Codes: Arthur, Merlin, Morgana, Gwen, Gaius, Uther, Arthur/Merlin
Spoilers: season one
Summary: Considering Arthur's future wife will be chosen less for compatibility than for her political value, Merlin may be the only marriage he'll have that won't end in bloodshed or a great deal of fortifying wine.
Author Notes: My thanks to green_grrl and elke_tanzer for beta and remarks and lots and lots of poking and to transtempts for encouraging the entire thing. And a special thanks to oxoniensis for picking away the Americanisms with great patience and my solemn promise that should you ever agree to do so again, I will use *five* variations of 'got' just for you. Promise. Thank you very, very much.
There's something personally humiliating about recognizing that the pristine state of one's room and the blinding shine of one's armour aren't actually a sign that Merlin's improved in either demeanour or skill. Feeling faintly wary, Arthur notices the disturbing cleanliness of the stone floor, the line-straight edge of the rugs, and braces himself before he looks at the precise folds of blankets on his bed.
No rat droppings. He doesn't wince at all.
It's like a *good* servant works here, which Merlin is not, and while Arthur tried his best to sleep his way through mathematics ("I am a prince. I have *servants* to build bridges if I want a bridge!" "Of course, Your Highness. Please examine your figures here; perhaps you did not mean for your bridge to collapse into the river?"), two plus two is not five and he doesn't need to remember how to calculate angle and force to know that Merlin's unhappy with him (an understatement, Arthur realizes, when he sees his socks are rolled into perfect spheres. He shudders).
Humiliating because knowing these sorts of things are beneath him (like bridges, but even more so), and he can ignore it all he likes (which he does), but he can still feel it, emanating from the neatly hung clothes sorted by colour like an accusation.
In a world like this one but with a proper manservant, this would be his due. This is not that world, more's the pity, and so the fact that his chain mail looks like it came fresh from the blacksmith does not herald a miraculous change in his servant's personality.
There's a sharp double-tap at the door like the death-knell from the church, and Arthur braces himself before he sprawls deliberately over the meticulously made bed and tries not to feel uncomfortable that the blankets are now wrinkled. "Come in."
Merlin comes in, dinner tray balanced on one wide-spread palm, and looks at Arthur with what he probably thinks is blank subservience but comes closer to extreme constipation. "Sire. I've brought your dinner."
Arthur marvels that Merlin can manage to make "sire" sound like "chamber pot". "Put it over there," Arthur says, deliberately pushing his heel into the bedcovers, not acknowledging the twist of guilt for the streak of mud he leaves behind.
The best defence, in Arthur's view, is an aggressive offence (why defend when one can attack? A mystery Arthur has yet to solve); getting up on both elbows, Arthur smiles. "You're late."
It takes time and observation of Merlin (which Arthur will fall on his own sword before he admits to) to see the quick bunch of muscles in his jaw.
"I was cleaning the chamber pots. Sire."
It's strange, Arthur thinks, fighting the urge to flinch (chamber pots are actually beneath Merlin's station, which Arthur thinks he should tell Merlin. Eventually); one day, one impossibly long state dinner, and one dagger, and he goes from domestic peace (and attractively compliant chambermaids) to a war with intermittent battles that seems destined to stretch the rest of his life (and Merlin is neither attractively compliant nor a maid) or until he gets rid of Merlin (and he doesn't even pretend that's going to happen anytime soon). As Merlin starts to lay out the dishes, Arthur's eyes narrow on his hands. "Did you bathe?"
Merlin puts down the goblet so carefully Arthur can almost see it fly through the air toward his head and manage to go nowhere near. Lifting his head, Merlin looks two inches to the left of his eyes. "Of course. Sire."
That's really quite annoying. Pushing off the bed, Arthur looks down at the small cauldron. It doesn't look promising. "That is not rat."
Merlin doesn't look up. "I wouldn't know. Si--"
And if Merlin says sire one more time, Arthur will never be able to hear it again and not visualize rat stew in chamber pots. "Merlin. Look at me."
After what feels like the entirety of a state dinner, Merlin lifts his head. "Is there anything else?"
Arthur opens his mouth and can't think of a single thing. Sword, sharp. Floor, clean. Gauntlets--somewhere. "I suppose not. You may go."
With a disturbingly low bow (and worse, he doesn't even lose his balance, and Merlin *always* loses his balance), Merlin turns away, slipping out of the door so silently it's almost like a year ago all over again, perfect service and perfect servants and God. Damn it.
Poking warily at the probably-not-rat stew, Arthur thinks that could have gone far better.
Normal people (i.e., Arthur) express temper in ways that make *sense*--and also emphasize that they are, in fact, angry. Throwing things, stomping, killing several large, dangerous forest creatures--they cleanse the spleen and clear the mind, leaving one refreshed (or so they say). And they're *visible*. So no one calls anyone insane when one says "My manservant's current exemplary service is a petty temper tantrum and I'm heartily sick of clean clothes and efficient cleaning. Make it stop."
"I think the sheets were ironed," Arthur says as Morgana stabs a needle into an impossibly small piece of embroidery. It's all for show; she's been working on that piece since her fourteenth birthday. Gwen, quietly engaged in making sure Morgana never runs out of lace, looks up, eyes widening.
"You're complaining about Merlin's improvement?" Morgana asks in the dulcet tones of that particularly dense daughter of baron something of someplace terribly unimportant, whose prettiness was completely overshadowed by the most terrifying breasts Arthur has ever seen. "I seem to remember--"
"Ironed. With. Lavender."
Morgana looks at Gwen, who nods knowingly. "Lavender oil and water. It helps avoid scorching."
No, Arthur's sheets hadn't been scorched. Not even a little.
"Ah." Looking at her needlework, Morgana stabs her embroidery again and then sets it aside as a job best suited for someone with skill. "So Merlin is--cleaning up after you, obeying your every whim, and keeping your stables in a state of cleanliness on the order of a sickroom. And you're complaining?"
The problem is, there's no way to make anyone understand *how very wrong this is*. "He says *sire*. Constantly."
Gwen's head snaps down so quickly that Arthur tells himself he did not see her smirk.
"Your fortitude in the face of suffering does you credit." Smoothing her skirt impatiently, her eyes flicker to the window again, and yes, Arthur *is* in fact aware this is her usual time to take Gwen and pretend to collect flowers while jumping about with swords in the woods, but right now, *he needs help*. Leaning forward, her eyes go wide and soft, in that way that Arthur's shins learned in the schoolroom to beware of at all costs. "Do tell me more."
"I despise you."
"I despise you more." Smiling sweetly, Morgana glances out of the window and gives up. "If we must complain of our servants like old women," God, Arthur realizes in horror, they *are*, "then perhaps we should get some wine and knitting for you."
Arthur narrows his eyes. "I found some practice blades inexplicably left in the granary. I returned them to the armoury, of course." Before Morgana can find her eating knife--she, for one, has terrifyingly accurate aim--he holds up a hand. "I will fetch them for you, provided you promise me you will take an escort from now on." It won't restrain her so much as give everyone some kind of plausible deniability, because it's not like sword calluses aren't obvious, and Arthur's very tired of nodding emphatically at his father when Morgana explains away new cuts and bruises as strange and mysterious interactions with the latest model of loom.
Luckily, Uther has no idea what a loom does, but there's no reason to tempt fate. One day, he just might ask.
Morgana hesitates, emanating suspicion. "I will choose who goes with us."
"Fair enough." Standing up, Arthur turns to leave--with completely unresolved servant problems--and then remembers the reason he had to flee his quarters in the first place. "But today, I'll accompany you."
Morgana blinks up at him, and while she doesn't smile, he knows she wants to, head tilting slightly before she stands up. "Meet you in the granary?" she asks sweetly, and while Arthur doesn't approve of her unmaidenly interest in bladed weapons, he's beginning to feel that perhaps he can make an exception today.
"I will see you then."
"He's dyeing the drapes," Arthur pants, pushing himself up on one arm. "Now get that *away from my throat*."
With a glittering smile, Morgana draws back with an elaborate bow. Her form is better than half the knights; Arthur takes a second to imagine that particularly obnoxious new squire facing her across the tournament field and almost sighs. If only.
Then, "Wait. Dyeing the drapes? How--"
"Do you think I know anything about dyeing things? There's a tub and some sort of coloured herbs and now *everything matches*." Sitting up, Arthur tries to impart the full horror of walking into his own room and watching Merlin's narrow-eyed concentration in arranging the folds. "Or would, if the bed hangings hadn't vanished. He's trying to drive me mad and *I won't stand for it*."
"So I see. Gwen, chin up." Arthur watches Morgana circle Gwen, eyebrows drawn together sharply, before she nods, taking her place a few feet away. "Arthur, call the time."
"I--oh very well, five minutes. Begin."
It's different from working with his knights in ways beyond the most obvious, being that these aren't knights. Setting both arms on his knees, Arthur picks out the differences one by one. Even in practice, there's always a danger of things going too far, too quickly; misjudging by a hair a man's reach or speed can mean dismemberment or death. Arthur doesn't train the men of Camelot himself because he enjoys the monotony of yelling at fumble-fingered idiots for hours on end (though he won't say he doesn't enjoy it); he does it because no one should die on the practice ground and those trained beneath his hand rarely make those kinds of mistakes.
Morgana was taught as he was, and as children they faced each other a thousand times. Her form and reach are as good as any, and her speed may be even better; the difference is that line that Arthur had crossed before his fifteenth birthday and that she never has. Morgana's taught Gwen every trick, and as the daughter of a blacksmith, she knows her weapons probably better than Morgana, but it shows in her every movement as well. They aren't searching for blood, and even in practice, a knight always does.
Thrust and parry, feet moving in perfect time, as exquisite as a court dance, as perfect as an exhibition. Remembering them facing the bandits, dusty and bloody, Arthur wonders how much difference desperation makes, knowing your life hangs in fragile balance between your skill and that of your opponent; even the smallest thing can decide who walks away and who doesn't.
They break off instantly; they're not even scratched. Standing up, Arthur dusts himself off and reaches for Gwen. "I want to show you something."
Eyes wide, she stills, letting him lift her arm, position her body. "Shift your weight to your left leg," he says, bracing a hand on her waist. "Lean forward. Morgana, the last pattern. Start at the beginning, quarter time. Gwen, follow me."
Frowning, Morgana obeys, and Arthur thinks of the squires he's trained, the way he guided their bodies. "Begin."
Morgana had trained Gwen as she herself had been taught; she moves at the lightest touch, perfectly in step. Morgana nods her approval, catching the sudden blow, turning into the second, and it's formal and easy right up until Arthur takes Gwen's arm and pushes it out, turning her hip with his palm, and Morgana stops short just as the blade touches her heart.
"You never showed me that," she says, eyes flickering between Gwen's sword and Arthur.
Arthur hesitates. "There was never time. Gwen, can you remember?"
Stepping back, Arthur watches critically as they move back into position. "Three quarters time. When I know you both have it, I'll teach you the counter."
Morgana gives him a sidelong look, then nods.
Arthur won't admit it, but it's one of the most relaxing afternoons he's had in a long time. It's different teaching people that he knows he'll never lose to war, will never bleed out before his eyes. There's pleasure in the pure spectacle of it without the edge of fear that rides every second during even the most innocuous of tournaments. Gwen and Morgana weren't trained to kill, although they can; his knights are trained to kill, and failure is measured in the number of enemies that still draw breath.
Sending Gwen ahead, Morgana straightens her skirt over her breeches and falls into step with him, becoming a lady for an escorted walk in the safety of Camelot's shadow.
"You said you'd remove your spleen with a spoon before you taught me another move," she says conversationally, arm sliding through his. "What changed your mind?"
Arthur keeps his gaze on the castle in the distance. "I'd prefer you never have to fight, nor Gwen," Arthur says, because it's true. No matter how good she is, and she is, she'll never match a knight for height or strength. Skill will be all she ever has, and even the greatest skill might not be enough. The bandits pace vividly through his mind, with Merlin's mother's bruised face looking back at him like an accusation.
He's gone to war for his father, taken villages in his name as ruthlessly and mercilessly as any bandit. But their populations are not his enemy and he's never pretended he can look upon people bound to the soil as commodities to be disposed of as cheaply as an outgrown tunic. Uther wasn't born into the highest nobility of Albion, and perhaps because of that, he values the land he holds and the people he protects in ways that few of the old nobility ever do.
Standing on the battlements of Camelot, Arthur had been ten years old when his father showed him the land that he would one day rule. "Your birth entitles you to what I've won," Uther told him, voice quiet. "But never forget that birth is a gift as well. These are your lands and your people; their blood is what drives this kingdom, their labour that sets food on your plate and gives you the leisure to learn how to lead men. You will be their king, and I hope you will be a good one. But first, you're their protector. You are what stands between them and what would threaten them, and their enemies are yours as well."
Arthur's ridden through the remains of villages with bodies left rotting on the ground and bodies that still breathed, even when no sense remained. He knows, better than Morgana, perhaps even better than Gwen, what happens to women in war. And Albion is not a land of peace.
Arthur takes a breath. "We will not find peace in my father's lifetime," knowing she knows this. Her father fought by Uther's side and died for him in yet another meaningless battle in this useless, senseless war that has torn Albion to ribbons since long before Arthur was born; driving Rome from their shores had done little more than turn them on each other. "Nor, I think, in mine."
His life has always been this; he was bred for war and he wants to love it less than he does. Perhaps if he were less skilled, he would.
"You won't fight me, not really," she says slowly. "Why?"
"Because I never lift my sword unless I mean to kill with it. A knight can stand against that; he must or he has no place here. You may fight for your life and you do it well. I fight because that is what I am. And that you cannot stand against."
"You could teach me that."
Arthur sees Merlin's mother's bruised face, the frightened, determined faces of the village women. They weren't his then, the subjects of a careless, selfish king; now they are, in all but name. And one day, they will be in fact; he knows that like he knows he'll be king.
"There's only one way to learn it," Arthur says, catching her eyes. "And that I cannot teach." Then, "But, provided I have time, which is rare as I am in fact, crown prince and have many, many duties, I'll work with you both. Gwen--" Arthur stops, taking a breath. Morgana's vulnerable, but her rank would protect her from much. Gwen... "She should know as well. So she can protect you both, of course."
Morgan's mouth tips upward, but she lowers her head. "You think Merlin's still dyeing the drapes?"
God. He'd almost forgotten. "How is it you have an obedient maid and I have--" Arthur searches for a word to describe Merlin. There are no words to describe Merlin. "Merlin."
Laughing, Morgana slips her arm through his. "The relationship between a woman and her handmaid--or a man and his manservant--is a complicated and precious thing. Think of it as a marriage--"
Arthur stops short. "I will *not*."
Morgana's stronger than she looks; with a stumble, she has him moving again. "A marriage," she continues mock-piously. "As a vassal submits to his king, as a woman submits to her husband, a servant submits to his--or her--master."
Arthur gives her an uncertain look, thinking vividly of the last visit of Baron Something Odd Name, who had brought both wife and mistress to Christmas court, and how the castle had echoed with the screaming matches between all three over the course of a month. It had been highly entertaining. "I've met few wives who submit as they should," Arthur says sceptically. "Or any, for that matter."
Morgana smiles sweetly. "Exactly."
This is ridiculous, but Arthur has a bad feeling that doesn't make it less true. "I don't see--"
"For example," Morgana says, as if he hadn't spoken, "when Gwen asks, may I go the Midsummer Fair?" Oh God, she *knows*. "I tell her yes, and to enjoy herself, and assure she has enough money in her pocket to do what she likes. And later, when I say, are they making fruit pie for dinner, Gwen brings me three."
"Is that why I always miss the pie?" Arthur says, outraged. "The cook tells me--"
"Yes. That is why you miss pie." Patting his arm, Morgana's eyes fix on Gwen's tiny shape just entering Camelot, mouth softening into a smile. "You miss a great deal, Arthur."
She makes a sickening kind of sense. Arthur thinks bitterly of the last of the apple pies. "It's nothing like a marriage," he says.
"Except for tupping him over your bed, it might as well be. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can go back to cheerfully mocking his services and he can stop making the chambermaids nervous that they are no longer needed. Please do so. Gwen's reassured three this week, and hysterics are not pleasant to listen to, let me assure you."
Arthur doesn't sigh, but it's a very close thing. "I'm not apologizing. I had the right to his services that night." He had turned his ankle during practice, which had been bad enough, but listening to the happy chatter of half the castle planning to join the Midsummer festivities had just been too much. Merlin's utterly *nauseating* cheer had been too much. "I taught him chess."
"He knew how to play chess. Gaius taught him."
"I knew that." The *liar*. The filthy little *liar*. "I have every right."
"Yes, you do," Morgana agrees with suspicious placidity, turning her head away and effectively setting him on notice the conversation is over. Though he's not sure how, Arthur thinks he just lost.
He just wishes she'd *stop smiling*.
They've barely made it to the granary when Gwen suddenly stumbles in, face ashen. "Your Highness," she says breathlessly, then leans over, hand braced on her chest. Morgana is beside her almost before Arthur can find the breath to ask her what could be the matter. "I--"
"Sit down, Gwen," Morgana says firmly. "You are unwell."
"I can't, my lady. They--your father requires your presence immediately." Taking a deep breath, she leans against Morgana briefly, and Arthur watches a little wistfully as Morgana smoothes the damp hair from her sweaty hairline. After a moment, Gwen straightens, and Morgana steps back, staying in easy arm's reach. "There--there was a fight on the training ground--"
God damn it. "Who?" He reaches to pull her along with him, but a single searing glance from Morgana aborts the gesture. "I'm not their nursemaid. Knights are--"
"Not the knights, sire," she says quickly, "One of the ones you are evaluating." Blinking, she looks at him, and for no particular reason at all (for every reason, because Gwen wouldn't run herself into this state for just anyone), Arthur knows exactly who the other participant was, and it's about as believable as Gwen announcing she could fly. "And Merlin, Your Highness."
Oh bloody hell.
"What--" Arthur breaks through the crowd by sheer intimidation; he's good at it, and he doesn't have to enjoy snivelling subservience to recognize that it has its uses.
(Though perhaps, just perhaps, sometimes, he enjoys it, too.)
"…requested he fetch my hauberk…"
So it's started, then. Kind of his father to wait.
Arthur takes a second to study a filthy, bruised, and uncharacteristically belligerent Merlin, a grim Gaius, and the son of the second highest noble in the land, who Arthur's privately called Pustilius for so long that it's an effort to stop himself from doing so now.
On one hand, this is not good by any stretch of the imagination; on the other, Pustilius (Posterius?) has a spectacular black eye, a split lip, and just might be limping. Arthur would not be human if he didn't enjoy the sight of that.
"…attacked me, Your Highness!" Pustilius (fine, he'll ask someone later) says, pointing a thick finger at Merlin. "An unprovoked and vicious assault on my person. I demand recompense."
The attention of the room swings to Merlin, currently standing as straight as possible between two guards who stand at least two heads taller and three times wider. The contrast is almost pathetic. Honestly, if Arthur couldn't see the split knuckles on both hands, he wouldn't believe this. Uther seems equally dubious. "Merlin--attacked you?"
"During training," Pustilius insists (again), waving toward the collection of embarrassed-looking knights for confirmation. "I required his assistance and he *attacked* me!"
Uther looks at Merlin. "Is that what happened?" he asks, already three quarters ready to call Merlin guilty and be done with it; a year and numerous savings of the crown prince is what gives him that one quarter possibility of a reprieve.
Merlin doesn’t hesitate, lifting his head to meet the King's eyes with that exact level of defiance that Arthur remembers from ages ten to eighteen. That's when he learned to hide it better. Right there, the last quarter reprieve is lost. "Yes. Sire."
Yes, *chamber pot*. How does he *do* that?
With a sigh, Uther leans back. "Very well. The penalty for laying hands on a member of the nobility is flogging. Thirty--"
Thirty. No. "Father, if I may?"
From the look on his father's face, Arthur knows he's done Merlin no favour by interrupting. "Is there something you wish to add?"
From the corner of his eye, Arthur sees Morgana's tight-lipped rage, just begging for an excuse to erupt, Gwen's tear-streaked face, Gaius' barely-checked fear. But mostly, he sees Merlin, who just had a death sentence handed down to him and doesn't seem to care. Ten could cripple him, though Gaius doubtless would be able to give him some treatment to alleviate the worst. Twenty would be a slower death than thirty, but death would be the best that could be hoped for. Thirty--
"He's my servant," Arthur says, straightening. He can do this. "As a member of my household, his discipline would fall to me."
Surprisingly, Uther looks interested and nothing like Arthur just pulled that out of absolutely nowhere. "And what would you decide?"
Arthur's been tested since the day he was born; there's nothing new in his father turning any given event into Solomon and the baby redux. "I'd need time to consider the matter," Arthur says carefully. "Perhaps--"
"You *indulge* his appalling behaviour!" Pustilius snarls. Arthur turns cool eyes on him; the malice is unmistakable. "I demand I be allowed to administer the punishment myself."
Arthur almost sighs in relief. Uther straightens so slightly that probably only Arthur recognizes the coil of anger beneath it, eyes narrowing as he takes Pustilius' measure and finds him wanting.
"The discipline of Camelot's servants is not your concern."
Pustilius, who is even stupider than Arthur had ever truly believed, straightens to his considerable height. "Then I challenge him."
For a second, Arthur can't parse that into anything that makes sense. "You--what?"
"Challenge him. My honour and the honour of my house have been insulted. I challenge him."
"You--can't. He's not a knight."
Pustilius raises his chin, and for the first time, Arthur realizes his nose is broken as well. Perhaps that's why his voice sounds so irritatingly nasal. "I can and I do."
"He's a peasant. He *has* no honour to defend." Arthur looks over at Merlin at that moment, or he might have missed the narrow-eyed flash of utter rage. Oh, holy hell. "I am perfectly capable--"
"I accept," Merlin says, because he's just that stupid.
For some reason, Arthur is convinced he can actually *feel* everyone's breath let out. There hasn't been anything this interesting since Lord and Lady Somewhere's sudden burst of fisticuffs during the banquet in their honour and the food fight after. This will be the best attended match in Camelot's history. After all, Arthur winning is old news. A not-knight against a peasant is new and interesting and by the way, *what the hell just happened*?
"Very well," Uther says, looking almost pleased, snapping Arthur's attention from Pustilius to his father in shock. "So ordered. In two weeks time. If that is acceptable, Lord Percivance?"
Pustilius, Arthur mouths to himself, and promptly forgets he ever heard another name.
Pustilius bows, mouth curving into a lopsidedly smug smile. This can get worse, Arthur knows, but he can't think of how and has no desire to find out. Keeping his back straight (slumping is a sign of weakness and causes ill humours and humpbacks, or something), Arthur strides across the room, taking Merlin's arm in a firm grip, not missing the wince that Merlin tries to hide, and shifts his hand automatically. Trying to look stern and also like this is no odd thing at all, Arthur pulls him from the guards, noticing Morgana and Gwen are already slipping unnoticed from the room.
"Arthur?" Uther says, confirming Arthur's suspicion that the next order would have been "Confine him to the dungeons" because why not make this as easy as possible for Pustilius?
"Sire?" Don't look uncertain. "With your leave, I'll take my manservant to be treated and discover why he so--disgraced himself." He can almost *feel* Merlin's glare and ignores it handily.
Uther studies him for a second, eyes unreadable, then nods. Arthur bows, jerking Merlin down with him, knowing that rib won't be happy, but there's nothing else to be done. Straightening, Arthur ignores the crowd (did everyone get an invitation to witness this? Was there some sort of system in place?), trying to look like he's being careless when he all he wants to do is push Merlin into some sort of bed and tie him there until he heals or learns some sense. Maybe both.
Once they're in the hall, Arthur keeps his silence; Gaius will be along soon enough, and he needs the time to think. Pustilius is an idiot, but Arthur's seen him fight and he's dangerous. Of course, this is Merlin; Pustilius doesn't *need* to be dangerous. He can just be competent. Hell, he can *sit on Merlin* and end the match in slow, undignified suffocation.
"Do not speak to me or I will flog you myself," Arthur lies between clenched teeth, slowing for the stairs, taking all of Merlin's weight than he can. Broken ribs can pierce lungs, and God knows Uther's men aren't gentle. "Unless you feel you are about to die and rob me of the privilege of ending your sorry excuse for a life."
Merlin doesn't answer. It's probably the smartest thing he's done all day.
Gwen's waiting at the door of Gaius' room, hands twisting together. Jerking his head at her, Arthur pushes open the door, feeling Merlin sag just as they get inside. Catching him, Arthur waits as Gwen hurriedly clears Gaius' table and lifts Merlin onto it. When Merlin tries to sit up, Arthur carefully places a hand on his chest and shoves, with the greatest care, until Merlin's prone again.
"Gwen," Arthur says, holding Merlin's angry, pain-glazed gaze. "Please watch for Gaius and inform me when he arrives."
When the door closes, Arthur spreads his hand carefully, feeling the shift of bone beneath with a hard swallow. "If you move again, I'll use rope," he says roughly. Merlin's eyes open, pain-glazed and vaguely surprised. "I might anyway."
Pulling back, Arthur glances at the closed door. Excellent. "What happened?"
Merlin hesitates, then takes a shallow breath. No blood, not yet. "It is as he said."
Merlin eyes flicker away. "I lost my temper pandering to another overblown--"
"Very nice. I'd almost believe it if you'd stutter a bit. How long have you been thinking up that excuse?" Merlin sets his lips in a flat line. "Tell me what happened." Silence. "Merlin. I'm ordering you--"
"I was angry," Merlin says, voice so flat that Arthur doesn't believe a thing he says. "He was demanding and I refused. And when he said--when he didn't stop, I was irritated, so I hit him."
Arthur leaps on the stuttered space. "Said. What did he say?"
"It doesn't matter."
If he didn't look so incredibly pathetic, Arthur would beat him himself. "Merlin--"
Merlin turns his face away. "I've forgotten."
Before Arthur can think of a response to the utter transparency of the lie, there's a sharp knock on the door. Taking a deep breath, Arthur turns toward it, burying the anger as the door opens and Gaius comes in, Gwen on his heels.
"Merlin," Gaius says, and Arthur turns away, almost embarrassed by the tenderness in his voice. Knowing his presence an inhibition, Arthur turns to the door, stretching fingers he hadn't realized were clenched into fists.
Arthur keeps walking, waving off whatever the man wanted to say.
Closing the door carefully behind him, Arthur turns sharply, slamming one fist into solid stone, pain shooting up his arm in an arrow of pure heat that's not nearly enough to cool the rage. It's not nearly enough to so much as blunt the sharp edge of anger--at Merlin, for apparently losing his mind; at Pustilius for existing at all; and most of all for that smile that Uther gave when he agreed to this nonsense.
Every day is a good day to reinterpret King Solomon's decision, apparently. What Arthur wants to know is what point his father is trying to make.
After a few seconds, Gwen comes out, eyes widening as she sees him cradling his hand. "Sire? Are you--"
"Find out what happened," Arthur says shortly. "I want the names of every witness today. If someone heard what was said, I will know what it was."
Gwen hesitates, then bows quickly. "Yes, sire. Gaius asked me to--"
With another bow, she lifts her skirts, running down the corridor and vanishing around a corner. There's no reason to linger here like a sulking child, and there's daylight to put to use.
"How is young Gawain?" Uther asks, deceptively casual over their suddenly planned father and son dinner, which tells Arthur that Uther is bravely hiding from Morgana. A fool his father is not. Looking up from his soup, Arthur remembers why he prefers to eat in his room; meals with his father never promote good digestion or restful sleep.
"Well," Arthur says, because while Gawain did limp off the field, he did it under his own power. "He'll need a few days for the swelling in his knee to go down."
"Very good." The dark eyes study him thoughtfully, searching for weakness; what you search for, of course, you'll find, one way or another. Arthur looks at his soup and wonders if his father's ever had rat stew. Probably not. No one would take such liberties with the King and laugh about it afterward. No one can ever come that close to him.
"Is there something wrong with the soup?"
Arthur spoons up a mouthful and pretends he wouldn't rather be walking on hot coals. "Fine. Quite good, really."
"Good. Perhaps then you will take a moment to explain your actions regarding your manservant's punishment."
And with a mouthful of soup, too. Arthur swallows, feeling it lump cold and thick in his throat. "He is my responsibility," Arthur says calmly. "I thought that's what you would expect of me."
"He's one of my subjects and a member of this household, subject to my will, Arthur." Uther leans back, goblet drooping lazily from one hand, every inch the somewhat disappointed father.
Arthur forces his fingers to loosen from their grip on his knife. Merlin's not his, and Arthur controls the instinctive retort. He's Arthur's, like Ealdor, the village that he lead and bled to protect, no matter what borders on maps might claim. Setting his spoon aside, Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Do you find fault with my actions?"
"No," Uther says unexpectedly, setting the goblet aside. "Nor am I surprised. But I am concerned. You defend him a great deal, Arthur."
"He's earned my protection."
"He attacked a member of this court and the son of a man with great power and influence--"
"Who speaks soft words to your face and would as soon shove a knife in your back as kneel at your feet."
Uther doesn't disagree, another surprise. "What your servant does reflects on you," Uther says, motioning for more wine. Almost instantly, a woman materializes at his side. "And his actions were indefensible."
"Thirty blows would have killed him," Arthur says flatly. "I don't repay loyalty with a death sentence."
"He is a servant."
"He is mine. As the knights are mine in the field, where my will is theirs. There can be only one general to command the army. You taught me that."
"This isn't the field."
"In the matter of my household, there is no difference."
God help them all, Uther looks pleased. "Can he fight?"
"He's practiced with me."
"I think he may need more." Uther takes a drink, looking, of all things, amused. "It will be a busy two weeks for you."
Teeth locked behind smiling lips, Arthur thinks that Solomon should have grown up with Uther; maybe it would have given him some perspective on wisdom. "Yes, it will be."
Arthur spends a restless night that brings a dawn filled with clarity and a chambermaid he sends away, dressing himself in the pale morning light. Merlin isn't an idiot (mostly), and he survived the bandits (who, granted, weren't all that skilled, but he did survive). Arthur's the greatest warrior in all of Albion; everyone says so. More than that, he believes it, believes it with all his soul when he steps onto the field of battle or the practice ring.
He can teach Merlin in two weeks.
After a breakfast brought by an attractively compliant chambermaid (who he forgets when he notices the lack of fruit, because Merlin has made some kind of mission out of Arthur finding a relationship with things not meat), a quick bath (lukewarm. He'll admit this much; Merlin is a *wizard* when it comes to bath temperatures), and a check of the armoury, Arthur feels confident enough to present himself at Gaius' doorstep and explain to Merlin in very short words how he won't be dying messily after all.
"Your Highness." Gaius bows, head lowered, but not before Arthur sees the black circles beneath his eyes. It's a warning, but almost not enough of one. Merlin hasn't been moved from the exceedingly uncomfortable table all night. Arthur's shared a tent, a pallet, and cold ground with Merlin and knows to the muscle how Merlin sleeps, loose limbed and comfortable in summer, tightly balled in winter, and numerous variations that include waking faced with an unhappy fox and Merlin trying to crawl *under him* (apparently, Merlin's read far too many ballads on the friendliness of woodland creatures). The careful straightness of his body beneath the blanket tells the story of the injuries better than even Gaius could.
Ribs, Arthur remembers abruptly. "How is he?" For some reason, Arthur can't quite make himself move.
"He has a lump on his head," Gaius says, voice carefully neutral, more damning than hot anger could ever be. "Two ribs and a wound to the back of his left calf. There's a cut on his right wrist, but it's not deep."
Head, ribs, hamstring, finger tendons. Arthur learned anatomy from this man in books and later, from the cooling bodies of the men he led into battle. Pustilius was fighting to mutilate, to maim, to cause the greatest damage and yet leave Merlin alive. He's just not very good at it.
"Will he recover?" Arthur makes himself approach the table, keeping his voice even, uninterested, because otherwise he's not sure he will be able to stop himself from hunting the man who did this through the castle and taking payment in blood.
Gaius hesitates. "I think so. I've stitched the wounds and there was no damage to the tendons. But it will take time."
And time is what they don't have.
Looking down, Arthur looks at the too-pale, sweat-streaked face. There's an empty cup on the chair, but even Gaius best infusions can't keep Merlin free from pain, mouth tight even in sleep.
"He does heal quickly," Gaius says, with an odd inflection that Arthur can't quite read. "And the damage was superficial."
"Ribs," Arthur says flatly, "do not heal that quickly."
"They were likely simply bruised. He has not coughed blood, in which case a few days should see him on his feet."
So Arthur can take a sword to him and beat him into a warrior. He's never allowed Merlin to face him without every safety he could devise, and to teach him, they can have none of those.
"Has he said…" Arthur bites down before he can finish the sentence.
"No, Your Highness." Gaius looks down at Merlin, face softening in a private look that Arthur isn't meant to see. "He's quite stubborn, but I know he regrets causing you trouble and embarrassment on his behalf. When he wakes, I'm sure he will tell you so."
"That would be a first." Arthur waves away Gaius' automatic protestations; it's not like he's wrong. "When he wakes, I wish to speak to him."
"Of course, Sire."
Not chamber pot. Arthur smiles tightly, turning on his heel. Once outside, he looks thoughtfully at the stone and stretches his hand. Punching walls, while satisfying, isn't conductive to thinking. The plan needs modification.
Arthur turns, sharp words already on the tip of his tongue that melt at the earnest worry on Gwen's face, his very own living, breathing omen. With a slow smile, Arthur says, "Merlin's still sleeping. Do tell him I will speak to him later."
Gwen nods, mystified. "Yes, sire."
"Excellent." On his way down the hall, Arthur doesn't whistle, but it's a very close thing.
Morgana says "You want me to do what?"
Arthur rocks back on his heels, feeling utterly brilliant. "I surprise myself with my genius as well. Be ready."
It's three days, actually; so it was bruising, then. Arthur makes him walk up and down Gaius' lab, studying the slight limp in one leg, the shift of his body, the hand that fights the urge to reach up and hold his side. "Satisfied?" Merlin snaps. Arthur raises an eyebrow but can't bother himself to comment on the lack of respect. The drapes still linger in his memory.
"No, but you were always that skinny, so I can't blame Pustilius for that."
Merlin frowns. "Who is--"
"Never mind. He's well enough for a walk, then." Arthur smiles brightly at Gaius, not looking at all like he's doing anything but taking Merlin for a refreshing walk. Gaius smiles back, hiding his suspicion, as Arthur has never taken anyone for a refreshing walk in his life.
Merlin doesn't bother to hide his suspicion at all. "Why are you being so--friendly?" Gaius looks faintly horrified, cut with carefully hidden amusement, but Arthur's in far too good a mood to care.
"I worry about your health. I miss decent baths." Merlin's mouth opens, then shuts tight, and it's post-Midsummer all over again, but this time, there's nothing for Merlin to clean in malicious obedience. All he can do is stand there and radiate disdain while wrapped in a blanket. "Come along, then. Fresh air and such."
Merlin's eyes narrow, but after a glance at Gaius, he nods meekly enough, abandoning his blanket and following Arthur to the door.
Once outside, Arthur steers them toward the grassy expanse that borders the forest. "This way. Better air."
"The air here is fine," Merlin says, bewildered, but he comes along, obviously unsettled. "Where are we going?"
Sliding an arm around Merlin's shoulders (and incidentally ready to catch him if his knee gives out before they get there), Arthur grins. "A place in the forest. Excellent air."
"Did you hit your head?" Merlin says worriedly, already reaching up to check. Arthur bats his hand down and ignores the warmth at Merlin's instinctive worry. "Gawain said you didn't take a blow, but--"
"I'm fine." Speeding up their pace, Arthur sees a glint of metal in the woods. Excellent. "Come now. Air will do you good."
Merlin twists his head around. "Sire--" Not chamber pot, but very close. Arthur tightens his grip. "Ow! That hurts!"
"Think how much it will hurt after single combat in two weeks," Arthur says airily and feels Merlin slump.
"I'm trying not to think of that," Merlin mutters. "Tell me about flogging again?"
So Arthur does, with relish, right up until they emerge in the clearing, where Merlin stops short and stares at Morgana and Gwen--or more importantly, at their swords. "Oh," he says.
Arthur claps him on the back before pushing him down on the nearest log. "We'll start with demonstrations. So you can see the many ways you could die and how to avoid that. I don't want to train someone new. I'm not sure anyone could quite compete with your surprising talent with dye."
From the look on Merlin's face, Arthur may never get a hot bath again. Sitting beside him, Arthur gestures. "You may begin."
Morgana's a good instructor, Arthur thinks, watching her put Merlin through his paces. He knows the basics--Arthur had made sure of that before Merlin was in his service a week--but that isn't enough.
Slight limp on the left, weak right hand where the tendons had almost been cut, a disturbing propensity to pause and think before doing; Arthur catalogues every flaw by habit, building from there. He can evaluate at glance, knows by the end of a single fight his opponent's every weakness and every strength. He's hoping he'll find Merlin's strength soon, because Merlin has enough weaknesses to supply a hundred knights with some to spare.
After thirty minutes, Arthur calls him back when his left leg begins to tremble. "That wasn't too bad," Merlin says, sounding breathless. Arthur nods; if Merlin were fighting air, it wouldn't be bad at all. Arthur reaches for his right wrist, ignoring Merlin's protest to watch his hand. A slight tremble: not much, but it's there.
"How's your vision?" Arthur asks casually.
"Fine. He didn't hit me that hard." Merlin tries to pull away. "I'm just tired."
Merlin hesitates, which is damning all on its own. "Not often now."
Letting go, Arthur sits back, watching Morgana and Gwen smoothly perform what Merlin had nearly broken his ankle trying to do at half-speed.
"To satisfy honour isn't to the death," Arthur says quietly. "The point is drawing first blood."
Merlin nods, mouth tight, knowing it’s as good as a lie; then again, he knows Pustilius. Arthur had put off knighting Pustilius from instinctive dislike, but Merlin's living proof of what Arthur had felt every time he had watched Pustilius fight.
"They're not my conventions, sire. Nor does he seem aware of them."
Arthur grits his teeth. "Give me something to tell my father," he says finally, surprising himself. "What he said to you."
Merlin stiffens. "Sire--"
"For the love of God, if you lie to me--"
"It's not important." Merlin is looking at Gwen and Morgana, but he's not seeing them at all. "This--it is not your concern--"
"Of course it's my concern!" Only Morgana and Gwen mere feet away keep him from shouting. "What you do reflects on me. Insulting a member of my father's court--"
"Of course. I apologize, Your Highness." Arthur controls the twitch; Your Highness is used only under duress; such as, when someone is telling him to say it. There's no chamber pot in it. There's nothing at all, like they're strangers, like--like Arthur's his employer and nothing else. "I never meant to shame you."
"Arthur?" Like magic--and right now, Arthur would find it quite acceptable if a sorcerer showed up, because it looks like magic might be the only way out of this--Morgana appears in front of him, looking worried and annoyed both. "Merlin, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Merlin says in a small, broken voice. Arthur turns to stare at him. "Just a little tired."
Being Morgana, she falls for it like a tree. "You've overdone it," she says, a reproachful edge in her voice that's all for Arthur. Before Arthur can defend himself--I'm trying to keep him alive and in one piece, thank you very much--Morgana eases Merlin to his feet. Like two halves of a whole, Gwen mirrors her on Merlin's other side, and while Gwen would never so forget herself as to express reproach, he really has no idea what to call that expression that isn't quite what one would call respectful. When Merlin's on his feet, Gwen pulls away, already gathering their things with nothing more than a glance at Morgana's face.
It takes everything in him not to stand up and pull Merlin away from Morgana; surprised by the intensity of his reaction, Arthur finds he can't move at all, watching them leave. Gwen takes the time for a graceful obeisance, which he'd appreciate far more if she weren't conspiring with Morgana to take Merlin away.
"Tomorrow," he says with all the authority he can muster, finally getting to his feet. A chambermaid has doubtless laid a bath and food will be waiting for him. Perhaps wine. Perhaps she'll be waiting there as well, and for a few minutes, it will be like nothing's changed but his brilliantly red drapes.
Watching Gwen steady Morgana when she trips, the absent ease between them that's familiarity and affection both, Arthur thinks that of all the times he's envied Morgana his father's approval, the way she can speak when he can't, to act when he won't, he's never envied her so bitterly as he does this moment, that she has someone who is so much a part of her, someone who will never let her fall.
Merlin gets better. But not good enough; if Arthur had been training him for a year and doing nothing else, he wouldn't be ready. Merlin moves like no one he's ever seen, half here and half not at all; Arthur has a feeling that if Merlin truly wanted to, he could vanish into the background so thoroughly almost no one could find him. Useful in any circumstance but the middle of the tournament ground when facing a blade.
Arthur could train that out of him--given time and patience, and when it comes to this, to Merlin, Arthur has both of those and more; he could teach Merlin to carry his body like a weapon.
"Again," he says, ignoring the slight tremble of Merlin's leg, the way the sword dips slightly before he straightens. "Watch your left side. A shield is only as good as the man who wields it. And it can't protect you from every blow. Your first defence is not to be where the sword is."
"Brilliant," Morgana says acidly. "Useful, that." She concentrates on Merlin's left side, though, and Arthur bites his lip at the slide of the shield that Morgana doesn't take advantage of, how Merlin leaves his side open too often, stopping only when he stumbles and almost falls.
Merlin could have died thirty times while Arthur watched.
"Enough," Morgana says finally. Merlin shakes his head stubbornly, but he can't control the shaking of his hands and even shoving the tip of his sword into the ground can't hide that. "Let's get you back--"
Arthur looks at her. "I'll take him back."
Morgana frowns, looking at Merlin as if for *permission*, and worse, Merlin hesitates before he nods. Handing Gwen her sword, Morgana paces Merlin back to the log, hovering like a hen with one chick. "Arthur--"
"Stay here," Arthur tells Merlin firmly. From the way Merlin sighs, there's not much chance he's moving anytime soon. Following Morgana out of the clearing, Arthur looks back to see Gwen approach Merlin, crouching to reach for him, small fingers resting with casual ease on one thin shoulder, and makes himself look away.
When they're out of earshot, Morgana turns on him. "He'll be slaughtered."
Yes, that's not obvious, but thank you for that brilliant observation. The sky is also blue and my father is doing this because there's a *lesson* in it. "He's improving."
"It's not good enough." Pacing in a short circle, she looks at anything but him. "There's only one week more. It won't make a difference. Even a month wouldn't make a difference."
"What would you have me do?"
"Talk to Uther. Tell him--"
"My father is always open to rational conversation. I wish I'd thought of that."
Morgana blinks; it's fairly rare he surprises her, and he wishes he could enjoy it more. "Send him away--"
"Marvellous idea. Pustilius isn't known to carry grudges. I'm sure he won't send someone after Merlin to avenge that tattered rag he calls his honour."
Morgana catches her breath. "Why do we bear him here?"
"Because his father is too powerful. Father spared him because he preferred to keep bloodshed among the nobility at a minimum in hopes it would reconcile them to his rule." There's a lesson there, too, though Uther doesn't know it. The nobility is the source of their knights, and Uther's own law requires only their oath and their skill. Arthur won't make that mistake. The men he leads will belong to him and him alone, and that the nobility of Camelot will never truly be.
"So there's--" Morgana licks her lips, looking away. "What if you spoke to him?"
Arthur doesn't need to ask to know who she's referring to. Nor does he feel the need to answer.
She studies him, looking for hope, and he can see the moment she doesn’t find it. Lips pressed together, she turns away. Arthur follows her more slowly; she still carries a knife and just might try to use it.
When he arrives, Gwen has already gathered everything, sharing Merlin's log, mouth curled up in a fragile smile that almost hides her fear. Merlin's talking to Morgana, more animated than he's been since before that blasted Midsummer festival, bright and startlingly vivid.
Gwen leans her head on Merlin's shoulder, fingers resting on his wrist while Morgana laughs, steadying herself against his knee, and Arthur has to look away, unable to breathe.