Author's Note: Minor spoilers for the end of the Series 1, Ep 9 "Excalibur".
Warning: Some violence and sexual situations that include manxman relations. If that's not your cup of tea, please just move on. No serious smut in this chapter, just a bit of flirting, innuendo and what I'd call sexual harassment. (Others might just call it groping.)
Hold on Loosely
Chapter 1- The Feast
Merlin was mildly tipsy as the feast drew to a close. He'd known better to do anything other than sip at the mildest mead on offer to the servants. With a notoriously weak resistance to spirits, he was very careful to never allow himself to become drunk. Not after that incident in old man Weaver's shearing shed with Will back in Ealdor. Shaking his head ruefully over the incident he made his way away from Prince Arthur's side. As usual, his "master" was behaving like a royal prat and was now pouting over God-knows what and glaring at Merlin just as if he hadn't told his servant to "Quit hovering, you idiot so I can enjoy myself for once without you spilling wine or hot gravy in my lap."
Having been thus dismissed, Merlin joined the other servants at the far end of the Great Hall and availed himself of the food, drink and company provided for the lower class attendants of the Feast. Uther had many faults as a King but ill treating his servants on a regular basis wasn't one of them. Briefly Merlin wondered from whom Arthur had picked up that particular trait or perhaps, it was just an in-born personality flaw? The food wasn't as grand, nor the drink of the same quality as that being served to the high-born guests but it was certainly finer fare than the young sorcerer had ever enjoyed prior to his employment in the Royal Household. Honestly, it even exceeded what was on offer for the King himself on a daily basis. The evening's festivities were indeed a treat meant for all, not just the privileged nobility of Camelot.
Everyone was celebrating Prince Arthur's Coming of Age as well as Uther's defeat of the mysterious Black Knight. After coming so close to losing their Royal Family, everyone in the land was holding some sort of celebration that night. Arthur half-expected the Kingdom to come to a grinding halt the next morning due to an almost universal hangover. He wasn't drunk himself, at least not on wine or ale. He was feeling more than a little dazed as he watched Merlin that night though. Somehow tonight, his manservant wasn't clumsy, or bumbling, neither dropping things nor bumping into everyone and everything in sight. He was downright graceful to be honest. He moved amongst the other servants deftly on light feet as he ate, laughed, danced and...My God! Was that Merlin flirting with pretty serving maids and lovely servant boys alike? Merlin? Flirting? He'd never believed it of anyone if he hadn't witnessed himself. His manservant was definitely flirting with anyone who sent a smile his way.
It wasn't as if Arthur hadn't noticed how good Merlin was looking that night. He was wearing the Pendragon Royal surcoat over some deep blue shirt which served to both highlight the young man's alabaster skin as well as his ocean blue eyes. The Prince squirmed uncomfortably in his chair as he felt his breeches begin to get tight. It was in fact the reason he'd sent the boy away in the first place. For once Merlin wasn't wearing one of those damned neckerchiefs. Fine collarbones curled delicately away from the hollow now visible at the base of his long white throat and each time Merlin had leaned over Arthur's shoulder to refill his goblet , the Prince had had to fight the urge to lean over and fill that rarely seen concavity with his own swirling tongue.
Now as he watched Merlin amongst the servants and lesser gentry he found himself grinding his teeth in aggravation. Far too many people seemed to think they had a right to put their hands on his manservant. Alien fingers twirled in the boys ebony locks while others smoothed that soft raven hair back into place. Arthur noticed that Morgana's maid Gwen was easily the worst offender. Her hands rested on Merlin's waist as they danced together. She allowed her slender dark fingers to smooth down shirt sleeves, tunic edges and collars that didn't really need smoothing. Her delicate hands were most often fiddling with his soft dark hair and Arthur noticed she even lightly traced prominent cheek bones and the shells of his ears with far too fond a twinkle in her dark liquid eyes.
And Merlin smiled at every damn touch the girl bestowed on him. He practically expected the boy to start purring and twining around her ankles any minute now. There was a softness to that deep blue gaze that Arthur hadn't ever seen directed at himself. Something clenched in his gut when he realized this. Another part of his brain questioned why he cared if Merlin smiled softly at some servant girl.
He quashed those thoughts and attempted to direct his attention back to his father and the most prominent of his knights as they listened again to Uther bragging of his defeat of the Black Knight. Arthur tried not to, but he begrudged his father this victory. It should have been his. Instead of fighting, he'd been lying in an unconscious heap in his bedchamber drugged by the Court Physician on his father's orders. Even his father's impassioned declaration that he'd rather die than watch his only son slain before his eyes hadn't truly softened the blow to Arthur's pride. It certainly hadn't raised his esteem in the eyes of the Knights of Camelot either. They seemed unsure whether or not to accept the story as true.
Arthur found his eyes straying to the Lower Hall once again only to see some strange young man staring at Merlin as he spoke with great animation, his endearingly impish grin in place. The Prince summed the stranger up and determined he was probably the son of a Guild Master or wealthy trader. Well off enough to be invited to the feast but not as a guest of the Upper Hall and therefore not of noble blood. He knew Merlin wasn't impressed with titles nor was he concerned with the social stations of others but he didn't seem to realize that as the personal servant to the Crown Prince of the realm, his own social standing among those not born to nobility was quite high. It ranked with the highest of the minor gentry. Merlin might be uncaring of his social status but others would not be.
However, anyone with the slightest bit of discernment would realize within five minutes of meeting Merlin that he could not be used to get at the Prince. He didn't see himself in that light and therefore could not be manipulated by those seeking to find favor with the Prince through him. Few outside the Palace had any clue how close Arthur and Merlin were. Even fewer would have suspected that the Prince held his servant in anything other than laughing contempt. Merlin himself would have probably been amongst that latter group.
The strange young man had been steadily inching closer and closer to Merlin as Arthur watched. Soon he was right beside the tall slender youth. The Prince no longer attempted to keep his observation of the Lower Hall discreet. The man was close to Merlin's age, which made him a few years younger than Arthur. He was well dressed and passing handsome if you liked that type. Unconsciously Arthur sniffed. The man had a head full of chestnut curls and large dark eyes that slid all over Merlin in an overly familiar manner that set Arthur's teeth on edge. High cheekbones, chiseled features, a square jaw and a sharpish nose gave way to incongruently sensual lips. Lips the man kept licking as he devoured Merlin with his dark eyes.
Arthur was too far away to hear what the conversation consisted of but as soon as he could, the young man began to find excuses or openings to touch Merlin. A clap on the shoulder, a seemingly accidental brush of the hands, a touch of his sleeve as he directed the young servant's attention to something, lips that lingered too close to Merlin's ear as he whispered something that made the youth laugh. Perfectly innocent on the surface but the Prince had been watching this man stalk Merlin for quite some time now. He looked away again as his name was called and he reluctantly joined his Knights in the retelling of some recent exploits for those nobles who hadn't already heard the same tale a dozen times over.
Meanwhile Merlin was enjoying himself immensely. He'd spent the majority of the evening with Gwen, his best friend among the Palace staff. She always managed to bring him out of his shell and this evening had been a spectacular example of that ability. He was properly socializing for the first time since he'd left his home in Ealdor. He'd found that in addition to the senior serving staff, the other guests of the Lower Hall tended to include the city's most prominent merchants, master craftsmen and the lower gentry. Basically those with money but without noble blood. He found that he fit in with these people so much better than any group he'd encountered before. Back in Ealdor he'd been considered a bit of a freak, not just because of his "strange gift" but because his mother, having come from Camelot herself, had educated her son well beyond the level of the average border villager. Well enough that he easily held his own amongst these moneyed people.
He'd found much to his surprise that as the Crown Prince's personal body-servant he was the recipient of a heady amount of respect. That he also was apprenticed to the Royal Court Physician at the same time seemed to raise his status just a bit more. Merlin being Merlin didn't let it go to his head. He doubted these people would even recognize him the next time Arthur ordered him to muck out his stables or Gaius had him scrubbing out his leech tank. However, he relaxed for once and allowed himself to be free from his usual load of worries and burdens. He made sure he barely sipped the mead and instead stuck to the unusual fruit juices on offer instead.
Merlin suspected he had danced more that one evening than he had before in his entire life. The ladies were certainly not backward about being forward and relaxed as he was, for the first time in since coming to court, his "natural" clumsiness was revealed as no such thing. It had always been nerves and stress that caused him to stumble and fumble and there was no one in the world like Arthur for making Merlin nervous and stressed unless it was his father, Uther. The King so terrified Merlin that he was barely able to walk a straight line in his presence.
In between dances, he stood with Gwen and an ever growing circle of new acquaintances. He'd had just enough mead to wear off some of his shyness and as his confidence grew, so did his smile. However, he was still Merlin and as such, oblivious to his own attractions. He happily traded clever remarks with several guests, men and women, truly never realizing that he was engaging in the art of flirting. As he was unaware of the significance of the double entendres being traded, he also didn't realize that he was good at it. Sadly, Gwen certainly noticed, though knowing Merlin as well as she did now, she knew he meant nothing by it. He was her friend and as much as she might wish it otherwise, she'd probably never be more to him than that.
From his place at the High table Arthur also noticed his "idiot" manservant's sudden display of social aptitude. Unlike Merlin, he wasn't being overly careful with his alcohol consumption. As the evening wore on, he became more and more incensed at what he perceived as Merlin's "flaunting" of himself. Gwen now had her arm around his narrow waist and it infuriated Arthur not only how often Merlin flashed the pretty dark skinned girl that beatific smile of his but how good the two of them looked together. Gwen was a lovely girl, dressed in Pendragon red and white and the contrast of her lovely toffee colored skin with Merlin's pale, pearly complexion was quite striking. There was a corner of his mind that was grateful to Morgana's maid though. As long as she held on to Merlin, that curly headed predator could do nothing but prowl around looking for a way to get Merlin away from her.
Arthur wasn't sure if Gwen was doing this on purpose or not, wasn't sure if she was aware of the shark circling the tall beautiful boy she was clinging to. Intentional or not, the sweet natured girl was keeping Merlin safe. However, Merlin lost his soft, feminine shield when Morgana decided she'd had enough of the celebration and desired to retire for the night. Gwen was at her side in moments and Merlin was left alone, a tasty looking lamb surrounded by a ring of hungry wolves.
Almost instantly, the dark eyed man had slid into Gwen's place, whispering something in Merlin's ear that had the boy laughing even while he stepped away from the curly haired boy, evading the arm that attempted to wrap around his waist. When the dark eyed lad followed, stepping up so close he was pressed up against Merlin's side, Arthur had had enough. Even as he rose to his feet he saw the man slip his fingers into the soft ebony hair at the nape of Merlin's neck and as Arthur navigated his way across the full length of the hall, that hand slowly slid down Merlin's spine until it reached the curve of his arse. Arthur had almost reached the pair when he saw Merlin jump as the man ran his fingers down the crease between his manservant's arse cheeks and attempted to press through the fabric there. Arthur was only feet away when Merlin whirled around and gave the curly haired man an angry shove that sent him stumbling straight into Arthur's swiftly approaching figure.
The man looked ready to lunge for Merlin again when he suddenly found he was choking on his own shirt. Arthur had grabbed the back of the man's collar and was swiftly yanking him from the assemblage to a nearby door. Everything happened so quickly, Merlin had barely registered Arthur's presence before he and the dark eyed man disappeared into a closed corridor, the door clicking quietly behind the pair. A few people had noted Merlin shove the man away and his subsequent collision with the Crown Prince. A few more noticed the way the Prince swiftly disappeared with the man, tightly gripping his collar as the face of Merlin's attacker began to turn an alarming shade of purple. There was a general pause in conversation as everyone in the vicinity strained to hear what might be occurring behind that closed door. After several moments of disappointing silence, the company returned to their interrupted conversations as if nothing untoward had happened at all.
Merlin tried to match their insouciance but he'd turned beet red when that man had...had...he blushed scarlet again just thinking what that man had tried to do to him in full view of the entire Great Hall! An older lady with an expensive gown and rough hands took pity on the obviously embarrassed boy and drew him into a perfectly ordinary conversation on the relative merits of lanolin verses saddle oil for keeping leather gloves supple. Grateful to the woman for her kind tact, Merlin joined the debate enthusiastically.
Arthur dragged the man swiftly down the closed corridor which led directly to the kitchens. He continued to yank the man along by the collar of his tunic uncaring that the man's feet were scrambling to keep him upright and breathing despite the constriction of his throat. He continued straight through the kitchens, surprising more than a few members of the staff who gaped as the Crown Prince dragged a well dressed young man past them, gripping the man's collar as if he were a truculent child or disobedient dog. Arthur didn't stop until he was through the kitchen and into another long passage. They reached another door that led to the tunnels that ran beneath the castle and down to the dungeons. He slammed the man against the door and closed a gloved fist around his throat, lifting him off the floor and pinning him in place by that hand alone.
The man squirmed and struggled, both hands on the Prince's wrist, desperately trying to free his windpipe as he was rapidly running out of air.
"Do you know who you just tried to molest?"
The quiet, silky menace in Arthur's voice frightened the man far more than if the Prince had been shouting at him. He attempted to nod and shake his head at the same time.
"Let me tell you. That was Merlin. Do you know who Merlin is?"
Again, the man attempted to nod around the crushing grip on his throat.
Loosening his grip on the man, he slowly lowered him until his feet were back on the ground though his hand retained it's threatening hold around the young man's neck. With his free hand, Arthur casually unsheathed the dagger he always wore on his right hip. He moved his hand from the dark eyed man's throat to his right shoulder, keeping him pinned tightly to the door. The dagger took up a position just under the corner of the man's jaw.
"Tell me who Merlin is."
Hoarse and gasping for air, the trembling man answered, "He's your personal servant."
"And do you know who I am?"
The man nodded. Arthur pressed the tip of the dagger so it just pierced the man's skin.
"Who am I?"
The dagger sunk in a little deeper.
"The Crown Prince of Camelot!"
"Tell me again who Merlin is?"
"Personal servant to the Crown Prince of Camelot!"
Almost half an inch of the dagger was now buried just beneath the corner of the man's jaw. Blood dripped thickly down a throat that was rapidly bruising.
"Do you think you have a right to lay a hand on anything that belongs the Crown Prince of Camelot?" The dagger was withdrawn. "Perhaps my personal seal?" Arthur drew back his fist and punched the young man in the face making certain his signet ring left a perfect imprint.
"Perhaps this dagger? It's a Pendragon heirloom."
Arthur slammed the dagger through the younger man's right shoulder pinning him to the door, seething quietly while the man's screams died down to whimpers. Guards had appeared at the first scream but Arthur sent them away with an impatient wave.
"Or were you after my sword perhaps?" The prince drew the ceremonial sword he wore only for formal occasions, "You certainly seemed interested in one of my sheaths."
The younger man was sobbing with terror and begging for his life as Arthur drew further back. It seemed he was about to run the other man through when instead, he dropped the tip of the sword towards the mans genitals.
"Know this, if you ever touch anything that belongs to me again, first you will lose your manhood, then you will lose your life."
After re-sheathing his sword he reached for his dagger. Holding the man by his uninjured shoulder, he yanked the dagger free from the curly haired boy's flesh and used his enemy's tunic to clean it before returning it to it's sheath as well.
"Now get out of my sight and I'd better never see you anywhere near Merlin again or that day will be your last. Also, if this little story gets out, I'll be paying you a personal visit to discuss the consequences of gossiping about your Prince. Have you got that?"
The boy whimpered while nodding emphatically. 'Yes sire, I understand sire, I'm so sorry!"
He shoved the boy in the direction of the guards and upon reaching them instructed them to escort the boy discreetly from the castle.
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