My first Merlin fanfiction. I hope you all enjoy!
Set after the court scene at the end of 3.02 (and I'm presuming here that the court took place in the early hours of the morning, since the battle raged throughout the night). Everyone was looking thoroughly exhausted, so I again assumed that the men had slept little since their victory. Aspects of the story may be considered slightly AU (because I can't be ABSOLUTELY sure that the aforementioned assumptions are true), but the majority of the story will be canon-based.
Standard Disclaimer: I own nothing except the plot, nor am I gaining profit through this work of fiction. It all belongs to the BBC.
The bell in the citadel chimed slowly, lugubriously, and nine long notes echoed down the corridors of the castle, humming through stone and wood. A flock of ravens took flight, startled from their temporary perch atop the walls of the courtyard.
Merlin watched them in silence, tracking their progress until they were mere dots on the horizon, squinting through tired and aching eyes against the morning sunlight. He dropped his gaze to the hustle and bustle of the courtyard below, following the rapid movement of the cloaked knights and uniformed guards. Evidence of the recent battle lay about the place; arrow shafts and splintered ladders here and there, a charred heap of what had once been a wagon, dirt and soot and blood darkening the stone underfoot. The fighting itself hadn't crept this close, but the battle's arm of destruction had a long reach. No doubt the wagon had been hit by one of the numerous flaming projectiles.
The situation, he knew, was ten times worse in the lower town. Comparatively, the damage here had been minimal. And yet, although the fires had finally been put out, the acrid stench of burning leather and metal and flesh still swamped the city and pervaded the cold corridors of the castle. Everything stank of death.
Nausea curled at his stomach, hot and intense. So many lives had been lost. So many men. They had won the battle, yes; but at a great cost. This was his failure. His weakness.
Pressing his forehead against the cool glass of the tower window, Merlin closed his eyes, wrapping his arms tighter about his knees. He felt awful. Things had happened so quickly, it seemed as though he'd hardly had a chance to breathe since his return to Camelot. The heat of battle had kept him focused and alert throughout the night, shrouding his fatigue and dousing the hot ache in his limbs. But whatever energy reserves he'd drawn from earlier had apparently run dry, leaving him sore and stiff and weary beyond comprehension.
What I wouldn't give for a dose of poppy juice. I'll never be able to sleep properly if I'm as stiff as a corpse.
And the shallow puncture wound left by the Serket's sting didn't half throb. He'd bandaged it clumsily before the battle, concerned to see the clear fluid that still leaked from it when he moved. But since then, he'd had neither the time nor the energy to check on it again. The pain had doubled in the last few hours, though. The ache had become a deep, pulsing burn.
Falling heavily on his back during his brief struggle with the resurrected soldiers probably hadn't helped matters. But he'd been rather too preoccupied to think about such things the time. Perhaps it would be prudent to take a look at the wound again, just to verify that everything was as it should be. If only he wasn't so awfully tired.
He'd dozed off and on over past couple of hours, tucked away behind the heavy curtain, curled up in the corner of the window seat. Nobody had come looking for him, so he'd assumed that he wasn't needed. After Uther had dismissed them, Gaius had returned to their chambers to rest and Merlin had promised the physician than he'd run along and do the same just as soon as he'd seen to Arthur. But he'd neither run nor waited on his master since the King's announcement. And that had been a long while ago.
In truth, he was simply too exhausted to move. He'd come here to think, to rest for a few moments before Arthur had him scrubbing floors and mending clothes, but once he'd sat down he hadn't found the motivation to rise again. He was secretly hoping that he would remain undisturbed for the rest of the morning.
With a suddenness that made him start, the heavy curtain was yanked back.
"There you are, Merlin."
He froze, wide-eyed.
Prince Arthur stood where the curtain had previously hung, stormy-faced and immovable. His hair was wet and he smelt strongly of the hard, yellow cakes of perfumed soap he often used when bathing after bloodshed. "It masks the stench of battle," Arthur had once said. He certainly hadn't been lying; the smell dominated Merlin's senses. And with his muscular torso blocking all else from view, it was hard to think about anything besides Arthur's presence.
"Sire," Merlin tried to untangle his limbs, but nothing wanted to cooperate, "I...I was just-"
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest, keeping the curtain in place with his leg. "Well, it's nice to see you hard at work, Merlin." He raised a hand as his manservant shifted on the window seat. "Oh no, don't get up. Just sit back, relax; let the rest of us do the work. No need to strain yourself."
Merlin wanted to answer the biting sarcasm with a retort of his own, but he lacked both the wit and the energy needed to pursue the matter. Instead he glanced away, keeping his gaze averted.
"What?" Arthur prodded his shoulder a little harder than was strictly necessary. "No bumbling excuses?"
The younger man shook his head. Arthur levelled him with a piercing stare, his forehead creasing for the briefest of moments, before straightening abruptly and turning away, striding towards the staircase at the end of the corridor.
"Try and keep up."
The damp cloth fell back into the bucket with a dull 'slosh'. Merlin flexed his stiff fingers, blinking groggily at the glinting armour spread out neatly across the scrubbed floor in front of him. It would take at least another thirty minutes to dry and polish the squeaky-clean metal plates. In his current state of exhaustion, such a prospect felt like a death sentence.
Although perhaps there was an easier way.
Glancing towards the door to Arthur's chambers and holding his breath, he listened intently for the sound of approaching footsteps. Thus reassured that he wouldn't be caught, he raised his damp, wrinkled right hand and closed his eyes, forcing his mind to calm.
"Lustro prentiss thigor."
The words rolled of his tongue as smoothly as his native language and immediately he felt the cold, stiff joints of his damp hand begin to warm. Hot air wafted up towards his face, teasing gently at his fringe, before dying away again with an almost audible sigh. Merlin opened his eyes, the first quiver of a half-smile curving at the corner of his mouth as he basked in the brief satisfaction of this small success.
Deciding that playing with fire twice in one day was tempting fate, he picked up one of Arthur's now-dry armguards and began to manually polish it with a soft rag. The water had removed all traces of blood and soot and heaven-knows-what-else from the surface, and Merlin had to admit that there had been something almost therapeutic in rinsing away the evidence of last night's battle. It offered closure, perhaps; a way to put the whole incident behind him.
A painfully long while later, the armour sat gleaming on its padded, torso-shaped stand in the wardrobe. Merlin sat on the floor, staring at it, vaguely wondering how it had managed to fasten itself away so neatly. He certainly couldn't remember having stood up to attend to it. Heavens above, had he used magic?
Before he could fret over the situation any further, the chamber door swung open and a depressingly familiar figure strode into view. He glanced towards his servant, his stony expression darkening.
"Merlin, are you incapable of doing anything today?" He kicked the door closed and threw his hands up in defeat. "Why do I even try? It's useless!"
The younger man turned towards him, stretching his stiff legs out across the floor with an ill disguised wince. "What's useless?"
"You are!" Arthur growled, wrestling himself out of his brown leather jacket, throwing it halfway across the room in anger. "A give you a few simple chores and what do you do? Sit on the floor doing nothing like the useless lump you are."
Merlin returned the frown, weary frustration bubbling up within him, shattering what little self-control he had left.
"If you stopped being a prat for just one second and actually took a good look around, you'd notice that I have done what you asked."
Arthur blinked, momentarily taken aback by the ferocity of his manservant's rebuke. His eyes darted about the room briefly, the tension slowly building, before his shoulders sagged a little and he turned away to face the carved fireplace.
"Fine, you're excused...for now. You can clean my armour later. Go get some rest."
"I've already cleaned it," Merlin muttered as he picked at a loose thread on his shirt sleeve, trying to disguise how much Arthur's initial reprimand had hurt.
Arthur's booted footsteps grew steadily louder as he clomped over to where Merlin was sitting, and the young warlock briefly closed his eyes against the synchronised thumping in his head. Pausing in front of the open wardrobe doors to admire his servant's handiwork, Arthur rubbed a hand down the stubble on his chin.
"Oh. Well." The prince abruptly walked away again. "How was I supposed to know? I've been busy too, you know."
Just apologise, you dunderhead. Is the smallest measure of gratitude too much to ask for?
Arthur slumped down heavily into the wooden chair at his table, leaning back with a loud sigh and toeing off his boots. There was a long moment of silence, then:
"Go to bed, Merlin, before your moping depresses me even more. You can have the rest of the day off."
"I'm going." Maybe in a minute. I'm so darn comfy here.
Arthur opened an eye, his gaze drifting lazily towards his manservant. "That usually requires the use of one's legs."
"I know. I'm going."
Another long silence passed between them.
"Yeah, going, leaving, right now. I'm gone."
The citadel bell chimed twice, the notes long and steady. A pair of footsteps grew slowly louder as they approached the prince's chamber, then faded as the passerby continued on down the corridor. A robin tweeted merrily on the window ledge outside.
"Oh, for the love of...what is wrong with you today?" Arthur pushed himself forcefully out of the chair and strode towards him, stocking-footed and frowning.
It was only now that Merlin noticed the dark rings beneath the prince's eyes. Before he had chance to move a muscle, Arthur had reached down and grabbed him firmly by both biceps.
"Here, let me help you."
Arthur hauled him to his feet in one sudden motion – far, far too sudden - and Merlin's vision swam as his weary body frantically tried to compensate for the dramatic change in height and position. Nausea rolled in his stomach again and his muscles cramped, the room spinning about him dauntingly. Then the hands on his biceps were turning him around to face the opposite way – oh, but which way was that? – and releasing him just as abruptly.
Had the prince left it at that, Merlin might have perhaps been able to stagger his way out of the door and into the cool, quiet freedom of the castle corridor. However, Arthur added a firm shove for good measure, his hand pressing forcefully against the left side of Merlin's lower back, right where the pain was most intense.
Bright dots exploded before his eyes and he arched away from the pressure with a strangled gasp, his legs weakening beneath him. He crashed onto his hands and knees, dizziness and disorientation clouding the pain of the impact. He felt an intense burn fill his cheeks and neck, as though he'd been in the sun too long, and his fingers began to tingle strangely. Suddenly he felt beyond awful.
Arthur's face was beside his own now, the prince's expression wary, almost cautious. His master was speaking, but none of the sounds formed coherent words and the droning, buzzing noise was worsening his headache tenfold.
Someone grabbed his chin in a firm, yet gentle, grip. He tried to focus on the other man's lips, tried to make out what he was saying, but all the bright colours were blurring into each other and his eyelids were drooping. Everything was so heavy.
Why was he lying down? When had that happened?
There were more people now, towering beings of silver and scarlet hovering over him. Then strong arms were hoisting him up and the pain swelled in a climactic crescendo, so he gladly released his hold on consciousness and slipped down into the welcoming realm of nonexistence.
Nothing like a cheerful cliff-hanger to start off a story, eh? ;)
Loved it? Hated it? Let me know. Feedback is greatly appreciated.
If you noticed any irregularities in terms of canonical or non-canonical areas of the story/characters, please feel free to point out room for improvement or expansion. Accuracy is my goal.
Well, shall I post chapter 2?