Author's Note - Hey guys, I know I said I wouldn't be doing another chapter but I'm just doing one more and you can have Isis the Sphinx to thank for that as she came up with the great idea. Therefore, this chapter is dedicated to her.
Thanks for the reviews. More would be appreciated!
You wouldn't know pain if it hit you round the head. The sentiment still rang in his ears. Of course he knew pain, both physical and mental. All his life he'd battled with the injuries and ailments that came with being lower class. A peasant's life wasn't easy, far from it, and yet none of the gentry ever realised or perhaps never cared.
A peasant grappled with death as soon as they were born – infant mortality rates suggesting the outcomes of these battles were frequently one sided. A babe would get a cough or a rash and, a few days later that would be the end of them, a hole in the ground and a memory the only reminders. Families lost numerous children to fevers and infections. It was a common occurrence.
Injuries were easily sustained. That's what people couldn't understand, one could receive a particularly vicious kick from an angry horse or hundreds of small cuts and scratches from brambles that had to be trampled through in order to get to the crop fields or bruises from the hard day's labour in a blacksmith's or a carpenter's. Peasants tended to be a hardy lot because they had to be but it wasn't as if they enjoyed the harshness of the wind which whipped through their draughty hovels in winter giving them chills and frostbite or the bite from a stray dog which was attempting to steal what little food they possessed.
At least the rich had sustenance; the peasant folk had nothing to help them through their maladies and wounds. Food was a scarcity and therefore bodily defences were often lacking – immune systems weakened and useless. The germs that gathered through lack of hygiene and education; borne from uncooked meat that had been left to sit out but still had to be used and generally living in dirt and squalor; had no trouble penetrating vulnerable youngsters and elders.
Merlin certainly knew pain and hurt. He remembered the bruises and cuts he got from the village boys that would bully him. He remembered the infection of the lungs which had wracked his young body for weeks and nearly killed him. He remembered the ache in his back from working in the fields day after day.
It wasn't as if his pains ceased when he left and became a servant at Camelot. Although he'd initially thought that he would be better off, he had been sorely mistaken. Arthur may not be a violent master but he was definitely a rough person. Merlin had quickly learnt he channelled his emotions and feelings through physical contact. A friendly punch on the shoulder; an angry shove in the mud after Merlin had done something ridiculously stupid; to the prince it was all the same.
Not that all his mental and physical scars were down to Arthur – although those long faded welts on his biceps were caused by the prince and his mace on the first day they met – but he still had memories of the searing agony which had enveloped his gut when he had been poisoned. His back had never properly recovered from being through against that wall by Aulfric and he still had a knobble on his skull from being knocked unconscious by a set of bandits whilst on a hunt with his master.
Perhaps, his most significant wound was that to his chest when Nimueh burnt him with her magical fire. His skin had never recovered properly; it was still taut and often painful. But Merlin never complained, no matter how often Arthur smacked him there.
Knights weren't the only ones capable of hiding pain.
Unfortunately, Merlin seemed to be a lot clumsier than most servants and knights. Take today for instance, this morning he'd smashed a jug of water on his way to deliver breakfast to the prince and sliced his palm open. Then, because of his injury, he'd not been able to grip Arthur's shield very well so he'd dropped it….right on his foot. Initially, he'd felt certain he'd crushed it completely as those shields were damn heavy but fortunately, according to Gaius when he consulted him later, it was only a hairline fracture.
Arthur hadn't noticed then, all he'd cared about was the tiny gash on his head which Merlin accidently caused. All right, so it bled a lot but all head wounds did. Then he'd had the cheek to send him to the stocks even though he'd apologised. There, one of the peasant children thought it a good idea to lob an apple at his head from close range; Merlin had acquired another bruise for that. Then Arthur had thrown a boot at his nose which had stung a lot.
As if that wasn't enough, the manservant had then caught his foot in a rut – his hurt foot! – and obviously, with his rotten luck, knocked into Arthur. As if he wasn't in enough agony already, his master had seen fit to do that damn prodding thing and poke him in the chest, right on his burn. And then he'd said, 'you wouldn't know pain if it hit you round the head.' Bloody prat.
To be honest, this day had been truly terrible and Merlin had to finish it cleaning out chamber pots. Sometimes, he really hated Arthur.
Scrubbing viciously at the chinaware, the young man's forehead wrinkled in irritation and his light blue eyes narrowed. He was up to his elbows in crap and he felt sick and his arms ached – his bandage was now soiled and disgusting. Surely, he was going to catch something from sifting around in other people's excrement?
A strong whiff of ammonia reached Merlin's nostrils and he made a face, feeling himself gag. Arthur knew exactly how to pick the most unpleasant jobs for him.
The said man was currently lying on his bed, spread-eagled, staring at the ceiling. He had his shirt off and every time the servant looked up he could see his chest rising and falling rhythmically in the flickering candle light. Several of the prince's own scars could be seen on his shadowy skin.
"Stop sighing like a lovesick girl, Merlin." Arthur's voice was abrupt and loud in the silence which had been reigning in the room.
"I'm not lovesick."
"Oh, but you are a girl, are you?" Arthur sounded amused. Merlin cursed himself, why didn't he deny that too? There obviously was something wrong with him.
Tiredly, he asked, "When can I stop cleaning this?"
"When it's clean, Merlin," the prince said with a note of exasperation in his voice. "I now understand why whenever I get my boots back they still have a layer of dirt on them and my chainmail has grit in the rings. Do you just assume it's clean and then move on to ruin the next perfectly good piece of equipment?"
"I clean things!" Merlin replied, indignantly.
"Now, you know that's debatable," Arthur smirked, still staring at the ceiling.
"You're never happy," the younger man exclaimed, annoyed. He threw his sponge down into the bucket of filthy water and found he didn't even care when several droplets splattered out onto the floor.
"You know, you're going to mop that up," the prince stated, matter-of-factly.
Merlin did a double take. "How did you even see that?"
"I heard it. Now, are you going to continue?"
"No, I've had enough."
The young man stood up abruptly, wincing as his knees cracked and he put weight on his injured foot. Once up, he brushed his grubby hands on his even grubbier trousers and then ran his fingers through his hair, rumpling it. He knew he would need a wash when he returned to his bedroom but right now he didn't care; he felt exhausted and more than a little irritated.
"Merlin, what are you talking about?" Finally, Arthur sat up on his bed and offered his friend a frown of confusion.
"I'm not going to clean this any more, in fact, I'm not going to clean anything until you start appreciating what I do for you because I work hard, Arthur, bloody hard and you just ignore my efforts and ridicule me. I've had enough. Until you start respecting me, this…." Merlin made a cutting motion with his hand; his eyes alight with anger, "…is over."
Arthur actually laughed out loud, snorting loudly and incredulously. "You make us sound like a married couple! Stop being so ridiculous, Merlin, how can I respect you when you act like such a girl?!" His face was creased with amusement.
Merlin's expression fell. "That's my point," he said, quietly.
And with that, he left the room, slamming the door behind him.
Arthur stared after him with an expression of disbelief on his handsome features. Why was his manservant acting like such a hormonal girl? He reminded Arthur of Morgana when it was her time of the month: argumentative and very highly strung. Not that she wasn't that already. But Merlin, he was usually so good-natured and happy, he may tease and mock and talk back but Arthur knew it was all in good humour. Where had his eternally optimistic, enthusiastic servant gone? If anything, the prince was the one who should be slamming doors and being moody, not Merlin. He couldn't understand what he had to be upset about, surely, it was his job to clean things or had Arthur misread a servant's job description?
Still, he may be now quite perplexed and annoyed by his servant's overreaction but he knew that he would have to go after him. Groaning, he hauled himself off the bed and cursed as his swollen ankle was buffeted by the flagstone floor. He let out a hiss of pain and bit his lip. Hobbling over to the door, he almost left before realising he hadn't got a shirt on so he had to turn back. Once he was decent, he set off down the corridor, making a note to remind his friend that he wasn't really in any condition to go gallivanting off across the castle for a hormonal manservant.
Merlin was sitting in Gaius' chambers, carefully removing his bandage in order to apply a new one and check that his wound was not infected. Fortunately, the cut was clean and all he had to do was add a bit of pain relieving salve beneath the rough material of the bandage before tying it tightly. His expression was one of utmost concentration as he tried to focus on the injury rather than his steaming anger. The darkness of his eyes had still not subsided because of his fury. He toyed with his lip as he worked.
Why did he have to work for such an ass?
And why did that ass have to be the one he needed to protect in order to fulfil his destiny? It was as if the gods were enjoying playing with him and taunting him. Life certainly wasn't fair, he was just a peasant boy, why should he be burdened with such a thankless task? His mind was wandering back to his irritation with his master, he just couldn't stop it. It reminded him of when he had snapped at Gaius, perhaps, that had been a precursor of this. There was no doubt that he had to break at some point and this was it. Arthur would either have to take him or leave him.
Even as he thought that, Merlin knew it wasn't true, whatever his master said or did, he was still his friend and, as much as he hated to admit it, Merlin still wanted to protect him. It wasn't so much of a formality, he wasn't being coerced into it by a great big, scaly dragon, he really wanted to look out for Arthur. And, he also knew, that as much as Arthur would be loathe to admit it, he did care about his clumsy servant. He may have to put up with years of Merlin's lumbering, ham-fisted ways but he would stick by, wouldn't he? He needed the prince himself to confirm that.
As if on cue, he heard the door of the physician's chambers bang, loudly, open. He and Arthur seemed to have an unwritten code of not knocking now. Admittedly, it made sense if there was an emergency as it saved a lot of time. However, in this instance, Merlin was irked.
"You know, it's sort of against the etiquette for a servant to make demands of his master. Technically, I could tell my father..." Arthur barrelled into the room with amusement lacing his voice. However, there was a note of serious presence also.
"I think there are worse things you could tell your father about me," Merlin muttered, darkly.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Why are you here? I thought I'd already made my 'demands' perfectly clear," he stated, sourly.
"God, Merlin, stop being such a difficult wretch. Your face is ugly enough without adding that scowl to it."
"Is this your way of apologising because, to be honest, it's awful." As Merlin said this, he began clearing away the pots and jars which he'd used to treat his wound; he gathered up the rough cloth bandage which was left over and placed it in a drawer. Then, he climbed to his feet and began hobbling around the chambers, searching for something to eat because he was starving and his stomach was grumbling, unpleasantly.
"I thought I was doing quite well," Arthur smirked as he watched his servant but his expression fell a moment later. "What's wrong with your foot?" There was a touch of concern in his voice.
Merlin found a hunk of bread and popped it in his mouth, feeling the dry, scratchiness make its way down his throat. "Dropped a shield on it, remember?"
"That was your own fault," Arthur retorted and then, more kindly, "Is it bad?"
"It's actually gone black," the man replied, casually, as he helped himself to a pot of what seemed to be left-over stew. He was worried for a second because it could be one of Gaius' pickled concoctions but then he vaguely recognised a carrot and tucked in.
"Black? Seriously?" Arthur's eyes widened in surprise, then he looked at his servant disbelievingly, he had to be jesting. "Let me see, then."
"I don't even know why I'm asking you; I can make you."
"What? Are you going to order me to take off my boot?" Merlin scoffed, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course not," Arthur grinned, "I'm going to physically force you." Quick as a flash, the knight was across the room and before the young manservant could blink, he felt his feet being knocked out from beneath him. Feeling like he was falling, the boy windmilled his arms, wildly, and let out a surprised yelp. He clutched at Arthur's back, scrabbling at the smooth material of his night shirt. The bread which had been his mouth suddenly caught in his throat and stuck - fast. He began coughing and spluttering, his eyes watering profusely. He couldn't breathe.
Slamming a desperate hand on Arthur's back, Merlin tried to show him his predicament.
"Aha! The boot is off!" the prince cheered himself and held the said item up in his hand, victoriously. That's when he noticed his friend's paling face and his flailing arms that were grasping at his throat. Great coughs wracked his slender frame. "For crying out loud, Merlin!"
Lurching behind his friend, the prince whacked Merlin on the back, several times, hard enough to leave a bruise that would be visible next morning. On the third blow, in fact, he nearly sent the raven haired man flying across the room. But, with that almighty thump, the thick lump of bread was dislodged and spewed out of Merlin's open mouth. After a few more dry wretches, he seemed to have mostly recovered.
"What the hell, Merlin? Can you not do anything without harming yourself or others?" Arthur admonished, "I can hardly ban you from eating can I but it looks like it would be the safer option!"
"You surprised me," the servant wheezed, irritated. His blue eyes were still shining with unshed tears.
"Oh, so its my fault now, is it?"
"Definitely." A small smile left Merlin's lips.
"Ah, so it takes a near death experience to make you smile again," Arthur noticed, "You are a strange one, Merlin."
"You're strange," Merlin retorted, feebly.
"That is, perhaps, the worst comeback in the history of comebacks but I'll forgive you if you forgive me for being such a...."
"You couldn't bring yourself to say it, could you?" Merlin chuckled, amused.
"No," Arthur shook his head, contritely.
"Alright, I'll forgive you but only if you don't make me clean the chamber pots ever again."
"Fine, if it stops you flouncing around like a girl, then so be it."
"I'm not a girl!"
"Can I see your foot, now?"