The battle had been long, vicious and bloody under the sweltering afternoon sun. But they had been victorious, or as victorious as an army could ever be, having lost so many of its own in the struggle. Arthur could not remember a time when he had been so glad to return to camp and allow Merlin to strip his armour from him. He flexed sore muscles, wincing as his bruises caught up with him. During the fight, there was too much going on for a few aches to even register in his mind, but afterward... Well. Afterward was another story.
He left his armour in Merlin's care, to be cleaned and polished. Merlin grumbled, but it was good-natured and Arthur was used to it. Merlin knew as well as he did that if it wasn't cared for, his armour would rust and be less than useless in battle. Besides which, Merlin had always been uncommonly fast when it came to Arthur's armour, and never missed a single spot. He would be done in time to join the army—and all the servants and squires—for good food and mead. A celebratory feast, and a long awaited one.
Arthur returned to his knights, and was greeted with a loud cheer. He indulged himself in the fresh, roasted venison and in his goblet, which never seemed to empty. Merlin was nowhere to be seen, so Arthur assumed that some other knight's servant had taken on the duty of refilling his cup. He did not much care, as long as it was refilled. The drink spread through his limbs, numbing his sorest muscles, and Arthur allowed himself to relax and enjoy the drunken antics of his men, dancing around the campfire as if it were Beltane.
It was high summer and the sun was late to bed, but the world was already full dark when a knight—tall and burly, with more than a few such battles under his belt, if the wrinkles in his face and the scar across his tanned cheek were any indication—sidled up next to him. If you could call falling against Arthur's shoulder and nearly knocking him to the ground 'sidling', anyway.
"Prince Arthur!" The man's voice matched his shape, big and booming, if a little slurred from the mead. He raised his goblet abruptly, sloshing a little of the liquid over the edge and onto his hand and wrist. "A fine victory today!" Arthur could not help but smile and raise his own goblet in return. It was good to see the men in high spirits, after the drawn out tension of the campaign. This knight—Sir Cadwgan, if he recalled correctly—was one of Bayard's knights, not one of his own, but their victory had been won together, and the colors of Camelot and the colors of Mercia mingled freely throughout their makeshift, open-air banqueting hall.
Cadwgan took a long, deep swill from his goblet and held it out to be refilled once more. He leaned his head in toward Arthur's, lowering his voice to a murmur, which for him was more like a low bellow. "Where's that pretty servant of yours, eh? I could stand to do some celebratin' with 'im..." He nudged Arthur with an elbow, which Arthur took gamely even as his newly-relaxed muscles tightened again. As the Crown Prince, he would normally have been expected to bring a whole retinue of servants to attend to him, but Arthur had not felt the need to live up to that expectation. He had brought only one servant. Only his manservant. Only Merlin.
It wasn't as if he didn't know about the knights who were buggering their servants or squires on a regular basis. And it wasn't if he didn't know that some of them, more than he liked to think about, had no qualms about 'sharing' their servants with their brothers-in-arms. He had strongly discouraged the practice among his own knights, but Sir Cadwgan was Bayard's man, not Arthur's. And Arthur could understand the urge. Merlin was... ridiculous, really. An idiot with ears two sizes too big for his head. But he was pretty.
He was very pretty.
The smell of Cadwgan's mead-tinted breath still lingered around Arthur's face, and he had a sudden vision of that same breath, washing against Merlin's face; of Cadwgan's meaty hands, touching Merlin's body...
Arthur drank the last of his goblet in a single gulp and stood, leaving the emptied cup on the table. Cadwgan did not pay him much mind, more occupied with hailing the squire who'd been refilling his cup all night.
Merlin had clearly just finished cleaning Arthur's armour, and had been in the process of putting it away in preparation to join the revelers. He complained, of course. And Arthur felt guilty, even as he ordered Merlin to fetch his own bedroll and lay it out in Arthur's tent.
"I have my own tent." Merlin complained. He did, too, though his tent was less than a third the size of Arthur's, and clearly meant for a servant. Merlin kept making unhappy noises, even as he finished rolling the mass of blankets out on the ground next to the mattress Arthur slept on—not quite a bed, but far better than the ground, and Arthur's due as Crown Prince of Camelot and leader of the King's armies.
"I want you here. In case I require your services during the night." He looked away from Merlin as he said it, so he missed the look of disgust on Merlin's face. The last time Arthur had "required" his "services" in the night after a feast, it had been because Arthur had imbibed too much and been sick all over the rug.
Arthur blew out the candles himself and lay awake in the dark, listening to the rustle of blankets as Merlin—likewise still awake—tossed restlessly. He tried to get up twice, but Arthur called him back—"Mer-lin"—each time, and he finally stopped trying.
Merlin would be angry with him for a long while, and Arthur promised himself that he would try to find some small way to make it up to him without being too obvious about it. It was unfair, Arthur knew, to keep Merlin from the festivities to soothe his own worries, but he couldn't help himself. He did not know which fear was worse—that Cadwgan or one like him might... force him... (his own men knew better, would never, but he did not know Bayard's men and did not trust them), or that there would be no force at all. That Merlin might willingly... Arthur rolled onto his side, staring blankly at the tent wall and refusing to finish his own thought.
The raucous noise of the celebration outside slowly faded, replaced with the faint noises of other sorts of celebrations happening throughout the camp, and then with a deep silence broken only by the sound of Merlin snoring softly on the floor at his back. Despite the heavy food and strong drink he had consumed, it was a long time before Arthur fell asleep.