Merlin watches the sun peak over the horizon, the way the dusty red and orange light creeps across the floor in slow rolls. His eyes are heavy with a sleep he couldn't manage, and his heart is a frightening calm in his chest, if only for the fact that it must have tired itself hours ago. He can barely feel it beat now; he wonders if maybe it will just stop altogether.
The floorboards creak in the main room, soft and reassuring as Gaius moves around his workroom to prepare for the day. It's so familiar and mundane that Merlin feels himself cracking a smile, like the world isn't about to be pulled out from under his feet.
"Merlin?" Gaius' tired voice drifts through the thin wood of his door. "It's time for work." His voice breaks at the end and Merlin winces at the sound, guilty.
"I'm awake," he calls out, voice hoarse as the words stick in his throat.
The corridors are quiet as Merlin makes his way across the front of the castle, but perhaps he is just deaf beyond the blood rushing in his ears. As he walks along the cold, stone halls, he makes a point to observe the people he passes. A few of them are castle guards, looking stoic and forbidding with their helmets gleaming in the morning sun, and their tunics the color of fresh-spilled blood. Another is a woman courtier, regal and stunning in a gown made of fine silk and a string of precious jewels adorning her neck, spine straight as a board despite her tall shoes. The next is a young maid hefting a heavily-laden basket of linens; her dress is a tattered array of rags that leaves no room for maidenly modesty, and a bruise gleams purple and ugly high on her cheekbone. Sickened, Merlin looks at his feet for the rest of his journey.
When he finally reaches the prince's chambers, he has to pause to take a steadying breath before he pushes inside. Prince Arthur is sitting up in bed with his hair disheveled and a displeased frown twisted across his lips. "Do you always barge into rooms without knocking?" he asks. Adds, "you're late."
"Sorry," Merlin replies, sounding anything but. He tacks on as an afterthought, "sire," and his voice is thick with treasonous sarcasm.
Arthur's expression is much the same as it was when they first met; a sort of wary humor, as if he's not sure whether to be amused or irritated by Merlin's insolence. Seeing it makes some of the tension in Merlin's chest slowly start to uncurl from the tight knot it's been in for the last three days. After all the horror stories he has heard whispered hastily around the lower town, this is not what he expected on his first day as the prince's manservant.
Arthur pulls himself out of bed to stand in front of the window, arm pressed against the cool stone ledge. His new position affords Merlin an unhindered view of his bare, tanned back, and Merlin has to remind himself to look away from the way Arthur's shoulders go tight with each tiny move he makes.
"You are to dress me and fetch my breakfast," Arthur tells him imperiously. "After, I have training until late afternoon. You will use that time to prepare yourself for service and clean my chambers."
Merlin gives a slow blink and asks, unsteadily, "prepare myself?"
The tension creeping into Arthur's back is noticeable only by the way the shadows dip each time his muscles go taut. "You must pack away your possessions," Arthur says quietly. His voice sounds... off, somehow—nothing like the arrogant boy Merlin has seen so far, but Merlin can't identify what emotion is clouding over his words. "You may leave them with Gaius, if you wish; he will look after them, I'm sure. Those clothes will not be acceptable for you to wear now. There is spare clothing down in the servants quarters, on the ground level of the castle. I expect you to be changed and ready to attend to me at supper tonight." He pushes away from the wall and looks Merlin directly in the eye as he says, "A cot will be placed in the antechamber later this evening. You will be expected to sleep there for the duration of your servitude."
"And how long is that, exactly?" Merlin asks hesitantly. He's not sure he wants to know the answer. "The duration of my... servitude, I mean."
"Until the day you die."
"You are to be Prince Arthur's manservant."
The words ring through Merlin's mind as he strips away his clothes in the abandoned servants' quarters. A young handmaid left a box for the clothes on the bed closest to him and he is left with the knowledge that these are his last possessions in the world; and he must lock them up with the rest of his things, never to be seen again. He doesn't feel human anymore. There is nothing left for him but the coarse, torn, white tunic and breeches that he's seen on countless servants of Camelot.
Out of some small act of rebellion, he keeps his red neckerchief securely tied around his throat. It serves as a reminder that he's a person, capable of free will and thought, even if it is something as trivial as a scrap of cloth.
Before he leaves the dingy room, he stops to look at his reflection in the tall looking-glass perched on the wall. He doesn't recognize himself in the servant rags, hanging tattered and loose from his skinny form (he thinks he sees a splotch of blood stained into the back of his tunic, but that's not a thought he wants to ponder too deeply.)
"You are to be Prince Arthur's manservant."
Arthur rolls his eyes and tugs vindictively at the loosely-hanging neckerchief. "This is not part of the servants' attire, if my memory serves me correctly."
Merlin shrugs without looking up from the jacket button he's fighting with.
"Just." Arthur sighs, put-upon. "Just make sure you don't wear it outside of my chambers. Understood?"
"Yes, sire." Merlin manages to sound slightly more humble as the honorific slips passed his lips. Slightly.
Everything is different now. He can no longer walk through the corridors in oblivious happiness, just enjoying the sun streaming through the windows and the faces of the people he passes on his errands for Gaius. The formerly friendly faces are twisted with disdain and revulsion as they take in his white clothes—the proof that he is worthless, that he is less of a man than even the lowest peasants. They sneer and call out names that make Merlin burn with shame and anger; they jostle his ribs with shoulders and elbows; they bark out curses when he is bold enough to meet their eyes.
When he sees Gaius, he can no longer pull the physician into a hug and feel the comfort of the man who is so like the father he never had. He must keep his head down and walk by his mentor like he doesn't exist, and it tears at Merlin's insides.
"You have assaulted the crowned prince of Camelot. This is your punishment."
Merlin wonders if there will be disappointment on Gaius' face if he were ever to works up the courage to look in his eyes. He wonders if he truly wants to know.
By the end of his second week, Merlin feels he has fallen into a fragile routine. It is still brutal and he wishes for nothing more than to go back to Ealdor to hide his face in the crook of his mother's neck and sob. He thinks that maybe he could run away—sneak from Arthur's chambers in the middle of the night and just run, run, run until his legs give out with exhaustion. Fate would be on his side if he would choose to do so, because he may not have had a magic book in his possession for long, but his magic's natural instincts are likely to see him safely from Camelot.
When he thinks to try, his eyes are always drawn inexplicably to Arthur's sleeping form, and Merlin almost pulls the covers closer around his body each time. He doesn't know why.
"I'm so sorry, my lady," Merlin says hastily. He's horrified by his own clumsiness and he holds out a hand to the noblewoman sprawled across the floor in an undignified heap. "I didn't see you."
The woman shrieks with outrage and slaps Merlin on his offered hand. "Do not touch me, you animal," she yells and gathers her dress around her ankles as she struggles to her feet. "I should have you hanged!"
"Lady Elanor," a confident, prim voice echoes along the corridor behind them, and they both turn to watch the Lady Morgana, Gwen not two steps behind her, approach with a face so schooled in cold pleasantry that it makes Merlin shudder. "Is there a problem?"
"Yes," Lady Elanor cries mournfully. She smooths down the front of her dress as she adds, "This bumbling fool has soiled my best gown."
Morgana's attention is drawn to Merlin and the servant feels an urge to run and hide as her cool gaze runs along the length of him. He remembers the first time he met Gwen; the way she gushed about her lovely, kind mistress. This woman seems nothing like the fair soul Gwen made her out to be. "What is your name?" she asks.
"Merlin, my lady," he answers with a small bow of his head.
"Well, Merlin, I should thank you," she says, with the slightest of smiles. "A fair helping of dirt can only improve that foul excuse for a gown." To a gobsmacked Elanor, she adds, "Such vile behavior is completely unbecoming. I'm appalled that you have the honor of calling yourself a lady."
As the women stride past Merlin, Gwen gives him a faint grin that Merlin can't help but return.
"My stables need mucked out," Arthur says absently as he picks over his lunch. "And my armor and sword need polished for the tournament tomorrow."
Merlin glances up from the floor he is scrubbing and asks, "Tournament?"
Arthur gives him a disdainful look that doesn't hold nearly as much malice as Arthur undoubtedly wants it to. "Do you ever listen to a word I say?" Arthur demands. In a fit of petulance that is not entirely befitting of a prince, he throws a chunk of bread at Merlin's head.
"Not usually, no," Merlin says with a cheeky smile. It's an expression that he rarely finds cause to wear outside of Arthur's chambers, makes him feel a bit more like a man and less of the animal he's accused of being.
"How can someone so innocent-looking be such a brat?" Arthur wonders. He gives a dramatic sigh and drains his goblet in one drink.
"I can assure you, I am far from innocent," Merlin intones. The effect is rather ruined by the smile that is still gracing his lips, but it still earns him a small chuckle from Arthur. "I am a force to be reckoned with."
Arthur snorts loudly. "You couldn't best a man if he had been knocked unconscious beforehand."
"Oi!" Merlin protests. "I managed to hit you, didn't I?" The moment the words hit the air, a tense silence descends on the room. Merlin goes back to studiously scrubbing the stones as he finds himself unable to speak around the lump lodged in his throat.
"Yes, well," Arthur says after a lengthy pause. "Look where that got you. Besides, it was a stroke of luck. I was taking it easy on you; I was worried I would inflict more brain damage upon you than you already had."
Merlin finds himself laughing despite himself. "Of course you were, sire."
Merlin flexes his hands experimentally in the ropes that bind them together. The coarse fibers bite into the tender skin, and he feels himself wince as he is forced onto his knees and elbows in front of a courtyard full of onlookers. He sees Gaius amongst the sea of faces, and Merlin feels shamed at the look of devastation on the older man's face.
He can't seem to stop letting down the ones he loves.
"Thirty lashes," Uther's voice drips from the balcony like poison. He may as well have said "death," for Merlin knows that is what will come of this. No one can survive thirty lashes, and he only hopes he will be forced unconscious before the pain becomes more than he can take.
A second voice screams, "No!" and Merlin can instantly identify it as Arthur. "Stop this. He will die!"
"Don't," Merlin wants to say. "Don't worry about me; I'm just a servant."
"Merlin!" Arthur cries out. "Merlin, wake up!"
And he does.
He's back in Arthur's antechamber, sweat trailing along his body in droplets that gleam in the moonlight. The dream is still a bad taste in the back of his throat, and it takes him a long moment to notice Arthur hovering over him, face unreadable as his hands grip Merlin's biceps. "It was just a dream," Arthur says quietly. "Calm down."
Merlin's fingers tremble as they come to rest on Arthur's hands, holding them in place. "It wasn't," he says in a shaky breath. "It was real. It felt real."
"It was just a dream," Arthur repeats. He pulls his hands from Merlin's almost reluctantly.
Merlin leans the bulky basket of linens against one hip as he tries to open Arthur's door without spilling the sheets across the floor. He doubts the laundresses will be pleased is he takes them back for a rewashing only minutes after picking them up. Raised voices from Arthur's rooms make him pause with his fingers clenched round the door handle, completely still for a long moment as the voices turn to yelling and he can make out the muffled words.
"You have to put an end to this," a female voice says heatedly. The Lady Morgana, Merlin thinks, recalling the strong voice from his encounter with her only days before. "It's utter madness; Gwen has been my maid for years. He can't just take her away!"
"He can and he might," Arthur replies. "There is nothing I can do. You know what he's like when he feels his authority is coming into question."
"Why?" Morgana demands unkindly. "Because I refuse to see the servants as some kind of animals? They're human, Arthur; it's absolutely disgusting the way they are treated."
"The laws are set," Arthur says. "You defended a servant against a noblewoman. That does not sit well with the king."
"That horrible Lady Elanor?" Morgana practically spits the name. "She is completely detestable. You should hear the way she speaks to people!"
"Even so," Arthur answers, resigned. "If she went to my father, I fear there is no chance of reasoning with him."
"He can't take her away," Morgana repeats, flings open the door, and barrels past Merlin with hardly a glance in his direction, tears starting to pool in her eyes.
Merlin feels the bottom drop from his stomach with guilt.
"The king won't really take Gwen from the Lady Morgana, will he?" Merlin asks later in the evening, when Arthur has calmed down somewhat from his stepsister's visit.
Arthur spares him a glance from the corner of his eye. "Eavesdropping again, were we?" he demands, but it lacks the usual heat.
Merlin has the decency to look abashed. "Sorry," he mutters. Then, "Will he?"
"I don't know, Merlin," Arthur snaps. "It does no good to speculate. We will have to wait and see."
"But she was defending me!" Merlin protests. "Surely he can't punish her for that."
"It is not your place to question the king's decisions," Arthur says hotly. "You are dismissed for the night."
The tournament brings forth an array of knights from places of which Merlin has never heard. Arthur is irritable and full of energy on the morning of the competition. Merlin is, for once, wise enough to let it lie and makes a point to not provoke his master with the usual cheeky commentary. "Are you nervous?" he asks as he tightens the straps on Arthur's armor.
"I don't get nervous," Arthur replies shortly.
"Really? I thought everyone got nervou--"
"Will you shut up?" Arthur barks.
Merlin barely controls the urge to roll his eyes, if only for the fact that they are outside of Arthur's chambers, with witnesses in all directions. He hands Arthur his helmet and sword silently, and watches the prince move toward the tournament pitch with tense movements.
"I don't like him," Merlin says with a tilt of his head in Knight Valiant's direction. "He's a creep."
"Mind your tongue," Arthur says mildly. "That is no way to address a knight."
"You don't like him either," Merlin protests. "I can tell."
"It's a tournament, Merlin," Arthur retorts. "What I do and do not like makes no difference."
"He's still a creep," Merlin mutters. Arthur gives an exasperated sigh and cuffs him on the back of the head.
In Merlin's dreams, he hears Morgana shouting, raging, at the top of her lungs. Two guards drag Gwen down the empty corridor, another two barely managing to hold down Morgana as she bucks and kicks and tries to get to the dark-haired servant.
"Let this be a lesson to you," Uther tells her. "I will not be disobeyed." He retreats with a rustle of his cloak, and Morgana's eyes are burning with hatred as they bore into his back.
The next day, while Merlin gathers Arthur's armor for the match, he witnesses his dream come true.
"Merlin, you cannot be here," Gaius says urgently. He blocks the doorway with his body, peering around Merlin's shoulder for any witnesses.
"Please, Gaius," Merlin implores. "I need your help. Knight Valiant is using magic to win the tournament."
Gaius gives him a pained look. "You are a servant now," he says. "If you are found in my workroom, you'll be hanged."
Gauis closes the door with a gentle 'snick.'
"Arthur, please listen to me," Merlin says earnestly. "He's using magic. If you fight him, you will die."
"What proof do you have?" Arthur asks tightly. "I cannot go around accusing a knight of sorcery on the word of a servant."
"The snakes on his shield came alive," Merlin replies. "I saw them with my own eyes."
Arthur sighs. "That's not enough, Merlin."
"I can bring one of them to you," Merlin insists. "Surely that will be enough to prove his guilt!"
"It won't," Arthur answers. His shoulders are wire-taut under his tunic and Merlin places his hands on them when the prince tries to turn away.
"It must be!" Merlin's voice is full of urgent stress. "Please, Arthur! You cannot fight him!"
"I must," Arthur says heavily. "It's my duty to Camelot." He pulls Merlin's hands from his shoulders and turns to face the window. "Go to sleep, Merlin."
The air is solemn as Merlin fastens the straps to Arthur's breastplate. His eyes sting as if he wants to cry, but he roughly pushes away the urge. "I will not watch you die." Merlin's voice is barely above a whisper.
"I wouldn't ask you to," Arthur says softly.
"I'll find a way to help you," Merlin promises. "If I can get into my old room, there's--"
"Don't," is Arthur's short reply. "Don't do anything foolish. I will beat him."
A lump forms in Merlin's throat as the tears make another valiant effort to break free from their confines. "See that you do."
"Merlin," Arthur starts, stops, huffs out a heavy breath. "I am relieving you of your services. I want you to go back to Gaius' chambers, and I want you to stay there." His voice begins to shake as he adds, "Do not go to the arena."
"Sire, you can't--"
"For god's sake, Merlin," Arthur bites out. "I am the prince of Camelot. Will you do as I ask just once?"
A line of wetness rolls down Merlin's cheek as he murmurs, "Yes, Arthur."
The sounds echo in Merlin's mind, no matter how he attempts to shut them out. He hears the bland lilt of Uther's voice as he announces the match.
How can you're heart be so hardened? Don't you realize you are sending your son to die?
He hears the laugh Valiant lets loose under his breath.
You will not win; you cannot win.
He hears the nervous flutter of Arthur's heart.
Do not die on me, you prat. You have to live.
He hears the clashing of swords as the battle begins.
Arthur will win, Arthur will win, Arthur will win.
He hears Arthur's back hit the dirt of the arena, the impact as loud a crack of thunder.
He hears the hiss of Valiant's shield as the snakes slither out, ready to strike at Arthur's exposed throat.
He hears the wrenching screams as the snakes fall from the shield, hit the ground in a wilted pile as a surge of magic breaks free from Merlin's chest, unbidden but not unwelcome.
He hears the slick gush of blood as Arthur runs his sword through Valiant's abdomen. Merlin lets loose a shaky, relieved sigh.
Arthur pulls open the door to Merlin's room as quietly as he can. "What did you do?" Arthur demands, but his voice has gone soft.
"I did nothing," Merlin says, eyes roving over the price's body as he searches for injuries. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Arthur answers, shoulders slumped in some kind of defeat. "I won."
"I can see that." Merlin grins; a stupid, happy expression on his face. He finds himself standing in front of Arthur before he even processes the fact that his feet are moving. He places a hand over Arthur's heart and relaxes as he feels it beat beneath his palm—a reassurance that this is not a dream or a vision come to torment him. "I'm glad."
Arthur's lips press against Merlin's almost before the words are in the air between them. Their mouths move against each other with a calmness that belies the weeks they've spent holding this in; trying to ignore it even as it pulled at them unmercifully.
Reluctantly, Arthur pulls away. "You're still wearing you servant clothes," he says. "I relieved you of your duties. You can be a man again, Merlin."
"Don't," Merlin pleads. "I'm happy to be your servant; until the day I die."