur, what are you--" He frowns as Arthur reaches for the hem of his shirt, pulling it impatiently until Merlin finally takes it off "There hasn't been time to--oh, stop it, I'll do it." Merlin bats his hands away from the trousers, flushing as he slips them off, tossing them aside. "What--"
"You're filthy," Arthur offers lightly. "Come here."
Merlin eyes the tub warily, but he stands up, circling the tub as Arthur straightens, setting one foot tentatively in the water near Arthur's hip. "I don't think there's room to--"
"Oh, there's space enough." Taking his wrist, Arthur pulls, one hand resting on his hip, directing him into Arthur's lap with a startled breath. "There. You should trust me. I'm not often wrong."
Merlin stares at him blankly, opening his mouth, so Arthur leans up and kisses away the words, shifting his grip on Merlin's hip to run his fingers up the hardening length of him beneath the water. Merlin shudders, pulling back with a startled breath. "Perhaps. Sometimes."
Arthur smiles, mouthing along the rough skin of his jaw, licking the outline of teeth he left in Merlin's shoulder last night, stroking the water-slick length of his back, gentling his touch as he slips his fingers against Merlin's entrance. Merlin pushes back into his touch with a shaky sigh. "Arthur. What do you want? With--with what I can do?"
The offer is dazzling in its simplicity. "I want Albion at peace," he whispers, one fingertip sliding inside, feeling Merlin relax around him, letting him in. "I want my people to be safe."
"Pax Artorius?" Merlin looks down at him, flushed and smiling, the blue of his eyes swallowed by gold. "We can do that."