It was the cry of "Bye, Merlin!" that caught Arthur's attention. They were heading out on patrol, and he was accustomed to a certain level of attention from the townspeople, commoners and nobles alike bowing as he passed, wishing him well, that sort of thing. Some of the other knights had well-wishers of their own, he knew. But his servant?
He turned in his saddle to see Merlin waving shyly to a gaggle of girls, ducking his head to hide a grin as they giggled.
"Admirers of yours?" asked Arthur, lifting one eyebrow. Then he took a closer look at his servant, and felt a surge of wicked amusement. "Are you actually blushing?"
"I am not—"
"Ah-ah! Don't argue with your prince."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, Sire."
"That's right, whatever I say. And I say you're blushing like a girl."
Merlin glared, but didn't get a chance to answer. "Safe travels, Merlin," called someone else, and Arthur frowned in consternation. It was an older woman, plump, wearing a baker's apron and a kerchief and dusting her hands of flour.
Arthur looked back and forth between them, unsure what to say. As they rode out through the lower town, several other people called well wishes… some of them to Arthur, yes, or the other knights, but nearly as many to Merlin of all people. Arthur didn't see who ran up and gave him the bloody flowers, only noticing the posy in Merlin's hands after they'd passed the city gates.
"So you do have an admirer!" he exclaimed, triumphant. "Will you invite me to the wedding?"
Merlin just leveled a flat glare at him. "I don't think so. For one thing, she's six."
"How is that you get flowers and I don't?"
"Maybe it's because I'm not a royal prat every time they lay eyes on me?"
"Maybe they take one look at you and feel pity for how scrawny you are."
"Or they feel pity for my having to put up with you."
"It's because he's common," said Percival, surprising them all. "He's one of them."
Arthur frowned, a bit more serious now. "Meaning?"
Percival shrugged. "They see you, sire, and they see their prince. They see us and admire us, but they know they could never be knights themselves. They see Merlin, though, and they can imagine themselves going out on grand adventures."
"Oh yes," argued Merlin, "because cooking and cleaning up after you lot is such a glorious undertaking." He might protest, but Arthur could see that the tips of his ears were still red.
"Plus they like him," said Gwaine. "He has a kind word for everybody."
"Er. Really?" Merlin looked confused, and his blush was spreading.
"You go out with Gaius on his rounds," said Elyan. "You may not spend a lot of time in the lower town, with your duties and all, but the people know you and they trust you."
"And it's possible they may have heard a tale or two in the tavern about all the times you've saved His Highness's sorry hide," added Gwaine.
"You are definitely spending too much time in the tavern," grumbled Arthur.
"Wha—it's not me!" protested Merlin, at the same time that Gwaine reached over and ruffled his hair. He was blushing even more brightly now, his entire face red and down onto his neck. "I can't believe you're spreading stories about me, Gwaine."
"Ah, I spread stories about all of us," said the knight. "And don't think I'm the only one. Just because Leon never unbends long enough to enjoy a drink or three doesn't mean the rest of us can't appreciate some company or a round of dice now and again. We have to have something to talk about."
"Oh, so you talk about me? Well, that's just lovely."
The talk devolved into good-natured bickering and the laughter of those listening, as they continued on their way.
It was supposed to be a routine patrol, Arthur and his knights, along with Merlin of course, because the idiot could never be convinced to stay home where he belonged. Seriously, what unarmed, unarmored servant rode patrol when they were out looking for bandits and marauders?
It was supposed to be a routine patrol, so naturally, they'd run into a gang of highwaymen, who it turned out had had far greater numbers than they had any business having, and naturally, in the fight Arthur and Merlin got separated from the rest of the knights. Arthur was thrown from his horse and took a long, nasty slash to one leg, and Merlin refused to do the sensible thing and run for cover, so of course they both ended up being taken captive. It wasn't like Arthur could run away from them, after all.
They ended up in an old ruin, locked in the cellar with only one crack high in the wall to provide any light. Arthur couldn't even walk, much less climb the stairs to get out, and their guard wielded a spiked cudgel with an expression on his face that just dared them to give him an excuse to use it.
"It'll be all right," said Merlin quietly, as he tore his shirt into bandages for Arthur's leg.
"Aren't I meant to be reassuring you, instead of the other way around?"
"Of course, sire. But it'll be all right."
Shortly after that, the bandits hauled Merlin up the stairs, and Arthur didn't see him again for at least an hour. He came back much the worse for wear.
That was the start of the pattern to their captivity. They got food and water once a day. They came for Merlin twice a day, each time for what felt like at least an hour. Strangely, they never came for Arthur. He was left to wait in the dark and silence, unable to hear anything that took place outside of their makeshift cell. Unable to do anything to stop it.
"What is it they want?" he asked, after the second time they'd dropped Merlin on the floor and left.
"Me to answer their questions." Merlin sounded like he had a stuffy nose; in the dim light Arthur could just barely see the blood on his lip.
"Questions about what?"
Merlin only shook his head. "Doesn't matter. I'm not giving them what they want."
"Yeah, I can tell," said Arthur. "You never have done as you were told," he added, and saw the flash of Merlin's smile in the darkness.
Arthur couldn't figure out why they hadn't tried to question him, though, not even once. What was it about Merlin that attracted their attention? Or maybe it wasn't so strange. The bandits must have decided just from looking at the two of them that Arthur would be less likely to give them what they wanted. He was a warrior, and Merlin was a scrawny serving-boy, as far as they knew. Pity they'd had no idea just how stubborn Merlin could be.
Merlin wouldn't talk about whatever happened when they took him off to be interrogated, no matter how Arthur pressed. Just said it didn't matter, even as he would come back looking more and more exhausted, more bruised, more battered. The rope burns around his wrists, around his neck, had made Arthur clench his fists in helpless rage.
Neither of them were in any shape to fight back, or to escape. Fortunately, there were advantages to being the crown prince of Camelot, and Arthur knew his knights would find him eventually. He could only hope that it wouldn't be too late for Merlin by the time they did.
After four days, Merlin's eyes were swollen so badly that he was effectively blind, and the rest of his face was a mess. Three of his ribs were broken so that he couldn't even breathe without pain, nor lie down to rest; he slept sitting upright, leaning against Arthur for warmth (and so Arthur could keep track of him in the darkness, and offer the only comfort he could). Over the bruising, Merlin's sides and back were covered in shallow knife slices, which naturally got infected in the damp conditions of the ruin's cellar. They'd stolen his shoes, and on the sixth day, Merlin came back with both his hands and the soles of his feet covered in burn blisters, which only made Arthur itch to kill every last one of the bastards with his bare hands.
That was the day that Merlin actually admitted to the pain he was in, because he whimpered every time his feet so much as brushed the floor, and cried out when Arthur tried to tend to his hands. Tears leaked out from under his swollen lids and dripped from his stubbled jaw. He was too exhausted to stay awake for more than a half hour at a time, but in too much pain to sleep any longer than that, either.
"It's my fault you got into this," said Arthur, wiping fever-sweat from Merlin's forehead.
"Nn. No. It isn't."
"I shouldn't have brought you."
Merlin laughed, though it was full of pain. "Just try—getting me to—stay behind."
"What is so important to them that they're willing to do this to you?" Arthur asked. And why won't they do it to me?
"Doesn't matter," said Merlin, and Arthur fought the urge to shake him.
"I think they disagree."
Merlin must have heard the anger in his voice, even though he was trying to keep it tamped down for Merlin's sake. "They think I'm a sorcerer," he said finally, reluctantly. His breath hitched every couple of words. "A specific sorcerer, someone they've been looking for. They think if they hurt me enough, I'll use magic to get out of it and prove them right."
"But you're not a sorcerer," said Arthur.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably, and Arthur helped him settle again. "As I said. It doesn't matter."
Arthur felt sick. He knew, he just knew, that their captors would never accept any denial from either Merlin or Arthur, no matter how adamant. It was like the witchfinder all over again. If Merlin confessed (to magic he didn't have), they would kill him. If he didn't, he was likely to die anyway.
The next day, no one came for Merlin. They couldn't hear anything outside of their cell, and Arthur wondered if the place was enchanted somehow. They should at least be able to hear something through the crack in the wall, shouldn't they? Instead, after what seemed like hours, the door creaked open, there were sounds of a scuffle, and then their guard came tumbling brokenly down the stairs and didn't get up again.
"Sire? Merlin?" It was Leon. Thank the gods.
"Down here," called Arthur, and felt himself go boneless with relief. Carefully, he nudged Merlin awake. "Hey. Wake up. Come on, Merlin, wake up."
"Mm. No… no more…" He stirred fretfully, and Arthur nudged him again.
"It's all right, Merlin. Come. Wake up."
Merlin struggled to take a breath, then flinched in pain. "Wha… what's happening?"
"Time to go," he said, feeling a little giddy. "We're rescued."
"Oh. Thass good."
It had only been a week.
A week of mistreatment, for Merlin. No, Arthur thought, call it what it is. A week of torture, for his servant and friend, and all Arthur had been able to do was hold him together between sessions, and make sure he had enough to eat and drink when the bandits guarding them brought the daily ration.
The torch seemed overbright to Arthur when Leon brought it down, and he turned his face away. "My god," said Leon. He squinted up and saw the other knight staring at Merlin with wide eyes.
"They thought he was a sorcerer," said Arthur. "Tried to make him prove it."
Arthur's leg wound, miraculously, had stayed clean thanks to Merlin's treatment, but it still throbbed with every movement, and when Elyan joined them, Arthur was forced to hop on one leg between him and Leon, as he and Merlin were brought out into the light. Arthur hissed and threw one hand up to shield his eyes against the glare.
"It's fine. Just get us out of here." He paused. "Are they dead?"
"As many of them as we could get, Sire," said Leon. "A few escaped, but we brought fifty knights with us to break you out. They're tracking down stragglers now. None of the bastards will survive the night."
Arthur could barely ride, and needed help into the saddle lest he reopen his injury. He was still better off than Merlin; Gwaine and Percival had had to carry him between them to get him up the stairs. Once outside, they set him down and carefully applied balm and wrapped Merlin's hands and feet, flinching as if they were the ones hurt when Merlin cried out. They peeled off what was left of his shirt, and bound his ribs, then cleaned his face as best they could. Finally, Percival fed him a tonic that Gaius had sent along, and after a few minutes he began to slump sideways.
"It's not supposed to knock him out," said Gwaine, looking worriedly at Percival.
"He's exhausted," Arthur told them. "They came for him twice a day. He never got any rest."
As he told the story, he watched his knights grow grimmer and more silent, until they were all scowling. "They died too easy," said Elyan, and the others nodded.
It took twice as long to make it back to Camelot as it had to come out, and Merlin spent the entire journey home in a stupor somewhere between sleep and full consciousness. Gwaine and Percival stuck to his side like glue, taking turns riding with him in front of them, since his hands were in no condition to hold a horse's reins, nor his feet to rest in stirrups.
The only times they'd left his side had been when Arthur wedged himself in between them at night, to give Merlin someone to lean against so he could sleep upright. Sometimes Merlin would stir and cry out, and as his fever climbed and he grew delirious he would mutter gibberish, and his bandaged hands would twitch.
"I'm here, Merlin. It's all right. We're safe now."
Merlin had been through too much. Whether his friend could hear him or not, Arthur couldn't bear to let him think that he was alone, now that it was over.
They'd returned to Camelot; Gaius had treated Arthur's wound in Arthur's own chambers, and he hadn't been allowed to leave since. He hadn't seen Merlin in all that time, and nearly drove the servants to distraction, sending them constantly for reports on Merlin's status.
Once Gaius gave him leave to get out of bed, Arthur spent his time pacing his chambers—or limping back and forth, really, since that was the best he could manage. He thought he might go mad with boredom… or worry, if he were to admit it to himself. Princes do not worry for mere servants! Arthur could almost hear his father's voice.
Arthur was still on restrictions, and would be until his leg had healed completely, but now that he was more or less mobile, the stiffness in his leg only seemed to add to his impatience.
He was up and about. Merlin wasn't.
"What news?" he demanded of George. If Arthur were feeling in a pitying mood, he might feel sorry for the poor man, who was thoroughly intimidated by Arthur's growling and glowering. However, all Arthur could see was someone who was not Merlin, and the man's poorly-concealed cringing was doing nothing to ease his agitation.
"G-Gaius says he improves a little each day, sire."
"And when will he be out of bed and able to resume his duties?" Which was not what Arthur meant to say, but George didn't know him well enough to read what he really meant.
"I-I am not… Gaius didn't exactly say, sire. Not for some time, I would expect."
Arthur bit back a sneer, and schooled his voice to civility as best he could. "Dismissed."
George scuttled off to wherever it was that servants disappeared to when they weren't wanted, and Arthur resumed his pacing. He could only stand it another hour before he gave up and threw open his wardrobe, reaching for a vest to throw on over his tunic.
The stairs gave him enough trouble that Arthur began to wish he'd borrowed a cane, or a crutch, even though a prince could not afford to look weak in front of his subjects. His glare made up for his limp, apparently, because people were quick to duck out of his way and give him time to pass…
…or at least they were, until he reached the corridor outside Gaius's chambers. There were at least twenty people there, standing in a queue, all along one wall; men, women, and children, some with baskets or bundles in their hands. They didn't block the corridor, and they weren't disruptive, mostly talking quietly among themselves if they spoke at all. Arthur didn't recognize any of them from the palace, and most of them were dressed in common clothing, although he spotted one or two with a bit more finery in their garb or their jewelry.
Perhaps there was some plague in the lower town that Arthur hadn't been told about. He frowned, but bypassed the line and went straight to Gaius's door, ignoring the way the people bowed or murmured "Your Highness" as he passed. Clearly Gaius was in, so Arthur pushed open the door without bothering to knock.
"How many times must I tell you to wait your t—oh. My apologies, Your Highness. I thought you were someone else."
Arthur raised one eyebrow. "I gathered. Those people outside?"
"Ah. Yes, well."
"Who are they?"
"Er, visitors for Merlin, sire."
Arthur felt his other eyebrow climb up his forehead. "For Merlin?"
"Well, I haven't any other patients right now, Your Highness. Why else would they be here?"
"I thought perhaps they were looking for cures and tonics, or something of that sort; you know, your usual occupation?"
Gaius smiled. "No, no, they're not here for me, sire. See for yourself."
He gestured toward his main work table, and Arthur tried not to gape at the pile of what were obviously gifts, and nothing to do with Gaius's usual work supplies. There was a basket of fresh fruit; another full of sweet buns that Arthur recognized from the lower town bakery, wrapped in red ribbon; A bottle of what looked like wine, and a jug of either cider or small beer. He saw two new tunics of fine linen and an embroidered neckerchief, and good woolen blankets that would not have looked out of place on Arthur's own bed. There were at least three flower posies that Arthur could see, a few sizable bundles of fresh herbs, and two new books with brass clasps. There was even a chicken in a cage, clucking contentedly to herself.
"The owner wanted to make Merlin some soup, but wasn't sure if it would keep long enough for him to be well enough to eat it. So she gave us the ingredients for the soup, instead."
Arthur huffed a disbelieving laugh. "All this for Merlin?"
Gaius raised his eyebrow in that way he had, that always made Arthur feel like he was a foolish little boy again. "He may not be the best servant you've ever had, sire, but he is well-liked in both the palace and the town. And apparently the knights have been spreading tales about him."
Arthur remembered their banter from when they first set out on patrol. "What sort of tales this time?"
"Why, that you were captured by bandits and Merlin refused to leave your side," said Gaius. "That he bravely kept their attention focused on him so that you would be spared the worst of their attentions."
Arthur shifted uncomfortably, then made a face as his leg twinged. "That's not quite how it happened, you know."
"Perhaps not, sire. But I imagine it was quite close enough for the townspeople. It wouldn't be the first time he was known to protect you, after all."
Arthur looked over the pile of gifts on the table, and thought about poisoned goblets and thrown daggers, and who knew what all else. "True."
"And if I may say so, sire, they can give gifts to Merlin without feeling presumptuous, or being reprimanded for it. You are just as well-loved by your people, no doubt, but I'm sure you can imagine the reaction your father would give if a total stranger were to try to present you with a chicken in court, or a bundle of herbs." He nodded at the bottle of wine. "I daresay some of these were meant to be shared with you, sire."
"That will be up to Merlin," said Arthur. It was ridiculous to feel envious, and he knew it. Merlin had more than earned all this, if only as compensation for what he'd suffered. If anything, Arthur felt bad for not having thought to get him a gift himself. "How is he? No one has told me much."
"Well, he's not able to get out of his bed quite yet," said Gaius. "It will be perhaps a few more days before his hands and feet are healed. His fever broke two days ago, and of course he's been sleeping a great deal since. That's only to be expected; healing takes a lot of energy out of a person, as I'm sure you well know. As for his ribs… It will be a few more weeks at least before he is ready for anything but the lightest of duties. I'm not willing to compromise on that, Your Highness, no matter how impatient you are to have him return to service."
"I'm not—I wouldn't do that. I just…" Arthur bit his lip and looked away.
"You miss your friend." Arthur looked back and saw a knowing smile on the old physician's face.
Arthur cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Something like that."
"Of course, sire." He nodded toward the steps leading up to Merlin's room. "You can go up if you wish. I try to give each visitor only about a quarter of an hour so that they don't wear him out."
He limped up the steps, bracing himself with one hand on the wall, and stood in the doorway. Merlin was sitting up in bed, chatting with a mother and her little girl. His hands were still bandaged and rested in his lap, but he was smiling at something the mother had just said.
"Did you get kickeded by a horse?" said the little girl. "My nuncle got kickeded by a horse and he turned all purple under his shirt. Right here," she added, starting to lift up her own tunic before her mother stopped her. Both the woman and Merlin traded a grin and shook their heads in fond exasperation.
"It was something like that, yes," said Merlin. "I turned all purple too, but I'm getting better."
"But is it still ouchy?"
"A bit, yes."
The little girl turned solemn, then reached out and handed him a ragdoll she'd been clutching. "When I get ouchy, I hold Mrs. Mathilde and she makes me feel better. She can make you feel better, too."
"That's very kind of you," said Merlin. "But I wouldn't want to make Mrs. Mathilde leave her home. I think she would miss you very much."
"She can come home when she's done helping you feel better!"
Merlin was a little bit flushed-looking across his cheekbones, though Arthur wasn't sure if that was from fever or embarrassment. "Well. If it's all right with you and your mum, and it's all right with Mrs. Mathilde…" Merlin glanced over at the mother, who gave a little shrug and a nod.
"We live just next door to the flower seller," she said.
"…then I suppose Mrs. Mathilde can stay here with me for a little while. I'll set her right—" He picked the doll up gingerly, and reached over to put the doll on his bedside table, then winced and clutched at his ribs.
"Are you ouchy again?" asked the little girl. Her mother picked up the doll from where Merlin had dropped her, and set her aside for him.
"Only a little ouchy," said Merlin. "I'm not quite ready to be twisting and bending and things like that, just yet."
"And we should go now, sweetie, and let Mr. Merlin rest, so he can get better."
"Do we have to?"
"I'm afraid so," said Arthur, still leaning in the doorway. All three occupants startled a little, and the mother's eyes grew wide before she stood and dropped into a low curtsey. Arthur waved her off. "No need for that, milady," he said, then caught the child's eye and added, "but Master Gaius says that 'Mr. Merlin' has many other people who want to visit him, and we must all take turns."
"Of course, Your Highness. My apologies—"
"Again, no need." He waited as Merlin and the others said their goodbyes, and when they had gone, dropped into the woman's seat and turned a wicked grin on his servant. "Playing with dolls, now, are you?"
Merlin's eyes sparkled. "Why, are you jealous? Want one of your own?"
"Are you sure? You could get a little knight and dress it up and play at swords with it—"
"Or I could get a little servant and torment it on a regular basis."
"Oh, wait, you already have one of those."
"Yes, but the ragdoll wouldn't blather on about nothing."
"Some-one's jeal-ous," said Merlin in a singsong.
"I'd shove you off the bed, for that," said Arthur, then sobered. "But it'd probably actually hurt you."
Merlin shook his head. "I'll be back to my old self in no time," he assured him.
"That doesn't matter." Arthur shook his head. "You shouldn't have had to endure all that in the first place."
"Sire," said Merlin. "Stop. It's not like it was your decision to mistreat me. You'd never do that, even to your enemies."
"No," said Arthur. "No, I wouldn't."
"This wasn't your fault." Merlin looked at his hands, bandaged up past his wrists so that only the fingertips were visible. "You helped me keep my courage up. It was easier to, to get through what they did, knowing you would be waiting for me once they were done."
"Looks like a lot of other people wish they could have been there for you as well," said Arthur. "Have you seen the gifts?"
"Some of them. Gaius said something about a chicken?"
Arthur chuckled. "It's really there. Apparently someone wanted to make you some soup."
"Probably taste better than the broth Gaius makes." Merlin started to laugh as well, then flinched.
"It's fine. How about you? Your leg?"
"Gaius only let me out of bed today. I've been going mad with boredom."
"Well, yes, I'd imagine so, with no one to throw things at or put up with your complaining."
"I've been stuck with George for the past three days, Merlin. George."
"George is a perfectly nice person—"
"Yes, well, he's not you." They both stopped, a bit surprised, before Arthur looked away, blinking. He could feel his cheeks heating and prayed that Merlin wouldn't notice. "And I haven't had a parade of people bringing me presents, anyway."
"Ha. I knew you were jealous." Merlin smiled, but his eyes were beginning to look tired.
"Yes, of course. I've always wanted a ragdoll of my very own."
"I knew it."
"And a chicken."
"That could be arranged, you know."
Arthur patted Merlin on his leg, one of the few places he knew hadn't been thrashed soundly. "I should let you rest."
Merlin nodded. "Thank you, sire. For visiting." He reached behind him, trying to adjust his pillow, but his face twisted in a grimace of pain. Arthur stood and limped over to help, then guided Merlin back until he was resting more comfortably. "You'll come back, right?"
"Of course. Tomorrow. I might even wait in line behind all the other visitors."
Merlin grinned. "No you won't."
"No, I won't. There have to be some advantages to being royalty, after all."
"As you say, sire."
Arthur straightened, and tugged on his tunic to smooth it. "Yes. Well. Get some rest. I'll let Gaius know you're finished with visitors for the time being."
"Thanks, Arthur." Merlin was visibly flagging now, and Arthur was struck by how badly he wanted to stay and let Merlin fall asleep leaning against him, as they had done for the past several days in the bandits' hideout.
"You're welcome," he said softly, as Merlin's eyes slipped closed.
"He's half asleep already," he told Gaius, hopping the last step down into the main chamber.
"I'm not surprised. Looks like it will be time to ask everyone to just leave their gifts, or a note."
"Has this been going on long?"
"Since his fever broke," Gaius said with a nod. "First it was just the servants here in the palace, but word spread quickly."
"And everyone wants to talk to him? That must be exhausting for him."
"It's fine," said Gaius. "Most of them just want to leave some small token. I collect the things and make a note of who brought what, so that Merlin can thank them properly later."
"He'll be thanking them for a month," said Arthur. "At least, if this keeps up."
"It's possible, sire," said Gaius. "However, I think it is more likely that the stream of well-wishers will dry up a bit once he is no longer bedridden."
Arthur still shook his head. "He spends so much time with me," he said. "I hadn't really considered before now that he had much of a life outside my service."
"He was as surprised as you, when he first heard of it," said Gaius. He shook his head fondly. "He's a kindhearted boy. I'm not surprised in the least that he's gathered so many admirers and well-wishers. Many of the knights treat him as a younger brother, you know. Not like a servant at all."
And neither did Arthur, he knew, despite how his father tried constantly to persuade him otherwise, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I suggest you return to your chambers, sire," Gaius was saying. "You are healing well, but you wouldn't want to overdo it."
"I suppose you're right," said Arthur. "I'll be back tomorrow."
"Of course, sire."
And Arthur stepped out the door, looking down the line of people who were all waiting to see his manservant.
"He's asleep," he said quietly, as people bowed and curtseyed and fell silent. "Master Gaius says you may leave any gifts with him, but his patient needs to rest."
He limped back to his chambers, mentally shaking his head at the way his irritating, incompetent manservant had become not only his friend, but the beloved little brother of Camelot's knights and the doted-upon mascot of Camelot's people.
Or maybe, knowing Merlin, it wasn't such a strange thing after all.