There was a bright side to always getting injured for the love of Camelot. He wasn't new to injuries. He was a physician, trained by the best physician in all the five kingdoms, and he had been saving Camelot for ten years; injuries were a daily occurrence whether they belong to him, the king, or any of his patients. The good thing about being a physician and having to constantly save Camelot and its King was that he knew exactly how injured he was, sometimes even before the blow hit.
For example, he woke up knowing that he was bruised in several places, had minor lacerations on his arms, and had a large bump on the side of his head which wouldn't go away for a fortnight.
Normally when bandits attacked the knights, it was easy to avoid being assaulted (by using his magic) or avoid assaulting anyone (by using his magic). But sometimes even he couldn't avoid being attacked, especially if it meant keeping his secret over being captured. Sometime during the beginning of the attack (Arthur yelling at him to get down) and now (in some sort of cell) he had been knocked out.
His senses came back to him in a shock of freezing water and a brutal slap of his face. In the second of consciousness he catalogued his injuries, deciding that he had definitely had worse. Then he noticed the cold iron wrapped around his wrists, which were pinned above his head and against a wall. He didn't even have time to curse to the gods before someone was yelling at him only inches from his face. The man smelled terrible and spit flew onto Merlin's face. He cringed away and tried to think of how to get out without his magic. It just had to be cold iron, didn’t it? He looked around, gaging where he was and who had captured him.
The man slapped him again, hard enough for Merlin's head to smack back into the wall and cause another roll of pain to wash over him. "Pay attention to what I'm telling you, boy." snarled the man.
Merlin snarled back at him, the word 'boy' prickling at Merlin's building frustration. The man looked like every other bandit, which meant Merlin had no way to know his allegiance. But of course, this man had no allegiance to any King or warlord. He worked for money. Merlin couldn't tell who they were working for, but he would figure it out.
The man was talking again. Something about the King of Camelot and killing him. Merlin wanted to roll his eyes. "You should prove useful. You're a servant for the king, are you not?"
"What business do you have with the King of Camelot?" he asked.
The man laughed. "His head shall bring me a fortune, what other business should I have with him?"
Merlin stayed quiet.
"All you have to do, my friend, is help us out. I might even give you a reward if your information is good enough."
"Let me guess," Merlin drawled, "if I don't help you, you'll kill me." He raised a questioning brow.
"Far worse, my friend." The man's smile made the hairs on the back of Merlin's neck stand on end. "I suggest you comply."
"And when the King arrives, you think it will be so easy to kill him?" Merlin asked, liking how his mocking tone angered the man.
"What makes you think the King will personally rescue a servant?"
Merlin laughed, throwing his head back and all but controlled himself from rolling his eyes. "He'll be here before the sun has set, I guarantee. Perhaps when he arrives you can judge him for yourself."
"You have such faith in that King of yours?" The man looked mildly impressed, but mostly confused.
The man stared at him for a long time, and Merlin never left the man's gaze.
"I suppose you will not talk easily." The man said casually, as if they were having a friendly discussion in the tavern.
"You chose your informant poorly." Merlin smiled, "My sole loyalty is to the King of Camelot."
The man smiled back, "We shall see about that."
Merlin hadn’t told Arthur a lot of things. He hadn’t told Arthur about his magic. He hadn’t told Arthur how many times he had saved Arthur and Camelot. He hadn’t told Arthur the number of people he had killed. He hadn’t told Arthur how many scars he had on his body. Merlin hadn’t told Arthur a lot of things, but that didn’t mean he didn’t trust Arthur. He kept his secrets to himself because it was better this way. Arthur had a kingdom to worry about, and the gods already knew how much Arthur worried about Merlin, despite outward appearances. The King may mock his manservant, but to those who knew Merlin and Arthur, they knew how much Merlin worried over Arthur and how much Arthur worried over Merlin.
That was one of the reasons this group of bandits was particularly stupid. If they were going to pick any person who lived inside the walls of Camelot, who would give them valuable information about the King, then Merlin was the last person they should have picked. Even a knight of the round table would break before the manservant of the king, and many knights would admit that without a blink of an eye.
A group of men pulled Merlin out of the cell where he had been and manhandled him to another room. It looked like they were in some a deserted fortress. The cold iron burned his wrists, making them prickle and itch painfully. They shackled him to a thick board of wood, which didn’t bode well for Merlin. He noticed for the first time that he was barefoot and he wondered where his boots had gone. The man who had spoken to Merlin ripped Merlin’s shirt with his dagger, cutting his side in the process. Merlin snarled when they cut his neckerchief. “Could’ve untied it.” He whined as the shreds fell to the floor.
The man slapped him, making his vision blur and his cheek burn.
“That’ll be enough of the cheek.” The man scolded, still holding his hand threateningly.
Merlin rolled his eyes, “You’ll get nothing from me. It will be easier for you if you just let me go.”
“You don’t know our expert.” The man smirked.
“By expert, you mean torturer.” Merlin drawled.
The man slapped Merlin again, this time on the other cheek. At least it wasn’t all on the same cheek, Merlin thought. That would have gotten annoying.
Another man walked into the room, he grabbed Merlin’s jaw roughly and looked him over. Merlin felt like a horse about to be sold, and he couldn’t help but scowl at the torturer (apologies, expert).
“Turn him over.” The torturer commanded, letting go of Merlin. “He’ll break with a few good lashes.”
“So sure of yourself.” Merlin raised a brow.
Perhaps Merlin should have more self-preservation, because his talk was going to get him killed one of these days. The blade had already cut through the skin on his left arm before he realized that a dagger had been drawn. The cut ran from his shoulder to his forearm. He hissed, but the cut wasn’t deep enough to worry about. It was just a threat.
“Watch your tongue, boy, or else it will be a finger next time.”
“What? Is that it?” Merlin asked, his smile curling around his teeth.
“No, I have more scars to add to the ones you already have.” Said the torturers as the group of men took Merlin and flipped him around so that his chest pressed against the board. “Tell me,” he continued, “Where does a servant of Camelot get so many interesting scars?”
There was a reason Merlin always ensured that he was covered. After ten years of fighting for Camelot it was understandable that he had gained a few scars along the way. His chest was marred with the mark Nimueh had left. Inside the burn mark, there was a mace scar from the attack in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. His arms were scarred with several minor lacerations, some of them not due to anything other than his own clumsiness. Chains have left their marks on his skin, along with a number of blades, and burns (from fires, magical or otherwise). Even the scar that Arthur had left on his shoulder blade from their first meeting was still there.
Most of these scars were not easily explained away. A scar or two could be explained as an accident or from the few times he had been hurt in Arthur’s presence, but Merlin didn’t have one or two scars. Merlin had lost count of how many scars he had or how he had gotten them.
“Laundry’s a very dangerous job.” Merlin said.
The lash was unexpected and Merlin let out a surprised noise. He could already feel the lacerations cutting across his skin. He tried relaxing his muscles, determined not to look pained by a simple flogging. He had had much worse and these idiots were not going to see him wither.
“Boy, you’re in over your head.” said the torturer.
Another lash, several more cuts dragged across the previous ones. Merlin gritted his teeth and focused on his breathing. He wondered if Arthur was going to come rushing in at that moment. He rather he didn’t, he wished he had a shirt and his boots. Damn it, where were his boots?
“All we want is your cooperation.” he said, “The King of Camelot can hardly be worth this.”
"You have no idea who you're dealing with." Merlin warned, his voice thick as he swallowed down the pain. His body felt the pain, but his mind was filtering through all the escape plans and what he should be doing back in Camelot. Arthur would be furious if Merlin didn’t polish his armor for the visiting nobles who were arriving in a few days.
"What, the king of Camelot?" The man snorted. "He's a boy-knight, who plays at being King. I can deal with him."
Merlin laughed, the motion hurt his injuries, but he ignored it. “Arthur’s the greatest King in all of Albion.” He turned his head enough to see the torturer. “And I wasn’t talking about him.” The lash came down before he could turn away and one of the tails sliced his jaw. It stung and he felt the blood trail down his neck. He decided that he was done with dealing with these men. Unless he treated the tiny laceration on his cheek, it was going to scar too and Merlin was not in the mood.
He shouldn’t have entertained them for so long. Merlin turned his head back and whispered "Benda." He felt his magic stir but the shackles did not break. The cold iron was too strong, his magic wouldn't work on it. Even if his magic couldn't touch the cold iron, he could still try using his magic on something else.
Merlin heard a yelp of surprise from the torturer as the tails flew from his hands. Merlin smiled, his magic wasn't as far away as he had thought. There was a moment of dead silence, but Merlin wasn’t sticking around to watch their astonishment.
The chains connecting him to the board of wood broke, but his wrists were still wrapped in the bands of cold iron. Merlin's head pounded as the iron draining his energy. He turned around and stood on the cold stone floor, his shirt in shreds next to his bare feet.
“Sorcerer!” One man shouted.
“That was cold iron!” yelled another.
Merlin laughed, half to mock the men and half in amazement that his magic had worked. His magic wouldn't be so easy to use again, he thought as he felt it shrink back into him. The cold iron burned twice as much as it had before, reddening the skin on his wrists. Merlin located the nearest sword in the room, which was on the hip of the nearest bandit. Merlin smiled, watching the astonishment of the bandits for a split second. The Stillness reigned for only a second more, than Chaos descended.
It didn’t take long to ride to Camelot, regroup and resupply, before Arthur and the knights were back in the woods searching for Merlin. As soon as Arthur figured out that Merlin had gone missing he had wanted to search for him immediately, but his knights calmed him down enough to explain to him that they needed to take the wounded back to Camelot and get enough supplies in order to rescue Merlin. It was with Gwaine’s reassuring nod that made Arthur agree, because Gwaine wanted to find Merlin almost as much as Arthur did.
Now they were back in the forest, riding back to where the bandits had escaped. Merlin wasn’t an idiot, though Arthur called him one almost every day. His manservant had been captured by Morgana herself and had remained completely unharmed. Bandits had no reason to kill Merlin. Arthur repeated this thought to himself over and over again to reassure himself.
They rode fast, their red cloaks pulling in the wind. The bandits hadn’t been very good at covering up their tracks, but then again, Arthur was one of the best hunters in the land whether it was for deer or fugitives.
“Sire” Leon rode up to his side. “The men have spotted the remains of an old castle. The bandits may have stored up there for the night.”
Arthur nodded, “Surround the ruins. We’ll ride in.” Arthur spurred his horse toward the hill where the stones of a castle could be seen as Leon recited Arthur’s orders.
It was silent as the dead when the knights arrived at the top of the hill, which in Arthur’s experience, was always an ill omen. Arthur dismounted and his knights followed suit. He gestured for them to make a formation, some knights at his back and several around the ruins of an old courtyard.
That’s when they heard the crash and the shouting. It was coming from an old stairwell which Arthur assumed led to the dungeons and cellar. Suddenly a burst of bandits burst through the entrance of the stairwell and Arthur’s knights were ready. Except…the bandits looked startled to see them. The knights clashed with the bandits, who were hardly a threat against the knights. Arthur ignored them and ran straight to the stairwell where he knew Merlin would be. Gwaine followed him without any signal.
What he had not been expecting was a man falling on him as he entered the hall below. He stumbled and pushed the man aside, watching him fall to the floor. Arthur looked around the hallway and spotted Merlin, sword in hand, fighting off another bandit.
Arthur was struck dumb. Maybe he shouldn’t have expected to find Merlin in a cell, patiently waiting for Arthur’s arrival, especially since Merlin had always been stubborn and brave (stupidly so). What was surprising was that Merlin was without a shirt. It took a second for Arthur’s mind to recognize Merlin without his shirt and that damned neckerchief. Arthur couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, he had seen Merlin without his shirt. Hell, it had been years since Merlin had taken off that damned neckerchief. Then he noticed that Merlin was injured, blood marring his back.
Merlin swung the sword, defending himself against the bandit. Arthur was impressed by the maneuver, remembering how he had taught Merlin all the sword fighting he knew. Except now Merlin wasn’t falling on his backside. He was winning. Last time Arthur ever remembered properly looking at Merlin he had been all bones, when had he had the time to gain as much muscle as one of Arthur’s knights? His arms were strong with muscle and his chest was broader than Arthur ever remembered. Wasn’t Merlin supposed to be…tiny?
Arthur only had two seconds to think about these things before two more bandits descended on him and Gwaine.
“Merlin!” Gwaine yelled, already two swings away from finishing off the bandit.
Arthur thrust his sword and pushed the (poor excuse for a) bandit aside.
Merlin turned around, catching sight of the two knights. He looked at Arthur and Gwaine only for a second before he caught the other man’s sword in a defensive stroke. Arthur’s first instinct was to attack Merlin’s opponent, but as he strode forward it didn’t look like Merlin needed any help. In a clever move Merlin swung his sword and sliced the man’s neck. The bandit dropped to the floor and Merlin stood in front of them, his bare chest rising and falling with the exercise and his sword covered in blood. Arthur couldn’t get the image of Merlin killing the man out of his mind.
Gwaine whistled loudly. “I suppose we’re not needed, right Arthur?”
Merlin cracked a grin, “Nice of you to show up, my lord.” Arthur mentally shook himself and strode up to his manservant. Merlin’s hands were shackled, barely two feet of chain between each of them and Arthur was surprised that Merlin had been able to use a sword with so little maneuverability.
“You’re hurt. Turn around.” Arthur ignored Merlin’s ‘I’m fine’ and pushed at his shoulder to turn him around. A cut ran along one arm and his back was marred with thin lacerations, crisscrossing over each other. Arthur could barely register the word ‘flogging’ before he was scolding his manservant. “Merlin.” Arthur growled, as if these marks were his own fault. In actuality, Arthur felt something heavy set in his stomach as looked at his friend’s injuries. They were Arthur’s fault. He should have protected Merlin.
“I’ll be fine. Just a few scratches.” Merlin rolled his eyes and turned back around, one arm covering his chest, the other still holding the sword. “I’ll need Gaius, of course. Can’t really reach them on my back.” Implying, Arthur thought, that he would have dealt with the wounds on his own if given the chance.
Gwaine came up beside the two of them. “Well then. We’ll need to get you back as soon as possible.” He put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.
“Thanks, Gwaine.” Merlin smiled, easily. Arthur studied Merlin, and then looked to his chest, where it looked like Merlin was subtly hiding something. There was a dull red scar on his chest where his arm hid it.
“Gwaine, why don’t you get Merlin a shirt and tell the knights we’ve found him” Arthur said.
“I need boots.” Merlin said. They both looked down to see that Merlin was bare foot. Merlin looked sheepish when they both looked up in surprise, “Unless I find my own. I liked those boots.”
“You’ve had the same boots for years.” Arthur deadpanned.
“Yeah. Because I like them.” Merlin retorted.
Arthur rolled his eyes and ushered Gwaine out to find a shirt and maybe a pair of boots, though Arthur doubted the knights had brought an extra pair.
As soon as Gwaine had left, Merlin turned away and started walking down the hallway.
“Where the hell are you going?” Arthur asked.
“Boots!” Merlin replied easily. As he walked away Arthur had to divert his gaze from the lashings on his back. Lashes were supposed to be one of the most painful forms of punishment and Merlin wasn’t even acting any different than he normally did. He was standing up straight and his voice never wavered.
Arthur followed him down the hall. The fight hadn’t lasted very long, as was expected. What were a few bandits compared to a dozen Camelot knights? Merlin was rummaging through a pile of things when Arthur walked into the room.
“Hmm” Merlin hummed as he studied something.
“Merlin” Arthur started, wanting to say something. He wanted to apologize for not protecting him, for not stopping the capture, and for not being there in time to stop the lashes from marring Merlin’s skin.
Merlin hadn’t heard him. “It looks like they were paid off by one of the warlords in the South.” Merlin said, passing a scrap of paper to Arthur. “They were looking for information to get into Camelot. Why is it that your head is so valuable? You hardly use it. I’m the one that writes all the speeches.”
“Merlin.” Arthur gritted his teeth. Merlin was acting like he hadn’t just been captured. Like this was normal. Like Arthur hadn’t been worried out of his mind when he found out Merlin was missing.
“What? It’s true. Frankly, I’m tired of people trying to kill you. You think they can try and kill one of the noblemen for once? Just for a change.” Merlin went back to looking over the pile, blood dripping down his back.
“Merlin.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist where a pair of cuffs were still wrapped. His wrists were bright red. “Did you escape yourself or did the bandits just let you go when they found out how annoying you were?”
Merlin grinned brightly at him. “No, just told them you were a prat, and your head really wasn’t worth the gold.”
“What happened?” Arthur finally asked, nodding down to Merlin’s chest. Now that he was close he could see another thin scar that stretched along Merlin’s neck and collarbone. The neckerchief made sense now. He couldn’t ignore the other scars either, especially the large burn that rested across Merlin’s chest.
Merlin made an expression as if Arthur was being slow, “Well, I got captured by some bandits-”
“Don’t be a fool, Merlin.” Arthur snapped. “Your chest is riddled with scars.”
“It’s nothing Arthur. You don’t get as clumsy as me without some scars to go along with it.”
“Do you normally trip into blades?” Arthur held up Merlin’s arms to expose his side where a rounded scar lay, which could have been from any number of weapons.
Merlin looked straight into Arthur’s eyes, as he sometimes did right before he said something of surprising gravity or wisdom. Arthur always felt like he was desperately scrambling for something that was right in front of him when Merlin did that.
His eyes were sad as they looked up at Arthur, “Come on, Arthur” he whispered. “You know this isn’t the first time I’ve been captured.”
Arthur’s heart contracted and his fingers turned thick and useless. He dropped Merlin’s wrist. Merlin turned away again and Arthur had to look away from the blood. Of course Merlin had been taken before, gotten lost, fallen into the tavern for a couple days, but surely he hadn’t been in trouble. Right? Merlin always came home safe and sound. Well except for that time Merlin walked with a limp. Or had a bandage around his side, under his shirt where he thought Arthur couldn’t see it. Or favored his left arm over his right for a week.
“Aha!” Merlin shouted and held up his boots in victory.
Arthur stared at his manservant for a long time as he sat down in a nearby chair and started putting on his boots. This was Merlin, brave and stupid Merlin. He had just been captured by bandits, chained, tortured for information and now he was giddy over a pair of boots. His back was still bleeding and he had to be in pain, but he was acting as if everything was splendid and this was just another day in Camelot.
Merlin slipped on his second boot and Arthur couldn’t help but notice Merlin’s arms as he bent over. He had handled the sword with such ease. Arthur wondered how Merlin had gained so much muscle without Arthur noticing. He supposed since he spent every day with Merlin for the last decade he would be blind to any gradual change, but this felt so drastic to Arthur. Merlin was still the young boy who had called Prince Arthur an ass and had gotten stuck in the stocks. Merlin was almost unrecognizable, his chest defined, shoulders broad, and his arms were no longer sticks. Merlin stood up, his boots ready to go.
“When did you build up, anyways?” Arthur said, trying not to sound too surprised. He failed. “You were just skin and bones last time I checked.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. Unfortunately, he looked pleased with Arthur’s backwards-praise. As he walked past Arthur, he smiled, “Laundry’s hard work.” Then he walked out the door and Arthur was forced to leave the task of fathoming Merlin out for another day.