When Merlin became his manservant, Arthur already knew that he was insubordinate, irritating, and incapable of keeping his mouth shut. But it wasn’t until he dragged Merlin along with him on a hunting trip that he truly began to realize what he was in for. The hunt began inauspiciously when, after trudging half a mile from the castle, Merlin realized he had forgotten Arthur’s crossbow. Arthur sent him back at a dead run and waited, fuming. When Merlin at last returned, wheezing and flushed with the crossbow in hand, Arthur cuffed him round the head, and they set off once again.
Approximately fifty feet further on, Merlin became entangled in a gorse bush. Arthur waited patiently while Merlin attempted to extricate himself and finally hauled his ridiculous servant out by the collar of his coat, ignoring Merlin’s yelps and an ominous ripping noise.
“You’ve torn my coat!” Merlin exclaimed, staring in dismay at where a large hole gaped in the seam of the right shoulder.
“At the rate you were going, we’d have been stuck here until supper, waiting for you to climb out of that bush,” Arthur snapped back, ignoring the wounded look that Merlin gave him.
They had proceeded, Merlin muttering under his breath, and Arthur wondering yet again what he had done to deserve being saddled with this incompetent peasant. He’d only had to endure Merlin’s service for a week, but things had started out badly and only gotten worse.
Then Arthur discovered that among Merlin’s many talents was his complete inability to walk ten feet without tripping over something.
“Stealth, Merlin!” he hissed after Merlin stumbled over a root and dropped the crossbow bolts with a clatter. “By now every deer in the entire forest knows we’re coming.”
“If I didn’t have to carry all of this,” Merlin grumbled, staggering a bit as he tried to juggle his burdens. “Why don’t you—”
“Because I’m the one hunting, Merlin, you idiot.” Arthur glared. “How am I supposed to shoot if my arms are full of cloaks and bags and extra bolts?”
“Well you could set them down,” Merlin began and then faltered to a halt when Arthur doubled the weight of displeasure in his gaze.
And then it began to rain.
Arthur persevered, determined to bag some game before dusk, weather and inept servants notwithstanding, and now they were huddling under a bit of shrubbery overlooking a gully, peering out into the sodden greenery around them.
Merlin snuffled and then sneezed. The fifth such sneeze in the past half hour—Arthur had been keeping a grim count. He turned and scowled at Merlin.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin whispered, rubbing at his nose with his damp sleeve. “I’m not doing it on purpose.”
Arthur huffed an impatient noise. “When you’re not sneezing, you’re chattering on about supper and herbs and whatever other nonsense comes into your head. Or fidgeting around and snapping sticks and throwing pinecones into the gully. And all of that you are most certainly doing on purpose.”
“It’s very damp here,” Merlin protested. “I was trying to find a dry spot. And it was only one pinecone.”
“As I have explained to you, Merlin, effective hunting requires those doing the hunting to be quiet.”
“I’ve been quiet,” Merlin contradicted. “We’ve been sitting here for hours, and I’ve been quiet at least half of the time.”
“You have not and don’t argue with me,” Arthur said, forestalling another protest. “When I tell you to be quiet, that means you’ll be quiet until I tell you otherwise. No talking. No throwing pinecones. In fact, don’t move at all.”
“But what if I should see a deer? Or bandits? Are there bandits in this forest?” Merlin glanced about nervously. “If I can’t speak until you tell me to, then how—”
“Why am I even having this argument with you?” Arthur demanded, getting to his feet. “Do what I say, when I say, and then I won’t have to throw you in the stocks again.” He grabbed Merlin’s arm and jerked him upright. “Now come on. It’s getting dark, and hunting is obviously an impossibility with you along.”
Mumbling something about “overbearing princes,” Merlin bent down to retrieve their things, overbalanced, and tumbled backwards into the gully.
“Merlin!” Arthur darted to the edge, peering through the mist, trying to make out something in the poor light. He finally spotted a crumpled figure half-way down the slope. As he watched, it resolved into his manservant, sitting up and brushing off his coat.
Arthur heaved a sigh of relief; allowed himself a moment to shut his eyes and imagine he was in his chambers with a cozy fire, some mulled wine, and an efficient, deferential servant at hand; and then started down the slope to retrieve Merlin.
“Can’t you manage ten minutes without causing some disaster?” he asked, skidding to a stop.
Merlin scowled and started to stand, then sank back with a sharp whine of pain. “I—I think—” He scrabbled at his left boot.
Bidding a grudging farewell to all thoughts of a warm supper, Arthur knelt beside him. “Stop that,” he said, batting Merlin’s hands away. “You’ll only make it worse.” He worked off the boot and probed Merlin’s ankle with his fingers. Merlin paled and tried to jerk away, but Arthur held him still. “It’s not broken, only a bad sprain,” he decided. “But you won’t be walking on it anytime soon—although ‘tripping’ is a more accurate description of your usual gait.” He handed Merlin back his boot and looked around them.
“There.” He pointed towards the mouth of the gully. The light was fading quickly, but he could see a huddle of rocks and the promise of some meager shelter. “We’ll camp there over night and tomorrow I’ll go back to Camelot and fetch horses.”
Merlin ducked his head. “You could go back now, sire. I’ll be fine ‘til morning.”
Arthur snorted at that, which earned him an indignant glare. “Even I don’t know these forests well enough to find my way back to the castle on a pitch black night. And with the rain, there’s no chance of stars.” He nudged Merlin with his toe. “Besides, if I leave you to your own devices, you’ll probably be eaten by a wolf.”
“I could manage!” Merlin insisted, defensive.
“Just be quiet and give me your hand,” Arthur ordered. Merlin needed his help to stand, and then they hobbled along together, slowly making their way down the gully.
The rocks did not afford much protection from the wind and rain, but he found a reasonably dry patch of pine needles and settled Merlin on them.
“I don’t suppose you thought to bring any food,” he said, and Merlin perked up, reaching into one of the bags.
“Yes I did—some bread and cheese—enough—well—” Merlin faltered, and then firmed his voice. “Enough for you.” He held them out to Arthur.
“I don’t eat stale bread and moldy cheese, Merlin,” Arthur informed him, wrinkling his nose, “although I suppose you might. I expect you to remember that on our next expedition. Now stay put—I’m going to go see if I can find some dry wood.”
When he returned, cursing the damp and cold—a branch had sent an unpleasant shower of water cascading down his neck—Merlin was licking his fingers, crumbs littering his shirt, and didn’t look quite as pale as he had before.
The wood, clumped together in an obdurate, wet heap, ignored all of Arthur’s efforts to kindle a flame.
“Let me try,” Merlin said, holding out his hands for the flint.
Arthur gave him a skeptical glance.
“I’m good at it,” Merlin insisted.
“I doubt that,” Arthur said, but handed over the flint anyway and then crossed his arms, watching.
“Maybe, um, maybe you could get some more pine needles?” Merlin asked. “I think that would help.”
Arthur looked pointedly at the considerable number of pine needles already piled onto the wood.
Merlin flushed, but persisted, “Just a few more—there’s a very, uh, exact ratio of needle to branch that needs to be followed.”
“Oh, for gods’ sake,” Arthur muttered, giving up and heading into the trees to scrounge for more kindling.
But he returned to a merrily burning fire, snapping away at the wood with gusto, Merlin beaming in triumph.
Dropping the now superfluous twigs to the ground, Arthur hunched close to the flames, holding out his hands. “You actually managed to do something useful, Merlin,” he said, fingers tingling as the feeling returned to them. “Shall I expect the end of the world tomorrow?”
He’d meant it (mostly) as a joke, but Merlin’s smile wavered. “I don’t mean to be an inconvenience, sire,” he said quietly, looking down at the ground. “I’ll get better, I promise.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over them. Arthur looked at Merlin’s bowed head, his wet hair clinging to his neck, the little shivers trembling through him, and the smudges of mud on his face and hands. Sighing, he shook his head, and held out his arm. “Come here.”
Merlin gave him a wary, puzzled look.
“You’re shivering, and I’m cold, too,” he explained. “Now come.”
Merlin crawled over slowly, careful of his ankle, and then he was fitting into the circle of Arthur’s arms, flush against his chest. Immediately, a pleasant heat sprung from where they pressed together.
“Better, yes?” Arthur murmured, and Merlin nodded, wiping his nose on his coat sleeve again.
They sat in silence—a more companionable one this time—watching the fire, the night shutting them into a tiny circle of light. When Merlin’s head started dipping forward, Arthur maneuvered them onto the ground, getting as much of his cloak over them as he could manage and using one of the bags for a pillow.
Merlin scrunched his face into the rough fabric, his one elbow trapping Arthur’s forearm in a tight squeeze. He could feel Merlin’s heartbeat thumping against his fingertips. But despite his evident exhaustion, Merlin kept squirming and shifting, awkwardly trying to rearrange his legs.
“Your ankle hurts, doesn’t it?” Arthur asked. He put his free hand on the back of Merlin’s neck, rubbing a calming circle with his thumb.
“A little,” Merlin admitted, but he stilled under Arthur’s touch, sighing, his hand curling hesitantly against Arthur’s where it rested on his chest. It came to Arthur that he had never held someone like this before, and a sudden, impossible tenderness overwhelmed him.
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered. “For staying.”
He cleared his throat. “You’ll be getting all this mud out of my cloak and boots when we return, you know.”
“Yes,” Merlin said. “Still.” He grew quieter. “You could have left.”
No, I couldn’t have, Arthur realized. His father might castigate him for not knowing the responsibilities of a king, but he knew this—the touch and scent of a person who needed his protection and care.
And the fact that it was Merlin, a peasant, who was awakening such feelings in him—he felt unsettled, yet also grounded, like stepping out of a boat onto the firmer shore. After all, most of the people—most of his subjects—who depended upon him were peasants, like Merlin (although thankfully not all so clumsy). Yet each would have their own particular nature, some leaning towards sloth, others industrious, some partial to ribald jests, others prone towards tears over small matters. His people. How could he ever think of leaving any one of them behind? And even as he thought that, Camelot swelled around him—the earth, and the air, and the life.
It frightened him even as he burned with pride, and he tightened his arms around Merlin, yearning to shut out the immensity of it all. He concentrated on the smell of Merlin’s hair, the rise and fall of his chest, the bony sharpness of his knees. This he could protect. This puzzling, infuriating life that had collided with his own and now claimed a part of him, insistent in its demands even as it brought an unexpected promise of companionship into the count of his own days.
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