Bruises all around the wrist, back of the head perpetually sore, more bruises peeking out from between neckerchief and shirt -
It wasn't exactly a secret. Everyone knew Prince Arthur had been throwing things at servants long before Merlin showed up, and no one had expected him to stop just because he got a permanent manservant.
The rest of it - the bruises that definitely didn't come from flying goblets, the bandages that were just visible when Merlin's shirt got shifted out of place, the way Merlin winced whenever someone bumped into him the wrong way - it wasn't hard to notice. They'd all seen it before. They knew what it meant.
Blood seeping through his shirt, blood at the edge of his jacket, blood staining his boots -
It was the other things that were truly worrisome. The time one of the scullery maids had talked Merlin into helping with the dishes and he'd rolled up his sleeves to reveal rope burns. The time the steward noticed bruises that looked like chain links.
The way bright, cheery Merlin quickly grew jumpy and suspicious, weariness creeping permanently into his eyes -
It wasn't the sort of thing that was talked about, but they helped as they could. Anyone with free time volunteered to help him with some of his duties. The younger maids slipped him extra food and encouraging smiles. When they found him asleep somewhere in the middle of the day, they'd wake him up so he wouldn't get in trouble for dallying.
Merlin returned the favor by taking on visiting nobles they weren't sure of and warning the other servants of what he found, by making pushy nobleman look foolish in front of the prince, and by always being ready to help bind up another's bruise.
"Between Arthur and what he takes on himself, the boy's going to drive him into an early grave," the head laundress said with a sigh.
"Arthur's not the one doing it," Gwen said with surprising firmness as she dropped off her lady's things. "I'm sure of it."
The head laundress shook her head. "Don't be fooled by those pretty eyes," she warned. "Stay away from him."
Gwen didn't, but she never turned up with bruises.
Instead, Merlin had more of them.
Burns on his hands, on his chest, on his legs -
No one was sure where he went on the days he disappeared. Some thought he was off licking his wounds; some thought Prince Arthur's bad mood had prompted Merlin to go hide somewhere rather than the other way around; some thought he really had gone off to drink, just not for the reasons Prince Arthur muttered about.
The steward didn't know either, but he tried to use it as an opportunity to help.
"It's his fifth such disappearance this month," he said to the prince with a disapproving sniff. "Perhaps I should assign him to some other duties for a time."
The prince waved it off. "I'll talk to him when he gets back."
That hadn't been what the steward wanted at all.
Scars, scars everywhere, so that he always covered up as much as he conceivably could -
When Merlin was presumed dead, someone had to be sent to replace him. The steward chose George.
George wasn't sure if it was because he was known to be the most efficient servant in the castle and so the steward hoped he wouldn't anger the new king and would thus avoid punishment, or if it was because the steward liked him least. It was certainly possible. George knew he was not well liked among most of the servants. He'd just never quite clicked with them, and he wasn't sure why.
Whatever the steward's plan was, it worked, more or less. George avoided the need to go to Gaius with a new injury at any rate, though he had failed to quite secure his place with the king. Still, Merlin was gone; the king would have to accept it eventually.
Until then, the servants had started a small memorial under one of the service stairways that only they ever used. Wildflowers and scraps of ribbon made up a small mound of remembrance.
George stood and looked at it for awhile. He hadn't known Merlin well, but everyone knew him at least a little. The other man had been kind, and although George hadn't always understood his jokes, a few had made him smile.
"I have inherited your position," he told the pile of offerings. "I shall do my best with it."
He didn't think Merlin would have been pleased, exactly, that George had taken up his old job. Not because it was George doing it, but because Merlin had always been reluctant to let others near the king, a fact that didn't surprise George. Merlin had always been protective of the other servants.
George would do his best to follow Merlin's example in that. Whatever the steward's reasons had been for giving this job to him, George was the best equipped to deal with it, and he didn't mind.
George had more than a few scars of his own; he'd taught Merlin some of his methods for dealing with them when the other servant hadn't wanted to worry Gaius. He could get used to forming new ones again.
Jumping at sudden movements and shadows, eyes always darting to exits and corners -
Merlin came back. The king gave him his job back, Merlin disappeared again, Merlin came back, and then George was informed that it would be his job to train Merlin to be more efficient.
The king introduced the two of them as if he thought they'd never run into each other before. They played along, of course.
George had the distinct impression that this was meant to be some kind of punishment for Merlin - an insult to his skills, perhaps - but for his own part, George didn't mind the task. Maybe if he could teach Merlin some more of his tricks, Merlin would stop spending quite so much time with a limp that he couldn't quite hide.
Shadows under his eyes that were as dark as charcoal, constant yawns, a haunted hunch to his shoulders -
The next time Merlin didn't come down to retrieve the king's breakfast by a reasonable time, George took it himself. He practically ran up the back passages to Gaius's rooms. If he could just get the food to Merlin to deliver it in time, than perhaps -
He got to the part where he had to slide though the hidden door to the main passageways just outside of Gaius's rooms. He walked the few steps to the door and then paused before knocking.
The door was cracked open. Just through the crack, he could see Merlin lying on the patient's bed, Gaius applying something to his back. As he did so, Merlin let out a choked cry of pain.
George drew back. He could deliver breakfast this morning. And perhaps - perhaps if he was very lucky, the king would be in a hurry and wouldn't mention it. Maybe he could just fill in for Merlin for the day. George's general duties were just to fill in wherever there was a need, anyway. The steward wouldn't complain.
The king, of course, did notice.
"Where's Merlin?" he demanded as soon as he caught sight of the servant before him.
George opened his mouth to give a bland explanation, but -
But he remembered last time when the king had listed Merlin's faults and said, concerningly, that he liked it that way. Liked having an excuse to lash out, George presumed, and maybe if he gave that excuse in small doses it would be better for him in the long run. Maybe he could spare Merlin a bit if the king got it out of his system.
But he remembered Merlin following behind Gaius after every attack, making sure that all the servants' injuries were treated. He remembered Merlin showing up beaten down and almost defeated but still having enough spark left in him to step in when one of the other servants was being mistreated.
But he remembered that cry of pain, and Merlin's scars, and his own scars, and George said, in a tone that was too bland to be accusatory and too flat to be truly bland -
"Merlin is still recovering from his injuries."
And the king said, "What?"
Not angry. Not darkly amused. Just genuinely bewildered, as if it had never occurred to him that servants bled and broke and didn't magically restore to perfection the next day for another round.
Not anymore at least. George thought back to when sorcery might have made that possible and shuddered for what servants must have suffered then.
He didn't say that, of course. He hadn't gone completely mad. He just continued to lay out the king's breakfast and clarified, "To a degree that he is unable to complete his duties. I will be filling in. Sire."
To be fair, George wasn't actually sure about the level of injury, but it was bad enough, and Merlin deserved a day off.
"His injuries?" the king repeated. "What injuries? What happened?"
And George must be truly mad after all, because he handed the king a napkin and said pleasantly, "Perhaps you could tell me, sire. We have all been wondering."
The king stared at him. "What?"
"Late waking you up again?" he asked as he poured a drink into the king's goblet. "Insufficiently polished armor? Smart remarks?"
He looked up into the king's eyes. The king had pushed the napkin off and had risen from bed now, just as he had the first time George had served him.
The look in the king's eyes was very different now than it had been then, though. George couldn't quite read it, but he didn't really have to. He set down the pitcher so he wouldn't drop it when the king erupted.
"What are you talking about?" the king demanded. He didn't wait for an answer. "Where is he?"
And that was where his smart mouth got him. More punishment for Merlin.
"Perhaps some clothes first?" George suggested. If he delayed, perhaps the king would calm down.
"Quickly," he said through gritted teeth.
George was not quick, and no amount of glaring from the king would make him so. Not today.
But the king was eventually ready, and the moment he was, he was charging out the door.
"Sire, you have a council meeting," George tried as he ran after him.
The king turned to glare at him. "Merlin's injured."
"Merlin's always injured," George pointed out.
"He's clumsy," the king snapped.
"Of course he is, sire."
The king stopped and turned to look at George. His eyes were narrowed. "Injured how?"
Was this a test to see how much he'd noticed? Or . . . the thought stole in for the first time . . . did he really not know?
But that was ridiculous. It had to be the king. Who else could it be?
"Bruises, of course," he said, voice as neutral as he could make it. "Often to the back and stomach, sometimes circling his wrists, on a few occasions his neck. Minor burns, frequently. Those trailed off for a while, but they've started up again. Blood is frequently spotted on his clothes by the laundresses. Rope burns and places manacles have rubbed have both been occasionally spotted."
"And he's always injured, you say." The king's tone could only be described as dangerous. George flinched back a bit.
"At least once a week, sire. Usually more."
"And no one's mentioned this before because - " The king's expression shuttered. "Everyone thinks I'm the one doing it."
George didn't think there was really a good answer to that. The king took his silence as the answer it was. He looked almost pained.
George was afraid of what he would say, but the king just kept walking. Slowly, at first, then faster than before.
He didn't bother to knock on Gaius's door when they got there. He just pushed the door right in. Gaius and Merlin both started.
Gaius had still been sitting by the patient's cot. Merlin had been just sitting up, bandages now wrapped around his back.
There were a lot of bandages.
George was expecting the king to shout, but instead he was calm. Dangerously calm.
"Merlin. George informed me you'd been injured."
Merlin's eyes flicked to George and then back to the king. "Just a small accident. I'll be back to polishing armor in no time."
"Let me see."
"Sire, I just put the dressings on. Perhaps - "
"Let me see," King Arthur repeated, and the physician reluctantly obeyed.
George gasped when he saw the wounds. They were deeper than he'd expected and all too plainly fresh.
"An accident," the king echoed flatly. "And would you care to tell me who caused that accident, Merlin?"
Merlin winced as Gaius reapplied the bandages. "It was my fault, really - "
"Merlin. I know."
"You know?" the other servant all but squeaked.
"George told me how long this has been going on. Someone's hurting you, and you're going to tell me who."
Some strange combination of relief and disappointment flickered over Merlin's face before disappearing again. "It's nothing, Arthur. Really. Some people just have better aim than you when throwing things at the servants is all."
"Who?" The king was implacable.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably. "Well, it hasn't been like it's been only one person. After the whole Valiant mess, I tried to get close to anyone new in Camelot to make sure they weren't up to anything. You would not believe what some people will say in front of servants, Arthur - " He saw the look on the king's face and kept going. "- anyway, most of the ones that became . . . problematic. . . like Sophia, or Morgana after she came back, or those knights that weren't actually knights . . . didn't have much patience for me getting underfoot. Actually, even some of the ones that weren't evil didn't have much patience for me getting underfoot." He smiled weakly.
"And you didn't bring this to me because . . . ?"
Merlin looked at him blankly. "You told me after Valiant that the word of a servant wouldn't hold against a noble. Gwaine got thrown into the dungeon when he tried to step in. So - "
The king held up a hand. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing heavily. "You're allowed to report things like this," he said in a strained voice. "And I am not my father. Your words won't hold less weight than a nobleman's."
George was skeptical. Commonborn knights were one thing. Respecting those who couldn't fight back was another.
Merlin shrugged uncomfortably. Judging by the wince on his face, he immediately regretted it.
"So who's responsible for this time?" The king's voice was still dangerously calm.
Merlin winced again. "I'd rather not say."
"Merlin. I'm the king. Whoever it is, I can handle it."
"Can you?" Merlin's eyes held more challenge than George would dream of bringing before the king. "Because the last time I told you he did something, you threatened to banish me."
The king went utterly still. "Agravaine did this?"
"I told you it would be better if I didn't say, sire," Merlin said bitterly.
"So the charges of treason - "
"I accused him because he's guilty," Merlin interrupted. He leaned forward before giving a cry and falling back. "Although I admit, I wouldn't mind him leaving on a lesser charge at this point. He's getting better at landing hits." He scooted forward and made as if to stand.
The king's hand caught his shoulder with surprising gentleness. "Stay. You can have the next few days off to recover. I'll make do with George till then." He sent a wry look over his shoulder. George bowed stiffly. "I'll be back to talk to you more later."
Merlin nodded hesitantly. "Agravaine?"
Arthur's face darkened. "I'll take care of it.. You won't have to deal with him again." He headed towards the door but paused in the threshold. "And Merlin?"
"No more serving other nobles. You perform your duties for me and no one else."
"Someone's got to keep an eye on them," Merlin argued.
Merlin raised his hands in surrender.
Somehow, George didn't think that signaled agreement.
But the king was leaving, so George hurried unobtrusively after.
If he suspected there was more going on than he was aware of, then it was none of his business. He had seen and done enough for one day.
And Merlin was living proof of what happened to servants who got too nosy in Camelot.
And a smile, strained but holding, even under all the scars.