Warning: unbeta'd. Assuming Gwaine knows about Merlin's magic! Post S3.
Summary: Four years and Merlin still had a hard time keeping a sword in his hand for more than a minute in a fight.
Arthur counted it as a success that Merlin survived the siege of Camelot (which one was it now? They've gone through so many, but none quite so perilous as Morgana and her army of immortals) with the help of Lancelot. Of course, he knew well enough that it's more a testament to Lancelot's skills and honour than anything else, but he still counts it as a success.
It didn't stop him from being irritated (not concerned, certainly not) at his servant's abhorring sense of balance and gawky nature, especially after another run-in with bandits in the woods where Merlin managed to get his sword knocked from his hands immediately after he grabbed a hold of one. Arthur certainly hadn't shouted in concern when Merlin had been knocked back and then tripped over a tree root, nearly falling off a cliff in the process.
Afterwards, though, he had made certain to stomp over to the other and shove his sword into the dirt, heart racing as he leaned forward to slap Merlin across the back of the head.
"Ow!" Merlin protested, wincing and ducking his head in pain as one arm went up to rub the tender spot on the back of his head.
"Have you completely lost your wits?" Arthur demanded, trying his best to calm his heart. "Four years- four years and you'd think that you would have learned enough to not let your sword get knocked away!"
"Four years of what?" Merlin demanded, still rubbing at the back of his head. His waved his other arm around, "Of being knocked about the head by you and having to run from people wanting to kill us?"
"You were supposed to learn to duck." Arthur grumbled, although he was placated after having looked his friend over and found no injuries. It was just like Merlin to be that lucky, though. He managed to escape most of the fights that left most of his highly trained knights injured or dead.
"I do duck!" He protested. "That's the only reason you haven't given me brain damage yet, seeing as you seem terribly fond of chucking heavy objects at my head in the mornings!"
"That's not enough!" Arthur jabbed a finger at his servant's face, vaguely satisfied as he saw Merlin at least sink back a bit. Better than having no survival instincts at all, after all. "Tripping over thin air back in Camelot is one thing, Merlin, but staying that clumsy when enemies are trying to kill you is a completely different thing!"
What if you got yourself killed?"What if you tripped into one of the knights, then? You could get us killed!"
"You would." With the worst of the adrenaline over, Arthur's voice was back at a regular decibel. "We're putting in extra training when we get home. And you're not getting out of it until you learn to properly duck."
And that was how it started. In addition to his usual chores, Arthur made sure Merlin was there at all the knights' training sessions, and called for him as target practice nearly every day. A week later and Merlin was absolutely sick of it. It didn't matter what Arthur claimed his intentions were, the warlock suspected it was just so the prat could take his prattishness out on him in the fields.
He arms ached, his legs ached, and even though he didn't have any serious injuries, he could feel bruises come and go against every part of him that had been holding the target board. And he had carried that board on his arm, strapped to his back, and every other variation thereof that Arthur could possibly make him do.
"He's a complete clotpole!" Merlin complained to Gaius as the physician smeared a terrible smelling salve over his face where he had fallen earlier in the day and smashed his temple against the dirt, making him dizzy enough that he hadn't managed to dodge a single hit after that the rest of the day. "This is to punish me, isn't it? I don't know what I'm being punished for, but being saddled with Arthur is some sort of punishment."
"Have you considered that maybe Arthur really is trying to keep you safe?" Gaius replied, seemingly unaffected by the fact that his ward came back daily with more cuts and bruises than he ever had from a real fight.
Merlin flinched at the unnecessary pressure against his temple as the salve was rubbed in. "It's not like I can't take care of myself in battle. I mean, four years, and he's gotten injured so much more than me- shouldn't he be the one who has to learn how to duck, then? I mean, my magic's protected me from everything so far."
He yelped as Gaius prodded at his bruises unreasonably hard and the physician frowned at him. "Seeing as he does not know about your magic, he wouldn't know you could keep yourself safe, would he? Try to see this as a good thing, Merlin. It means that he cares."
"He could care without being a prat." Merlin whined. "A day off would be caring of him. Being nice would be caring. 'Oh, don't worry about mucking out the stables, Merlin, we've got such a thing as stable boys to do that job'- that would be caring! This, this excuse to bully me, that's not being caring!"
"That's Arthur's way of caring." Gaius corrected. "And you know that better than anyone."
"I do not." Merlin denied petulantly, not bothering to hide his sulking.
A knock on the door interrupted them as Gaius employed his signature eyebrow raise and Merlin wilted just a little under the force of that look.
"Gaius?" The door opened and Lancelot peeked in, looking as if he wasn't sure whether he'd be interrupting or not. "Is Merlin in- oh. Hello, Merlin. We were just looking for you."
"If Arthur needs me to carry his armour and clean his boots, he can get someone else to do it today." Merlin grumbled, although he seemed cheered to see the other knight. At least Lancelot would agree with him that Arthur was being a bully. "Tell him he's killed me with all his practice and will now need to look for a new manservant. And then he'll have to deal with all the trouble of finding someone who wouldn'tbe a hideous bootlicker."
Lancelot looked chagrined, and Gaius put down his jar with an exasperated look. "I will leave him to you then, Lancelot. I have other patients to tend to today who may actually need their medicine and wouldn't act so childish to take it."
"Of course." Lancelot dipped his head in assent, stepping into the room and doing his best to not knock any of the delicate vials and bottles over with the bulky armour he was still wearing. He waited a moment while Gaius gathered supplies into his bag and stepped out of the room before facing the sullen warlock.
"You're not going to make me face Arthur again today are you, Lancelot?" Merlin pleaded. "Tell him he's completely knocked me out. I won't be able to get up again until tomorrow at best- or maybe even next week."
"No, of course not." Lancelot looked extremely guilty even as he stood up straighter as if to make an official announcement. "The rest of us have noticed how hard he's working you. And, well, we figured we'd help out."
"Help?" That didn't sound foreboding at all...
"Yes. Prince Arthur has good intentions, but it seems his... implementation is a bit lacking. I understand his drive, though- none of us want to see you hurt in a battlefield, and I doubt we could convince you to stay behind while His Highness goes off into danger."
"Of course not." Merlin poked at his own face to make sure that the salve had dried before he gingerly got up from his seat, wincing just slightly as his muscles protested. "But I'll make do. I mean, I have for the past four years."
"I know you have." If anything, Lancelot was extremely good at placating people. "But what if something happens to your magic one day? I mean, if you don't want Arthur to know... there could be a time when he'd see and you wouldn't be able to use it... none of us wants you hurt."
Merlin mused over that for a moment. "So what are you suggesting?"
"Nothing like how Prince Arthur has been trying to train you," Lancelot demurred. "We figured we'd teach you how to fight. Well, we'd see what you would be able to do."
"Crossbows are good," Lancelot stated brightly. "Distance weapons, easy to manage and easy to aim. Much easier than longbows, and extremely deadly."
It seemed the safest to him, seeing as crossbows required less strength than most other weapons in the armoury. It was small enough and would keep Merlin out of the way in battle since it was best used from a distance away, and that meant he would be safe to use his magic to protect himself and the others as well.
He watched as Merlin held up the crossbow in a wobbly stance and squinted to aim at the target twenty meters away.
"It's a bit slow to load," Lancelot continued, giving the other man the time to attempt his first shot on his own. "But we have a windlass and I could teach you how to use that later on," not to mention he was sure Merlin's magic would help him load the crossbow much faster. "And then maybe we could just get the prince to include one when we leave on quests and-"
He was interrupted as Merlin shot the crossbow and nearly lost his balance at the recoil, stumbling back into Lancelot as the knight tried his best to not fall over himself at the sudden weight.
It took a moment and a few colourful words before they both uprighted themselves again and looked for the bolt.
"That's-" good, Lancelot wanted to say, because somehow Merlin had managed to hit the red centre of the bullseye. While twenty meters wasn't far and it took a good deal of time for Merlin to aim, they could work with that, right?
...Except it hadn't been the bullseye that Gwaine had pronounced for Merlin, brighter red than all the rest and slightly bigger as well. Instead, the bolt had managed to hit bullseye two targets over in a very slanted entrance.
And to think, he had been ready to explain how the bolt from a crossbow could easily pierce through even the thickest armour.
Lancelot made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. "Maybe we should skip the crossbow idea."
Leon was much more traditional.
"The art of swordsmanship," he said, sounding very professional even as he twirled his sword in circles. "may be the most common to knights, but it isn't easy to learn. It takes many years before one may be completely comfortable with the sword. We'll stick with blunt weapons for now."
"I know how to use a sword," Merlin protested, although there was no heat in his words. "I've been learning. I was there with you guys and the immortal army, remember?" It was one of his proudest moments, actually, being able to hold his own against that army despite everything.
"Of course," Leon ducked his head and Merlin felt more than a bit guilty for his need to protest.
"Sorry," he murmured back, raising the blunt sword up in a defensive position. It was hard to stay irritated with Sir Leon knowing that the man was nothing but good intentions and unwavering loyalty.
"Nothing to be sorry about," Leon responded back good-naturedly. "Now. Footwork. Let's start with your stance. You can't just stand like that and expect not to be knocked over by your opponent if you don't brace yourself and work on your steps."
Three hours later, Merlin had his sword knocked out of his hands twenty-two times, managed to stumble over his own two feet more than twice that, and had been 'killed' by Sir Leon no less than sixteen times. Although he was sure the last number was so low only because Leon was being easy on him. Leon might have been patient, but he was stern in his teachings as well and unrelenting that Merlin learn what he was supposed to after he'd been taught.
They had only stopped after Merlin had tripped backward and lost his grip on his sword (again), having the blunt weapon come crashing down far too fast and sinking not an inch away from his head as he fell into the dirt.
The warlock stumbled straight into his room to collapse face-first on his bed before he heard Gaius's footsteps behind him, tsking.
"I take it your affinity with the sword is lacking," Gaius commented dryly.
"I hate swords." Merlin mumbled into his pillow, refusing to move. "We haven't gotten past footwork and how I'm supposed to hold the hilt. I'm never going to get it. He wants three more sessions the next week before we even start on a parry. Everything I do is wrong."
He felt the sympathetic pat on his shoulder as Gaius turned to leave him to his misery. "I'll comment to Sir Leon that I still need you in one piece, shall I? Swords are not your thing... you are not a knight, I'm certain Leon would understand."
The next day, half bound in bandages soaked in healing salve and stinking of wormwood, he had been pulled aside by Percival, who had informed him apologetically that he was supposed to teach Merlin how to use to mace.
"But," he said when faced with Merlin's disbelieving and pained face. "That may be too much at this stage."
A little while later and they were in a relatively private area of the training field, each of them wielding a quarterstaff. Percival had been quiet when he informed Merlin that it was alright if he didn't take to it immediately, but he had thought Merlin would be best with this weapon.
Surprisingly, Percival had been right and Merlin enjoyed himself much more with the quarterstaff, especially as the large knight didn't criticise his footwork or his lack of strength when he came to blocking and attacking. He learned slowly to twirl the quarterstaff and to block hits, using his own speed and deftness rather than brace himself against hits he was certain he wouldn't be able to take.
It helped immensely that the knight paced his hits slowly and didn't use a quarter of his strength, instead letting Merlin learn for himself what he could do against certain hits.
"It's not good on an actual battlefield," Percival admitted after their session. "But it's a good start."
The staff would not block arrows, bolts, or even swords if it was sharp enough to cut through the wood. It required close combat, which all the knights were insistent wouldn't be Merlin's style of fighting. It wasn't hard to figure out that Percieval was supposed to teach him to fight with the mace, but had changed the itinerary last minute for Merlin's sake.
Out of everything he had been subjected to, though, Merlin found he really did like the quarterstaff the best, even if it would be useless to him in a proper battle. He had a sneaking suspicion that Percieval only chose such a weapon to give him a break.
That suspicion was confirmed when the knight offered to help him carry several buckets of Arthur's bathwater for him later on.
Elyan was next, supported by his sister as Gwen waved happily to Merlin from the sidelines.
"Knife throwing is an art."
Merlin only stared blankly at the stockpile of sharp objects spilled in front of him. "...Are you sure about this?"
"We don't know anything until we try," was Elyan's determined response, even as he picked up two of the knives from the pile before them. "We'll start easy. They're light, and easy to hide. As long as your target is close, you shouldn't have to try too hard at aiming."
Merlin thought back two days ago when Lancelot had been convinced that he could handle the crossbow. "Um."
Elyan flipped the knife in his hand, making it look effortless as he gestured with the grip toward a post several feet away from them and then pulled back a bit, throwing the knife in his hand and having the blade sink deep into the wood.
"See?" He gestured toward the post. "This should be all right. We'll start with stationary targets, and then move to things further away. When your aim is perfect, we'll try moving targets."
Of course, they wouldn't have gotten to that stage within a single stage, but Merlin was sure Elyan had been exasperated with how Merlin hadn't even managed to hit the post that he had hit as an example.
Not that Merlin had hit the post, per say. He had thrown many knives that had bounced off the wood if only for the fact that it had knocked into the wood grip first. In fact, there had been one memorable time when he had hit the wood so hard that the knife bounced to the side several feet, making Guinevere shriek and duck behind her own post.
"Sorry, sorry!" Merlin had cringed at his own blunder, dropping the other throwing knife he had been holding, very close to his own feet. It didn't matter, though, seeing as Elyan had enough of his slips and just gave up on him, bundling up his collection of knives and shaking his head even as Gwen held a hand over her heart and tried to tell Merlin it was fine, he was still learning after all.
"Maybe, though," she suggested gently. "You should try something that doesn't involve throwing sharp objects?"
Arthur didn't even look up when Lancelot had dragged Merlin to his chambers in the middle of his reports, voice respectful and pleading Arthur to teach Merlin something that would help him stay alive in the battlefield.
"I was teaching him something to keep him alive," Arthur had grumbled around piles of papers concerning autumn harvests and taxes. "I was teaching him to duck. I'm not giving him a weapon to trip over and kill me with."
Merlin managed two days of peace and quiet before Gwaine accosted him in the halls of the castle, coming up from behind and slinging an arm around his shoulders.
"The others expect me to teach you how to kick arse." He explained with a wave of his hand at Merlin's questioning glance. "So we're going to go to the tavern."
"Getting drunk isn't a form of attack." Merlin said, amused.
"Doesn't matter!" Another wave of his hand, and Merlin was left wondering if his friend was already drunk before noon. Gwaine leaned in close and continued in a conspiratorial whisper, "It's not like you wouldn't be able to take out a whole army by yourself, eh?"
"Lancelot says I need to learn how to defend myself just in case... that fails." Although there wasn't much fire to those words. Merlin wasn't exactly enthusiastic about the impromptu fighting lessons, after all. But with two days to cool off, he could be a little more understanding about how they were really just trying to protect him.
Next person with that idea, though, he might have to turn into a frog.
"If that fails," Gwaine punctuated the word in the air with his fingers, pulling slightly on the arm he had over Merlin's shoulders, "then you have us to cover for you and keep you safe. That's what we're training for. So come on. Tavern."
And that was the end of that, really.