Title: Whipping Boy
Character/Pairing: young!Arthur, young!Merlin (gen)
Author's note: comment_fic Merlin/Arthur, whipping boy. In the end I didn't specify their ages, but I started out thinking them about 10, and they gradually evolved to about 12-13. It verges on preslash at times. This was rather unintended, but I'm going to roll with it.
Merlin loved coming to Camelot. It was such a big castle, with much activity, the handmaidens drawing water, the blacksmiths smelting and the bawdy poetry told by bards over a bit of ale.
It was a far cry from the country live he'd led, where he'd had to milk goats and keep the chickens.
As Gaius' apprentice Merlin would get to see deep into the castle and do all sorts of important things. Gaius would trust him with notes scribbled with ingredients for all sorts of essential medicine and here he was, former barn boy, working to save the king. Even if it was from a case of embarrassing gas from a possibly vindictive cook, he still felt like a hero.
And then, that all changed when he was chosen. Chosen right out of a group to be the prince's. It was like a dream come true, because he'd be working with the boy who would become king someday. Of course, the few times he'd met Prince Arthur he hadn't seemed very nice, but Merlin was sure that he was just on a bad day. Prince Arthur did have ever so many lessons to do and that much schoolwork could make even the most jovial person cranky.
Merlin was a bit disappointed that there was no official ceremony like knighting, but he was very proud all the same. In fact, he wrote his mother that very day. Merlin was very proud of his penmanship, why, little Eldrich the pigkeeper's son couldn't even read, let alone write. His mum had been ever so happy and often said that he'd become a right famous scholar or scribe (or even both) like Sir Geoffrey of something – whose full name Merlin could never remember.
Gaius, however, was far less enthused about the appointment. Merlin thought it must be that he'd miss him as his apprentice. He was in far too good spirits to let Gaius' somber mood affect him, a mood which was more fit for a funeral than a promotion to work with the Prince himself.
Before this he'd only seen Prince Arthur from afar. The Prince was tall for his age, and a whole head higher than Merlin. He was a great fighter already, though a single loss or bad swing would make him withdrawn, brooding and likely to strike out at anyone. Today, in fact, was just one such day. Arthur came up and looked at Merlin a long time, suspiciously, as if Merlin were some kind of spy. Merlin smiled hopefully. Arthur didn't smile back.
"Carry my things," Prince Arthur said.
"Yes sir. I'll get to it right away now, sir."
"That's Prince to you, And don't talk so much," Prince Arthur said sullenly.
"Alright...Prince sir," Merlin said.
He gathered up sword which the prince had left for him. It was heavy, almost impossibly heavy for Arthur's size. Apparently, the king believed that Arthur needed to build up his muscles fast.
Merlin bent under the weight of the sword.
"Wait for me, Prince Arthur!"
He stumbled behind his Prince, happy despite all the work. He was chosen. Special, really. Out of all the boys to serve the Prince, he was the one they wanted. It gave him a a warm feeling in his chest, and made him especially lenient and prone to explaining away Prince Arthur's behavior. He was sullen because the King had been cross with him. He was moody because the other knights were behaving so poorly, because the day was cloudy when it should be sunny.
Merlin never laid the blame directly at the Prince's feet, for he felt almost protective of him in that respect. Merlin worked for him, and thus it followed that he should know the Prince better than anyone else.
Of course, he had only been there all of a week, but Merlin liked to think he had his mum's good sense about people. He had thought that Gaius would be nice when all the village boys were going on about how he'd be a warlock who preyed on young boys. Merlin had persisted, and found that just as he thought, Gaius was a mild-mannered man of science, and not evil or prone to eating little boys.
Merlin sat at the servants table, but he was just close enough to see all the finery of the main, royal table. The tablecloth was purple, a careless use for a color relegated to the nobles alone. They drank out of gold and silver goblets, when he drank out of a cup of tin. Merlin wasn't jealous, really. But he couldn't help admitting to himself that it was very glamorous, being a prince and raised as a knight. Not that he wanted to be one himself, but anyone could enjoy the song of a bard even if they didn't want to go fight dragons, couldn't they?
Merlin rested his chin on his hand and watched. Oh, his mum always said to never rest his elbows on the table, but no one at the servants table minded. They all ate with their hands here and laughed at the nobles with their soup spoons and salad forks. Of course, they never joked loud enough for any of said nobles to hear them. And there was rarely a traitor to the nobles side here, for anyone who did would be shunned so completely that if they were drowning, even a priest would let them sink, if they weren't in the pocket of the royal families.
Something happened on the other side, some ignored command that caught Merlin's eye. The voices were loud enough to hear, even from this far off place. Next to him the servants ceased their noisy eating and paid close attention to the scene at hand.
"No," Prince Arthur said. He had looked especially cross all day. Merlin felt sorry for him. The King had criticized his swordplay, and that was enough to make his whole week bleak, something that everyone around him would be feeling too.
"I will not have you defying me. Bring out the boy."
A royal knight stood up and came to the servant's table.
Merlin smiled nervously when he was summoned. His very first big job and he was already being summoned by the king! He bowed hastily, and tried to remember the bowing rules. Each step up in royalty got a deeper bow, though if he got on his knees he'd take an awful long time getting back up, and it'd probably be an embarrassment.
"Yes, Ki-King Uther?"
Merlin cursed himself inwardly for that stammer. It was just, the king was so frightening and bad tempered, most everyone but Gaius was at least a little afraid of him.
One of the schoolmarms, a sour looking man with stringy hair pulled up his shirt.
"Er– excuse me, I need that," Merlin protested. "I really need that, please don't take it away, oh!"
"Ten cracks for defiance. Watch well, son. This is what you have wrought."
Merlin screamed when the belt hit his flesh. It was so sudden and sharp that it took the breath out of him. Even as it counted down, the ninth crack, the eighth the shock didn't really lessen. Each time hurt even more as his skin turned raw and bloodied from the attack.
Merlin stared at Prince Arthur the whole time the awful beating was happening. He kept looking for a cringe, for a sympathetic glance, but the prince's eyes were blank and unreadable. He kept hoping to see something – a sign that the boy he served felt some sort of remorse, or horror at what was happening. He had a fleeting hope with each hit that Prince Arthur would call them off, apologize and make this torture end. But he just stood there stony and silent. All those visions he'd built about the boy he served crashed into the nothingness that was reality. He didn't know Prince Arthur at all.
Gaius attended to his wounds. He applied a thick colorless and smelly cream to his back. It stung, though Gaius assured him that it'd work well. Merlin laid on his stomach and cried. They were quiet tears now, without the great gasping sobs during the actual beating. This hurt even worse than that one horrible sunburn he'd gotten two summers ago. And that was saying something, considering how his skin peeled and how he could hardly bare to wear shirts for days with the way they rubbed on him. This was a whole new sort of pain, as it was unjust, and it smarted all the more for his innocence in the matter. He had done his chores up perfectly just like they told him to. He still couldn't quite fathom why he'd been beaten for someone else's mistake.
"Are you feeling any better?" Gaius said.
Merlin sniffled. "A little. I guess."
"Good. This should make it heal fast, though there's no telling if they reopen the wounds...."
"This...This will happen again?" Merlin said in a very small voice.
"This will happen most every day. It has become your life," Gaius said solemnly. "That is what a whipping boy is for. Royalty can't be beaten, it's against the law. That is why there are whipping boys."
"Can't I quit? I didn't know they'd be beating me!"
"You were appointed by the King and only he, or the Prince could take that away. Besides, being turned aside now would bring disgrace upon your family," Gaius said.
"I don't want to make mum unhappy with me..." Merlin said. He sniffled again and wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve. Gaius handed him a handkerchief, and patted his head patted his head.
"I wanted to protect you from this, but my attempt to sway the King was for nought. For that, I am sorry."
It was only now that he understood what the word whipping boy really meant. What he had thought some obscure term was in fact exactly what it sounded like. Every time Prince Arthur was bad, he was the one who would pay for it. Maybe with a more sympathetic prince, this might have worked, but Arthur's expression hadn't even changed. He didn't look like he cared in the least bit if Merlin got beat, worst of all Merlin thought he might be the type who purposefully did naughty things to get him beaten.
And suddenly the job didn't seem so glamourous, and Merlin felt he would rather be a poor, smelly pigkeeper than live as a whipping boy. Because in the end, no one really respected him. Oh, they might pretend to be happy for him, but they merely pitied his fate and his naivete. His whole existence was right up there in prestige with royal chamber pot emptier.
"Can I be sick today?"
"Yes, Merlin. You can be sick today."
Merlin laid his head down on the pillow. He was cold, but pulling up the blanket hurt too much.
His back was all bandaged and salved to keep his wounds from reopening. Instead of being proud, Merlin felt distinctly pessimistic about his job future. Maybe he'd act out in small ways. Not something so drastic as spitting in food like he'd heard before and was utterly shocked by (though now he had some understanding and even sympathy).
"Yes, Prince sir," Merlin said. His voice had a huskier tinge to it from all the sobbing he'd been doing as of late.
"Cut that out. Either 'My lord' or 'Prince Arthur' all those titles make you sound like a pigkeeper's son and not my servant."
"Yes...milord," Merlin said, his voice growing soft.
"That's better," Arthur said. "Now get going. I need my things for tonight. Shine this."
He dropped a shield to the ground. Merlin looked at him a long moment and then bent to pick it up. He looked up at Arthur in a way that was both partly wary, of one that had been burned, and slightly defiant.
"Don't tell me you're still sore about what happened before," Arthur said.
"Still sore?" Merlin said incredulously, "I was beaten for you! I didn't do anything wrong! I am going to have to spend every day cleaning after your messes and then getting beaten for you and you don't even care! I believed in you," Merlin said, now choking back a sob. "I thought you were strong and that you'd make a good king, but what do you care? I'm just your whipping boy. So yes, I am sore. My back is bleeding and right now I'd rather be a pigkeeper than anywhere near you."
Merlin sniffled. It ruined the strength of the moment. Oh well, with a talk like this he was bound to be beaten soon.
"Really, you think I'm that petty? That as the next king of Camelot I've got nothing better to do than get you in trouble? That's a schoolboy's game. I am above such things," Arthur said.
Merlin didn't look away. He wanted to hang his head, but resisted the impulse. His lower lip quivered. Such a speech didn't make his back hurt any less.
"I didn't know it would turn out like that," Prince Arthur muttered. "I'm not made of stone."
Arthur sounded much older than his years. A little of the image Merlin had of him returned. He might have not been perfect, but he wasn't a monster either. Just a boy with too much responsibility on his shoulders, and with King Uther for a father.
Merlin bit his lip to stop the shaking. It wasn't a promise that he'd never get beaten for Prince Arthur's sake again, but at least he now knew that the boy he served wasn't needlessly cruel. He wouldn't make a scene just to get Merlin in trouble. And for that Merlin wouldn't put briars in his bed. His shirt, however, was fair game.
"I hope your wounds have healed up... I wouldn't want them getting in the way of your work as I've got a match tonight."
And it wasn't anything, really. No promises, no stripping of his title or setting him free, but it was a start. Merlin's first impression wasn't so far fetched after all.