Arthur had been an absolute bear for the last fortnight. As the crown prince had recently come of age, it was his duty to oversee Camelot's jousting tournament this year. There would be knights and nobility coming from near and far. In addition to his own practice and that of his knights, Arthur was responsible for everything from arranging rooms and servants for the out-of-town guests to arranging banquets and hunts. Who was coming, from where, who could be sat next to whom, whose rooms needed to be as far apart as possible. Meats, wines, linens, baths, audiences with the king, the jousting schedule, hiring extra grooms and blacksmiths, vetting vendors and on and on it went!
Not only was Arthur tense as a ligament, he was starting to have trouble sleeping. He hadn't even had time to eat properly—in spite of Merlin's attempts at mothering, bossing, and finally begging Arthur to look after himself. If Arthur was waning, then Merlin was ten times so and very nearly done for. Even with sneaking a bit of magical help with his chores, Merlin was sleeping for only a few hours each night and found himself too worried about Arthur's appetite to have one of his own. Merlin was worn to the nub, tired, thin and cold. Though Gaius had told him he wasn't actually cold, he had a touch of a fever. Didn't matter, no time for that!
In his current state, no other servant could stand to be around Arthur, even Morgana and Gaius avoided the irritable prince whenever they could. Only Merlin hung on. In addition to his own duties (which seemed to have easily tripled) Merlin was serving as a go between, seemingly having to deliver every message others had on to Arthur. He bore the brunt of Arthur's anger and bitterness every time he passed a message Arthur didn't like—which seemed to be every time he opened his gob. It was getting worse by the moment and that was how the day started.
Merlin spoke quickly as he laid out Arthur's breakfast. He'd gone out of his way to find some honey in the hopes that he could at least get Arthur to eat a bun. "Hettie, from the kitchen, wanted me to tell you that the castle only has 75 sets of matching cutlery and you have invited 80 people to the closing banquet…"
Arthur's angry voice bellowed from behind his bed curtains, he'd obviously been awake when Merlin came in. "Damn it all Merlin! Can't you knock for bloody once! And tell bloody Hettie to borrow the fucking silverware from her fly-bitten-rabbit-sucking neighbour for all I care!" Arthur was hollering full out by the end and Merlin could tell just by sounds that his face would be red as a tomato.
"Slept well then I assume Arthur?" Merlin teased gently as he pulled back to curtains only to be greeted by Arthur's angry face. "Oh fuck off Merlin!"
The venom in Arthur's tone stung a bit, but Merlin let it pass over him knowing that Arthur was under a lot of pressure. "Only four more days Arthur and this will all be over." Merlin's smile crept into his voice "You'll be able to stay in bed all day and I'll bring up as many kitchen-treats as you can manage! We'll make Hettie earn her keep."
Arthur almost smiled as he pulled himself out of bed and plopped himself by the meal tray. "Alrighty then Arthur, you need to start with something to eat. I dare say you might be in better temper…" Arthur looked at the honey-smeared bun as though it was covered in sparrow droppings.
Arthur pulled a face and groaned "Gods, I can't" pushing the tray away.
"Ummmm…" Merlin really had no desire to further inflame Arthur this morning but didn't see a way around it. He spoke as he picked out Arthur's clothes for the day, head peaking out from around the wardrobe doors "Count Owens, from the northernmost town arrived this morning…"
"For god's sake!" Arthur slammed his fist down. "Owens sent word he wasn't coming!"
"Yes sire." Merlin tucked his head back behind the wardrobe and winced as he spoke…"He has been asking where to house his stallion…"
Arthur rounded on Merlin again "Well Merlin…you tell me! There are no more stables! No more grooms! No more straw!" As Arthur took a breath to go on Merlin interrupted.
"At the back sire…"
"At the back of the stables, there's a small room where the ferrier has his tools. We could put Count Owens horse there…"
Arthur huffed but appeared to be considering it "No. He'd get all hot under the collar if his precious beast was in that musty old stall. Move my horse there; and muck out the stall where you've got Master Fillament's horse. Owens' horse can go in Fillament's stall and Fillament's can go in mine. Don't just stand there Merlin, move your insolent arse, I've about a hundred other things for you!"
Merlin stood where he was, looking uncomfortable, head cocked to the side "No."
"No. No?" Arthur growled as he stalked up into his manservant's personal space "No?"
"Umm…that's right sire. Unless you eat that blasted bun, I'm not going anywhere. You can throw me in the stocks I suppose but then you'd have to see to all those hundred details on your own…"
For a moment, Merlin thought Arthur might just haul off and slug him. Truthfully, it was close. "Fine!" Arthur stomped to the tray and shoved half the bun in his mouth "happy Merlin?!" he grunted around the bread.
Merlin gave a little smile as he turned to head off to the stables "Thrilled…"
Despite the unseasonable cold, Merlin was sweating like a hard-run horse by the time he'd gotten half way through mucking out Master Fillament's assigned stall. The evil-tempered horse's efforts to stamp Merlin's feet didn't help matters much. Perhaps he did have a fever. Merlin had worked himself into the back corner when he heard Arthur blustering and fretting his way through the stables. All he heard were bits and snatches "flea-bitten", "maggoty", "useless" and finally "Merlin!" as he spotted Merlin at the back of the stall, horse stamping testily around him. In spectacularly poor judgement, Arthur shoved past the jittery animal and set about yelling at Merlin. "I said put Owens' horse in Master Catmint's stall!!"
"No Arthur, you said Fillament's stall…"
"Well if you weren't so bloody lazy and mentally-deficient you would have put your brain to some use and realized that I couldn't very well have meant Filliment's stall! Right?! Right?! Do I have to do all the thinking?!!"
Merlin anxiously eyed the big stallion who was pressing to get out and pawing angrily at the ground. "Simmer down Arthur..." Merlin spoke in a calming tone, trying to avoid stirring the horse up any farther.
"Simmer down?!" Arthur shouted, he was so angry he was seeing red. He grabbed a bridle and bit hanging on a nail and threw it with all his might into the other corner. The mess came down with a great and satisfying racket. Not a second later, the horse let out an angry screech. Temper tantrum over, Arthur turned slowly back towards the horse just in time to see its front feet brace on the ground and the back two coil to kick.
Merlin knew that he was in no shape to use magic on an unpredictable animal in such confined quarters. Especially with Arthur standing frozen in place. He would never, could never endanger his friend like that. With no time for thought Merlin took one giant stride and was in front of his master
"Arthur! Down!" Merlin had time to yelp just as the animal let go and violently kicked out.
The horse's left hoof swished passed them and splintered into the boards. The right smashed into Merlin's frail chest with such force that both boys were thrown back. Deep beneath Camelot, the dragon roared out his disbelief.
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