Merlin tightens his grip on the jug of wine and resolutely ignores the sharp glares directed his way by the King. Arthur will just have to wait.
Clara catches his eye from where she stands waiting in the shadows. She swaps his almost empty jug for a full one, and bobs nervously. “Thank you,” she whispers, mostly into his shoulder, before retreating back to the door to the kitchens. He smiles and shrugs when she turns back to check on him. It’s nothing; he’s disobeyed Arthur many times before and he will many times again. The worst he’ll face is the stocks, and even that’s not a given these days. More likely a pillow thrown at his head and easily dodged, now there’s no Uther to appease with proper protocol and punishment.
Besides. Lord Altern is a pig. He’s only been at court for a week but the rumours have already flown far and fast, and Clara is too good and too sweet to have to wait on that oaf.
Too pretty, a corner of his mind adds darkly. Too young.
He’d seen the way Altern stared at her, and the way the older servants organised themselves to always end up in the way - but no servant has quite the knack of going against express orders like Merlin, and the sighs of relief had been audible when he stepped forward and offered himself as buffer.
Altern can claim it as a privilege, anyway, to be waited upon by the King’s personal servant.
“Boy.” Altern snaps his fingers, and Merlin steps forward. “Fetch me that little maid. With the dark hair.”
“I’m afraid she’s taken ill, my Lord.” He tops off Altern’s cup; the way he’s been putting away the wine they’ll all get lucky and he’ll slide from his seat in a drunken stupor before too long.
“Ill? Don't be ridiculous. She looked fine-”
“Very quick onset, I’m afraid.” He studies the twist of Altern’s face, the naked want simmering below the surface, and thinks Clara will forgive him for going a little further. “Vomit everywhere. Some kind of purging thing. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a both ends situation-”
“Merlin!” gasps one of the other courtiers. He recognises him, although his name escapes him; he must only know Merlin because of his connection to Arthur. It always surprises him, when so-called important people know his name. “Some of us are trying to eat.”
“My apologies.” He leans over further, with a suitably deferential look, and tops off the courtier’s cup as well. And then he feels it. A hand, cupped around the back of his upper thigh.
He shoots upright.
“If you won’t go fetch me that pretty one, perhaps the one who does my bed sheets will suffice.” Altern’s grip tightens, hidden now by the fall of Merlin’s jacket, and he tries to twist away - but short of dropping the jug and wrenching those vile hands off him, he’s trapped. Altern’s grip is used to grasping a sword for long hours of practice, and clenches hard enough to make him wince.
It could be worse, he thinks wildly. It could be Clara, that hand sneaking up-
“Blonde. Shy little mouse, I’m sure you know her.”
Melody. His stomach turns. Maybe he should clobber Altern over the head with the jug instead of dropping it. Melody is fourteen.
“ Mer lin.”
The jug is taken from him and set on the table. He’s tugged to the side - Altern lets go, but he can still feel his grip. He wonders if it’ll bruise. No, it will definitely bruise. He wonders if it will need a healing salve, if he’ll have to reveal it to Gaius -
“I think everyone will agree I have been the epitome of patience here.”
He nods, unthinking. He can’t concentrate on Arthur, can’t concentrate on anything but the phantom tightness around his upper thigh.
“But it really is time for you to see to my bedchambers.”
He nods again.
“ Merlin !” He’s shaken, roughly, and blinks - Arthur. Right in front of him, and wearing that fake exasperated face that he thinks hides his worry. It doesn’t.
“Bedchambers? Fire to light, bed clothes to set out - Merlin, you’ve been my servant for too long to need taking through this again. Even you can’t be this useless.”
“Right.” Arthur still holds him by his shoulders, and he focuses on their familiar touch. Warm, and firm but not tight - he knows these hands. He knows Arthur. “Right,” he repeats, and turns. As he’s walking away, he catches a hushed rebuke and a firm order for Lord Altern to be gone by daybreak.
He goes through his chores mechanically, and when he’s done, he takes a seat by the fire to wait. Arthur likes to talk after a feast, otherwise he can’t wind down enough to sleep, and this time he’ll probably have even more to say than usual. It would be a relief to put the interrogation off until morning, but he thinks morning Merlin might not feel the same, so resolves to stay put.
He pours himself a glass of red wine from Arthur’s stash instead, and sips disconsolately. He may as well be comfortable, he thinks, and curls up, staring at the flames.
He startles; whether he was half-asleep or just drifted away, he’s not sure - but he missed the snick of the door opening and pad of Arthur’s boots across the flagstones. He spies the empty wine glass, the alcohol barely watered, unlike what he’s used to. Maybe he’s just drunk.
Arthur crouches at his feet, and Merlin raises an eyebrow.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asks. His tone is painfully earnest, even under the reddening flush spreading across his cheeks, no doubt from lowering himself below his manservant.
He swallows; his tongue feels thick with wine. “Yes.”
“Lord Altern has been dismissed from Camelot. He’ll be gone by morning.”
Merlin nods, unsure how to say thank you.
“Why were you serving him?”
“He’d made… advances. On Clara.” Arthur’s brow furrows. “One of the kitchen maids,” he clarifies. “And then, while I was-” he stops, unsure how to explain the situation he found himself in. “On Melody, too. She - she’s just a kid, Arthur.”
Arthur darkens, and hangs his head until his hair brushes Merlin’s breeches at the knee. “He will be formally banished,” he murmurs, before looking up. “Thank you, for stepping in. But don’t ever - don’t ever put yourself in that position again.”
Merlin opens his mouth, but a hand on his knee stoppers his words - it retreats just as quickly, and he frowns at Arthur, at the very idea that a thoughtless touch from Arthur was in any way the same as Lord Altern. It lands again, hesitant, and tightens briefly before sliding away.
“I didn’t offer myself up like a lamb to the slaughter you know. I didn’t think he would - and even if he had, I’d be able to…” he trails off, but Arthur seems to take his words in the way he meant them - that he had a better chance at holding off a grown man than either Clara or Melody - rather than that he may have a secret weapon in his arsenal.
“I know you don’t respect rank,” starts Arthur, and Merlin chuckles. He’s gratified to see an answering smile, and some of the tension between them seeps away. “Not like the other servants do. But it’s still a difficult… some nobles, they won’t like a servant answering them back.”
“If anything like this ever happens again-”
He catches Arthur’s gaze - deep and unwavering, the conviction in it glints like sunlight off Excalibur, making him gasp.
“-you call for me. Merlin,” he repeats, “you call for me. Right?”
He nods, but it's only when he stutters out a “yes,” that Arthur looks away, relaxing.
“It’s late. You should get off to bed now.”
Merlin looks at the door. It's a matter of maybe a dozen paces, but it feels a long way from where he is now, curled in the dual warmth of licking flames and the King’s regard.
“Or… just stay.”
He’ll probably regret it in the morning, but he is rather comfortable. The chair is soft, and his limbs are heavy from drained adrenaline and alcohol. Trekking back across a drafty castle to a cold room isn’t inviting.
He goes to drag himself up - Arthur still needs to change for bed - but a hand lands firmly on his shoulder and pushes him back down. “I’ll handle myself for one night Merlin. Go to sleep.”
And then he’s aware of nothing else.
Once the bruise on his thigh heals, he mostly forgets about the strange night in Arthur’s chambers. There is the odd dream - sometimes a bruising grip, sometimes a tentative brush of blond hair - and he wakes from both confused and out of sorts until real life intrudes again.
Winter has descended though, which makes travelling hard, and so visitors to Camelot have abruptly ceased. Instead, the faces he sees in the corridors are all familiar, and his days become filled with lugging firewood, snow-filled hunts that turn his fingers red with cold, and thick, over-salted stews because Gaius has to use the preserved rather than fresh-caught meat.
Yule comes, and Arthur makes something a fool of himself drinking with the knights. It’s up to Merlin to drag him up three flights of stairs and down long, darkened corridors, but waiting in Arthur’s chambers is a present, wrapped in rough paper and twine, and with an ‘M’ scrawled in messy ink. Inside is a pair of deerskin gloves, well-padded with rabbit fur. He chokes out a thank you, and retreats. Yule goes, but the warm softness encasing his hands carries on, and he finds he doesn’t mind the snowy hunts so much anymore.
It’s a delegation from Escetir that breaks the peaceful calm of Camelot, just emerging from the worst of winter. The snows have gone but the woods are still damp with their melt, the air frigid but the sun a tentative promise of spring. It’s a time of awakening; to stretch and survey and sweep away the winter’s fug - not to receive guests.
“Why have they travelled so soon?” he muses while shoving Arthur into his ceremonial robes.
“They’ll have been checking the roads, and decided to kill two birds with one stone.”
“It’s still a bit early for diplomatic visits.”
Arthur agrees, he knows he does, because he hums and otherwise refuses to answer. The delegation has caught them all by surprise; a patrol on the outskirts of Camelot sent ahead word, and they have just enough time to fashion themselves into some semblance of order before the horses clatter across the courtyard.
Arthur’s crown is crooked, he realises too late.
“Lord Kamdile,” Arthur says, with a sweeping smile for the party. “Welcome to Camelot. You must be tired after your travels. Your and your men must come inside, we will have your horses seen to.”
Merlin darts forward at that, along with two stable boys, two lower page boys and a couple of maidservants. He greets the nearest knight, unbuckling his luggage from the horse’s saddle, and stiffens.
It’s just a look, he tells himself, as the knight drags his gaze back upwards and follows his Lord. A stablehand relieves him of the handsome bay, and he swings the knight’s bags over his shoulders, then goes to help Emily with her load.
Just a look.
The diplomatic talks go well - there are no treaties to be signed, just the renewing of friendship bonds that will lead to smoother practices in the future. Still, Lord Kamdile reveals on the third day that their stay is to be a short one, and they will pack up this evening and leave at first light tomorrow. Merlin gets the impression they are finding a Camelot unready for guests - with stocks and stores run low after a long winter - slightly less comfortable than expected.
The evening is less of a feast and more a normal meal, delivered by a cook pulling her hair out, but Arthur summons a jester and some musicians from the lower town so it is merrier than it might have been. They are all up at dawn to see the party off, and Merlin makes sure this time that Arthur’s crown is not only straight, but freshly polished. It gleams gold in the weak morning sunlight.
He tugs the last of the bags into place and straps them down securely, then wanders round to the front of Hamrion, the handsome bay horse, for a quick goodbye pat. It might only have been a couple of days, but he’s become rather attached to the placid animal, who seems to seek him out any time he enters the stable to say hello to Llamrei.
“Merlin, isn’t it?”
He turns to see Sir Eldric, Hamrion’s unfortunate owner. Unfortunate because he seems blessed with neither gallantry nor hygiene, and from the snippets of overheard conversation he’s been privy to, he’s a bit of a bore as well. He takes a respectful step back, holding Hamrion’s reins at the neck to steady him to be mounted.
“Yes, Sir Eldric.”
Eldric steps closer, his hand closing over Merlin’s on the reins.
“You like my horse, boy?”
It could be a mistake. He lets go, and steps back again.
“He’s very handsome.”
Eldric reaches out, hand snatching and pulling Merlin back in. “So are you, boy.” His spare hand drops the reins and reaches up to trace the cleft of Merlin's chin. That’s not a mistake. “When we return at midsummer, I’ll put that pretty mouth to-”
Eldric leaps backward, letting go, and Merlin staggers. He hadn’t - he hadn’t thought - certainly hadn’t meant to yell out across the courtyard, but -
But he’s here. He said to call, and Merlin did, and he came. Merlin shakes his head, dislodging half-buried memories of a tight hand bruising where it shouldn’t be.
“Sir Eldric?” Arthur asks, in a silken tone. “If I find you’ve been importuning my staff, things will go very badly for you. It is a blessing that you are on the verge of leaving. I suggest you avoid Camelot in the future.”
Sir Eldric stammers, but quails under the force of Arthur - steadfast and glaring in all the riches and jewels of his kingly status - while Merlin hovers and straightens at Arthur’s shoulder. Eventually, Eldric hauls himself up on his horse instead. He trots away, watched sternly, and it’s only when the whole party has departed - with only the briefest of goodbyes from Arthur, to Lord Kamdile’s obvious confusion - that Arthur relaxes and turns to Merlin.
“Yes,” Merlin realises, surprised.
“Good. Well done Merlin.”
Merlin doesn’t think - well, he doesn’t think it used to happen like this. Either visiting nobles are less scared of Arthur than they were Uther - which he can’t imagine is true - everyone has taken some kind of lust quickener, or he really was a first class dolt and just never noticed.
Because now it’s everywhere. There are dark, heated glances and maidservants shifting awkwardly out of sight. There are hands where they shouldn’t be, and a complicated rota system devised by the head housemistress that keeps the younger, prettier girls from completing their chores alone. He spies sharpened sticks, slid up sleeves - a weapon that’s not a weapon - oh this? I just found it. Even the stable boys have trained the horses to kick on command, although they seem to use it to defend the maidservants more than themselves.
It’s only visitors, he notes. But visitors show up nine months out of every year, and suddenly the way the whole castle seems to take a deep breath when unfamiliar hooves clatter the cobblestones begins to make a lot more sense.
He gets clumsier.
It’s such a shame to spill good wine, and oh - that may have stained, and Florice seems to have disappeared in the confusion, but don’t worry, we’ll get that sorted out.
Gosh, you were just round that corner? How unfortunate, a head on collision like that, yes, yes, report me to Arthur, absolutely, so sorry to have interrupted - oh dear, I’m sure Lily just got pulled away to her chores.
Usually it’s enough; sometimes, when he’s too far away, the same can be achieved with a flick of magic - a coughing fit bestowed on the aggressor is usually effective - but sometimes, he finds himself taken up instead. Some aren’t fussy, it seems, and really anyone - even someone with sticking out ears and gangly limbs and a decidedly more masculine set of equipment under his breeches - will do.
The first couple of times his heart thuds, his pulse spikes, his breath comes short as adrenaline shot through with an edge of panic sets in - but he yells. And every time, Arthur comes. Across the feast hall, down the corridor, even trampling through undergrowth, stag definitely scared away - every time, he comes.
After that… well, it’s not fun. There’s still a sick feeling in his stomach at who else the disgusting beast has tried to force himself on, but sometimes he wants to grin as well, because Merlin just yells for his king and his king comes running and the beast finds himself banished or worse - always with a shocked, gormless sort of look that his actions have led to this. Merlin has spent years saving Arthur, and it feels like… not payback exactly. He doesn't need to be saved. But it’s… nice. That someone will come.
That the someone is Arthur.
It’s why he thinks nothing of being alone in the stables with Tristan, the new knight. He reached Camelot from one of the outer villages a few weeks ago, and shows promise on the battlefield, although he’s rough with country ways elsewhere. A wandering eye.
“Tristan,” he nods in response, still combing through Llamrei’s mane. He’d sent Luke, the stablehand, off to bed. He doesn't mind grooming, making Arthur’s horse look perfect and feel comfortable. There was no reason for him to sit up.
He double takes as Tristan lets himself into Llamrei’s stall, ducking under her head and stopping in front of Merlin. Llamrei snorts, and shifts aside.
He raises an eyebrow. Perhaps it was foolish to send Luke away after all.
“You’re so-” Tristan cuts himself off again, and surges forwards. The movement catches him by surprise and he yelps, dropping the brush. “You and me, yeah? You’re so hot, Merlin-”
He flushes to the roots of his hair. “Arthur,” he croaks, but it’s more a whisper than a yell. This is one of Arthur’s own knights though, chosen. “You’ve seen what he does, right?”
“But you’re not going to tell him, are you Merlin?” Tristan presses forwards, trapping Merlin between him and the stable wall. He frantically wishes he’d learned the stable boys’ secret signal, but in reality, if Llamrei kicks Tristan now it’s Merlin’s spine going through the wooden slats. “I’m not some noble he can send home,” he whispers in Merlin’s ear. His breath is hot, and Merlin shudders. “He wouldn’t hear you anyway.”
Maybe… maybe he doesn't realise. Tristan seems a bit obtuse, so maybe he doesn’t understand this isn’t mutual?
“I don’t want this,” he says, a hint of fear colouring his tone.
Tristan grins. “I don’t care.”
Panic spikes. He wriggles, trying to slide free, but Tristan is strong and has the advantage of their position. “ARTHUR!” he yells, but Tristan just grins.
“He won’t hear, he’ll be tucked up in his bed… how I’d love to have you spread out one, but beggars can’t be choosers-”
Tristan slaps a hand over his mouth with a glare. “But just because it’s useless doesn’t mean I want to hear you screaming his name. Until you can learn to say mine, you’ll shut up.” He forces a rag into Merlin’s mouth; it smells of leather soap, and he gets the vivid realisation that any time he tries to clean Llamrei’s saddle, or fix her bridle, it will catapult him back here. Now. With Tristan.
Undoing his trousers.
Too far. Too. Far. He’s a split second away from letting his eyes glow gold, damn the consequences - he doesn't quite know what will happen, whether he’ll push Tristan back or atomise him, painting the walls and straw red - but he’s not even sure he cares, if he’d push it this far then maybe he deserves what he gets -
A familiar hand drags Tristan away and punches him so hard in the face he crumples. He hits his head on the water trough and slumps, still.
The hand pulls the rag from his mouth.
“It - he -” gasps Merlin.
“I know, I know.” Arthur stands so close, but Merlin knows he won’t cross that distance, not now. “He’s out cold, don’t worry, he won’t.”
The panic starts to fade and leaves him trembling instead, even though he’d never been in any real danger and was on the cusp of fighting his own way out. He lets himself drift forwards, until they’re chest to chest and he can rest his head on Arthur’s shoulder. The contact lets his shudders calm, although his eyes are oddly wet and probably leaving a damp patch on the fabric of Arthur’s tunic.
He’s just tired. The fear is still seeping away, the saddle soap dissipating into the smell of Arthur; a scent lodged so deeply in his subconscious it normally passes without notice. Familiar arms come up and hold him close, and he sags.
He called, and Arthur came.
“I always will,” Arthur promises. Maybe he said some of that out loud. “Are you okay?”
He hums. He isn’t, really, but he will be. He’ll lock this away where he locks everything else, and he’ll carry on regardless.
“This is… this is too far.” Arthur’s voice is steady and low, and strangely calming. When he talks like that, Merlin can’t help but trust him. He lets his eyes drift shut. “I’m making a proclamation, tomorrow morning. A new law. It’s past time we made this official, enshrined. Tristan will be dealt with. Anyone else even - even thinking -” his grip tightens, and Merlin shifts, winding his arms around Arthur’s waist to anchor them together, “-that servants can be made to do - do anything - will be tried at court.”
“Thank you,” he murmurs.
“I’m not doing it for you, Mer lin,” Arthur pouts.
Merlin huffs a laugh, and raises his head. He steps back just enough that their arms loosen; not enough to have to let go. “‘Course not.”
“It’s for the good of Camelot.”
“‘Course it is.”
There’s an unconscious knight at their feet, and a new law to be drafted before morning even though the moon is already high in the sky. He’s exhausted, bone weary, and Arthur’s hands still rest on his arms. He still feels soft linen under his fingertips - no more or less than he does every morning and night, but somehow out of place here among the straw and the snuffling sounds of horses readying for sleep.
Later, he’ll blame all that for what he does. For how he tilts forwards, fits his lips to Arthur’s and leaves a soft kiss. For all he knows, Arthur will blame it all right back, for the way he drifts his hands up, a soft stroke across Merlin’s ear to cup his jaw, and gifts one in return.
“Not tonight,” Arthur whispers.
“No,” Merlin agrees. “But tomorrow.”
Arthur nods, overly formal, and coughs. “What do we do with him?” he asks, kicking Tristan with the toe of his boot.
Merlin snorts. It’s not funny, but it is funny, the way a knight of Camelot is sprawled in dirty straw, breathing in dung while a servant stands over him with one hand held in the firm and careful grip of the King. But then, that’s just them. Never quite just servant and King, but always something more, always two sides of the same coin.
And tomorrow, Tristan will no longer be a knight.
“Leave him here. If he flees then so be it. If he doesn’t, arrest him in the morning.”
“If he flees we could always track him down.” Arthur steps close and nudges his nose into the crook of Merlin’s shoulder. The sharp point digs slightly; a small annoyance that he already sort of loves. God help him. The things he’s going to let Arthur get away with now. “You could turn him into a frog. Don’t,” he adds, when Merlin stiffens. “I mean, do, do turn him into a frog, that’d be hilarious. But don’t panic. Not with me?”
He forces his muscles to release, relax. “You know?”
A nod, delivered through the point of a nose digging and releasing from his shoulder. “For a while.”
Merlin sighs. “Clotpole. You should have said.”
“I just did.”
“I mean - all of this. I could have-” atomised him, he finishes silently. Taught all of them lessons, not needed to holler for you and make you embarrass yourself for me time and again, in front of dignitaries, nobles, and royalty.
“Maybe I liked playing the white knight for once.”
“You always play the knight.”
“No, I play the damsel. With my strong wizard watching over me.” Arthur hugs him again, loosely. Merlin thinks how much he’s liked being the one taken care of these past few months, and wonders if Arthur minds their usual dynamic at all, or just feels like he should. His hug removes any possible sting from his words either way.
“Hmm. How about we watch over each other?”
“And teach Tristan a lesson in the morning.”
“You’ve never gotten over that humiliation have you?”
“Could you have turned me back sooner?” He turns away, and Arthur catches his hand. Merlin drags him from the stable, not responding. “Merlin? Merlin, answer me, did you leave me like that-”
He shakes himself free and takes off, laughing and clattering across a moonlit courtyard.