Arthur straps on his sword and stares blankly at the wall for a moment, gathering himself. He’s never unarmed these days, not even inside his own chambers, despite the many nervous glances from his servants. Besides. The raiding party has returned. He glances out the window once more and clenches his jaw at the sight.
They mill like sheep in the centre of the courtyard. Arthur watches, swallowing the bitter taste in his mouth as Kanen manhandles an unlucky few into a smaller bunch. He pauses beside one, a pale, lanky boy, and speaks rapidly into his ear, spilling bile as only Kanen can, hands sickeningly busy on the boy’s body. There’s a flash of fury and frustration over the lad’s face that hits Arthur squarely in the gut.
They’re the same emotions he battles every day and he staggers a little, breathing hard as the boy struggles. Kanen slaps the boy hard enough to make him stumble and shoves him into the handful that is shuffling toward the keep, leaving the rest behind for the traders.
This is what Camelot has become.
When he reaches the throne room the Regent is already waiting, calm as ever and watchful of Arthur. He knows Arthur’s opinions. Knows too that Arthur has no way of fighting this. Not yet.
“Agravaine,” he greets the man, tone calm. He has become a diplomat indeed, since Uther died.
“Arthur. How are you feeling?” The question never fails to needle and a muscle twitches in Arthur’s jaw.
“I am well, uncle, thank you for asking,” he replies, as he always does.
I hope your backside is full of pustulent boils, he thinks to himself, as he always does. He really needs to find some more creative curses.
There’s noise in the corridor and then the doors are shoved open. Kanen’s men drag the handful of unfortunates inside, Kanen coming up the rear with his hand wrapped around the neck of the tall, dark-haired boy. He gives him an overhard shove and watches the sprawl of long limbs on the stone floor as the boy loses his footing, chains clinking on the stone floor.
Arthur sees all of this from the corner of his eye. He cultivates a blank face around Kanen and tries not to look at the man more than he has to. It’s the only thing that prevents him from exploding into useless rage. And Camelot’s Mad Prince can no longer afford to lose his temper in public.
“Highness,” Kanen drawls lazily, skirting the edges of protocol then nods to Agravaine. “Regent.”
“Welcome back,” Agravaine says, “I see you found some wayward souls along the way.”
“Poachers,” Kanen says, and steps on the boy’s slender hand with casual cruelty.
He bites his lip against the pain and makes no sound as the bully continues, “Normally a bad enough idea, but especially this time since they chose to cross the border from Cenred’s kingdom. You’d have been safe if you’d stayed on the other side,” he crouches to laugh in their faces, and somehow that decides Arthur.
“Uncle,” he says, turning, “I believe I’ll take first choice of this bunch.”
There’s a short, stunned silence. The advisers at the edges of the room shift slightly, exchanging glances, and even Agravaine loses control of his expression for a moment. “You wish to- take a slave.”
“Winter is coming on,” Arthur replies calmly.
“Indeed it is.” Agravaine eyes him, suspicious, but unwilling to actually say no in front of all these witnesses. This power sharing is a delicate dance, but apparently there is still something to be said for being Crown Prince.
Gods, it’s a pleasure to wrong-foot his uncle, for once.
“You are certainly entitled to a bedwarmer, Arthur. But are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a more, ah, skilled companion?”
“There’s sure to be a fetching skirt or two in the next batch,” Kanen says, rising with a smirk on his face. He doesn’t have enough brains to share Agravaine’s suspicions of Arthur’s sudden switch on the stance of slavery.
Arthur glares at him coldly and Kanen takes an instinctive step back. Then Arthur turns to his uncle, lowering his voice. “I thought you would welcome my taking a step forward, uncle, rather than clinging to the old ways.”
“Of course,” Agravaine says, blinking. “But - really, Arthur? A simple village lad? You surprise me.”
He doesn’t rise to the bait. “I’m sure they’ll clean up admirably. And I think, uncle, we’re of one mind on the topic of royal bastards running around Camelot, aren’t we?”
That gets him a shrewd look.
Without waiting for further discussion Arthur steps forward, sweeps his eyes over the group. They’re exhausted, staring out at the world through eyes glazed with shock and pain. He forces himself to breathe calmly, to show nothing on his face as he glances from face to face as though he’s weighing up the options. He can’t help them all, not now, but he can at least spare the boy Kanen’s… attentions.
“This one,” he says with a nod at the blue-eyed boy. Behind him, Kanen hisses and Arthur has to bite back the grin. The boy is glaring up at him with hate, and Arthur can hardly blame him. Clean, well-dressed, well-fed and privileged, he knows full well how he must look.
Well, if nothing else life will get more interesting. He might end all my troubles with a knife between the ribs some winter’s night.
“Get up,” he says, his voice flat. For a moment he thinks the boy will defy him, which will no doubt involve Kanen again. He adds silkily, “Or I’ll drag you through the castle on your knees.” The boy takes a breath and gets to his feet, hand cradled to his chest. The chain running from one manacle to the other swings in a loop down to his waist.
“I trust you’ve no objections, uncle,” he adds, raising a brow as he turns his back on the slave. Agravaine has stepped forward to join Arthur, eyeing his nephew curiously.
Then his eyes return to the boy, swaying on his feet with exhaustion. His voice is quiet, just for Arthur when he remarks, “You know, I think Kanen had his eye on that one.”
“I am desolate to deprive him,” Arthur bites out, and Agravaine is startled into a laugh. He eyes Arthur approvingly, still pondering.
Arthur looks away, back to the boy and his eye is caught by the bands around his wrists. He frowns, takes a step forward.
“Cold iron restraints?” He turns to glance at Kanen.
The other man’s face is ugly, eyes hooded. He crosses his arms and stares at Arthur’s feet. “Rumour had it there was a sorcerer in that village.”
Arthur snorts. “Yes. I’m sure if there was a sorcerer he’d be living in the back of beyond, picking berries and trapping rabbits to survive rather than serving at Cenred’s side.” Kanen’s eyes flash but he holds his tongue.
Suddenly, he’s sick of it all. Not the least of which is Kanen’s mention of a village. The man can’t even keep his story of catching poachers straight. They are raiding Essetir, he thinks, cold with despair. There will be war, when someone notices.
“Come,” he says, and the boy startles out of his standing half-doze. “Agravaine, my lords,” he nods in farewell and sweeps out of the room without a backward glance.
In the hallways he walks past the curtseys and nods as he has every other day of his life, though their eyes slide away from his face nowadays. When he reaches the stairs that lead to the royal apartments, he pauses. “I require Gaius to wait upon me in my chambers,” he tells the chambermaid as she scrubs the stairs, and she ducks her head and bustles away.
He continues up to his rooms, paying no attention to the boy who trails behind, and draws a key from beneath his tunic. The days of leaving his room unlocked are long gone. He pushes inside and waits for the boy, closes the door leaving just the two of them in the room.
The slave stands there on the hearth rug, filthy, bruised and swaying from exhaustion. “Sit,” Arthur says, and pushes a chair in his direction with one foot. He leans back against the table himself and examines his prize.
Boy isn’t quite accurate, he can see now, in the light streaming through the window. He’s about Arthur’s age, or a little younger – on that cusp between boy and man. His wrists are turning, back and forth inside the shackles, unceasing.
“What’s your name,” he says abruptly, and the lad stills. He sinks slowly onto the chair with a wince that reveals more than Arthur wanted to know and flicks a wary glance in Arthur’s direction.
“Merlin,” he says finally, and his voice is clear and low. Arthur almost shivers at the richness of that sound - like that first taste of fine wine bursting on your tongue.
“Merlin.” He manages to say. “And where are you from?”
He tenses. Eyes Arthur for a long time before he rasps, “Ealdor.”
Arthur simply nods, flicking through maps in his mind to locate the place. “Do you know where you are?”
“Camelot,” Merlin says, almost spitting the name.
And Arthur half-rises, pure instinct to protect that dream, the ideal, before he remembers what his kingdom is now and what Merlin has likely endured to end up here. The lad doesn’t flinch, just glares out at Arthur, chin up, ready for a blow.
“Yes,” he says softly instead, sinks down and glances out the window. Camelot.
“You’re the Prince?” Merlin says, eyeing him. He hesitates, then adds, defiant, “The Mad Prince of Camelot.”
Arthur doesn’t move. There’s quiet for a long time, then he says it. “I am.”
Merlin waits for a while before he speaks. All evidence to the contrary, it’s possible that he’s thinking. “You don’t seem mad,” he says. His wrists never stop turning inside the shackles, they’ll be dripping blood inside of a day at this rate.
The smile wells up from somewhere deep, and very sad. “Well, Merlin,” he says, “give me time.”
A knock on the door startles them both out of the silence, and Arthur slides a knife out of his boot as he moves to answer it. Merlin’s eyes track his movement, startled and breathing a little harder, and Arthur thinks wryly, yes, that didn’t take long at all, did it?
“It is I, Sire,” Gaius calls through the thick timber.
Arthur sheathes the knife and opens the door, standing back to let the older man in. He is carrying a tray of supplies, which he places on the table, eyes fixed firmly on Merlin who is glaring back, defiant.
“It’s true, then,” he says heavily. And turns. “Arthur. What are you doing?”
He looks at Gaius. Almost the only one left who will give Arthur the use of his name, or uses his title as though he’s still worthy of it. Only a few of the knights, and Gaius.
“I am sampling new delights,” he crosses his arm and raises his eyebrows. “What other explanation could there be?”
Gaius frowns at him, shakes his head but doesn’t press. Instead he moves toward Merlin, who leans back, wary.
“I am a physician, child,” Gaius says, “you have nothing to fear from me.”
“Right,” says Merlin. “You’re going to take excellent care of me so I’ll be strong enough to bear his abuse. No thanks.”
Arthur bites back a smile. Oh, he’s going to be a handful. This one won’t accept any kind of servitude easily. Probably that was half of what had drawn Kanen’s eye - a bully’s instinct.
The other half- well. That soft mouth is one hell of a temptation, let alone the eyes. And the cheekbones.
Arthur shakes his head and looks away. The madness is getting more insidious, or else he really didn’t get enough sleep last night. Either way he’s dangerously close to composing a ballad about an unwashed peasant.
Gaius, meanwhile, uses his eyebrow to best effect. “I am going to care for you, lad, whether you like it or not.”
Something ugly crosses Merlin’s face. “Yes,” he mutters, “I’m hearing that a lot lately.”
“That will do,” Arthur says, suddenly harsh. “Gaius has done nothing to merit such a comparison.”
Merlin scowls back at him and Gaius sighs. “Arthur,” he says, “arrange for a basin and some water, would you?” He raises that terrifying eyebrow, and Arthur realizes a second later that the examination is likely to get a bit… personal.
He shoves off the table and goes into the corridor, closes the door behind him. “Send for someone to fetch a basin of water,” he tells the guard, and watches him go. Time was, he didn’t need a guard outside his door every minute. Time was, the kingdom looked to him to protect them all. Now he can’t – apparently – even protect himself.
Merlin keeps his gaze fixed on the fireplace and doesn’t answer the physician’s low-voiced questions. The man’s hands are gentle and sure as he checks the damage Kanen had caused the night before, and the only weapon Merlin has anymore is his silence, and the numbness of grief when he thinks of what he’s lost. They can’t hurt him if he isn’t truly there.
Gaius sighs when he is done. He draws Merlin’s trousers up and touches his shoulder gently as if he can’t help himself. “Sit down, lad,” he says, and pads over to the door.
The beautiful madman is waiting in the corridor, arms folded as he broods. Handsomely.
It’s a nice touch, the pretence of privacy for a pleasure-slave. Obviously the Prince is mad. Merlin eyes the rich bedhangings, refusing to be impressed. He’s never seen a building made of stone, before, nor one so tall. Doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care about Camelot.
“Thank you, sire,” the old man says, and returns to his patient. He draws Merlin’s tunic up over his head with the ease of long practice. The sleeves slide down his arms and snag on the manacles around his wrist, burning cold against his skin, and he hunches, furious all over again at being so helpless.
He slants a sideways glance at the prince, knowing what he’ll see. It’s not as though Merlin’s gorgeous or anything – not like the Prince – but he’s young and fit, which is apparently enough. Kanen and his brutes had made very clear the hopes and plans they’d had for his body, and he already has enough ugly memories from the nights spent on the road between here and Ealdor. He’ll look at the Prince and see the same, set expression, full of lust.
But Arthur’s sidelong glance is filled with something closer to… sorrow. His gaze flicks away, back to the window, and he keeps his attention fixed there while the old man tends to the shallow cuts on Merlin’s back, the bruises on almost every other part of his body.
The seeping wound hidden by his hair Gaius discovers a moment later, and he gives it careful attention. Merlin flinches, furious all over again, remembering the burst of fiery pain and the black flood of unconsciousness. They never would have caught him otherwise. Gaius tut-tuts gently under his breath, hands sure and steady as he moves on to binding Merlin’s wrist.
A basin of clean water is delivered a few minutes later and the older man cleans the wounds thoroughly. Merlin bites his lip and endures in silence, even as a part of him is amazed at the opulence around him. Warm water, carried right to his door.
His thoughts are circling wildly between wishing Will could be here to see this and a bitter gratitude that he was saved from Merlin’s fate.
He couldn’t have borne watching Will writhe under Kanen’s… attentions.
“He’s from Essetir,” Arthur’s voice cuts through the silence, folding his arms. His gaze locks with the older man’s as he turns back. “They raided one of Cenred’s villages.”
“Cenred.” Gaius turns pale and straightens, pot of salve in one hand. “No.”
They stare at one another while Merlin watches. Odd. First, that the young Prince didn’t believe Kanen’s lie about poaching, and second that that he’s telling this news to the old physician. Clearly it has some significance to them he doesn’t understand, but he won’t ask. He’s not a part of this conversation. He’s a thing. A powerless, helpless thing, to be used and bought and sold.
He grinds his teeth and turns away, pulling helplessly against the manacles. If he had his magic…
The old man eyes the chains and goes very still. As Arthur had done, he turns his head, asking, “Cold iron?”
“Apparently there was a powerful sorcerer lurking in their tiny hamlet,” Arthur returned sarcastically. “Kanen’s a fool.” He eyes the shackles with distaste and for a moment Merlin’s heart lifts in hope.
The Prince shakes his head, mouth set in anger. “I can’t just take them off,” he says, more to himself than anyone else. “I’ve drawn too much attention as it is.”
Gaius has finished with Merlin’s back, and draws the tunic gently up over his head again. It sticks where the salve lies, but he does feel a little better. He pushes the basin toward Merlin and dips a fresh cloth into the water, which is only slightly cloudy. “Go ahead and wash,” he murmurs, and turns back to the Prince.
Arthur reaches up a hand to rub the back of his neck and sighs. “Gaius, will you show him to the armoury on your way out? Get the master to remove the chain, at least, so he can…” he waves his hand and doesn’t finish the sentence.
So I can what? Merlin thinks, ridding his face of the worst of the dirt. Better brace myself against the bedposts? He eyes the Prince, the strong lines of his chest and shoulders. He’s not likely to be worried Merlin will strangle him in his sleep. But he can think of absolutely no way to get the princeling to remove these accursed shackles, or switch them for ordinary iron. The last thing he wants to do is draw more attention to himself and the cold iron keeping him trapped. Better to escape first.
“Certainly, sire,” Gaius murmurs.
Merlin drops the cloth and gets to his feet willingly enough. The physician is old. Not likely he’d be able to catch Merlin if he runs, and if he times it right and there’s no-one else around-
“Merlin,” the prince says as he struggles to his feet, head down. He doesn’t look up, deliberately rude, and it seems to bother the other man not a bit. “I’m sure you’re planning an escape.” Merlin goes very still. The physician doesn’t even look up from where he is gathering his pots and bandages onto a tray.
“I don’t blame you,” he goes on, impossibly calm, “I’d do the same thing in your place. But today is not the day.”
Merlin keeps his eyes on the stone floor, trying not to listen to the calm voice of reason coming from the madman by the window. “You’re injured. You’ve not eaten today, I’d wager. You don’t know your surroundings – not the castle, not the town, not the woods, if you even made it that far. And night is only a few hours away. At best, you’ll end up hungry, cold and lost. At worst – you’ll be captured, and likely end up back in Kanen’s hands.”
The Prince crosses the room and stops in front of Merlin. There’s silence, and finally Merlin lifts his head and looks him in the eye.
“Not today,” the Prince says softly. “Hmm? I swear to you, I’ll not harm you in any way.”
“You swear?” Merlin says, voice lightly mocking. A heartbeat later there’s a voice at the back of his head saying not your smartest plan, Merlin, baiting the madman, but apart from a slight tension around his eyes, the other man doesn’t react.
“That’s right,” he says, flat. “I may be mad, but I am still a knight of the realm and my word holds.”
“Arthur,” the old man tuts, stepping forward. “That’s quite enough.”
“Take him to the armoury,” he says shortly, turning away. “And have two guards escort him there and back.”
Yes, Merlin thinks as he heads for the door. Definitely not my smartest plan.