"This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone." Tyler Caldwell
"Good morning, sire." Merlin's unaccountably happy voice broke through Arthur's slumber in the very worst way, and the king rolled over onto his stomach, putting the pillow over his head. Just one day he wanted to sleep until he woke up naturally, but of course that could never happen. Kings don't have days off.
"What's so good about it?" Arthur mumbled, as he did most mornings.
"It snowed. It's pretty."
"Snow just means more work, Merlin." More people coming to Camelot in the winter, hoping for food during the long months. More work for those who had to bring the carts up from the lower town. Snow meant longer traveling times and treacherous mountains. Not to mention that it was ridiculously cold.
"Merlin," Arthur said, finally working his way out of his blankets to find the air freezing. "You let the fire go out."
Merlin reddened to the tips of his ears, "I, er…I fell asleep, Arthur. With Gaius gone, people are coming to me all night for remedies. They know I'm out during the day. By the time I finished I forgot and just…fell asleep?" He smiled in that way Merlin always did, and Arthur gave him a look that made the smile slowly disappear.
"When is Gaius to return?"
"He sent word yesterday. He won't be back before Christmas." Merlin tried not to show his disappointment. He liked celebrating the holiday with Gaius, and this would be his first Christmas without the old man since coming to Camelot. "The sickness is working its way through the outer villages of the kingdom. He fears if he doesn't stop it there it will take Camelot."
Arthur nodded, stretching. The cold made his muscles, already sore from training and riding and whatever else he'd been doing, bunch up in the night so that whenever he moved he felt an ache in one place or another. What he really wanted was a steaming bath…but in the winter it always took hours to boil enough water, and by the time the last bucket was added the whole tub would only be lukewarm.
He said as much to Merlin, who nodded sympathetically, filing away the information for future use. "What's on the list for today, sire?"
"King Hothgar is coming with a small battalion of men. He says it's just to share the spirit of the holidays, but I know he will want Camelot to pledge knights to his campaign against the trolls plaguing Arileen's bridges."
"Ah. That's why the kitchen was so busy this morning." Feasts just caused headaches for the kitchen, especially since they made Peter, the head cook, so anxious about something going wrong that he was horrid to the kitchen staff. And Peter had never liked Merlin. Not that many of the servants really did. Everyone envied his position as Arthur's manservant, though Merlin never understood why. He always seemed to be busier, more banged up, and put into more life threatening situations than anyone else.
"Merlin, if you're not going to do something useful, go ready the horses."
"We're riding out to meet Hothgar. If he wants Camelot to help with the trolls I want to know as soon as possible so I can think about the answer before the feast tonight."
Merlin hadn't been just standing around. He'd been laying out Arthur's feast, which had ended up in different pockets and bags on his person. He looked longingly at the meal, and coughed a little to cover the growl his stomach let out at the sight. "But there's snow!"
"I thought you liked the snow."
"I said it was pretty. I didn't say I liked it." Snow was cold, and Merlin didn't relish going out into it.
But perhaps it would be better than getting another pot chucked at his head. Merlin ducked, making the mental note (not for the first time) to remove all throwable objects from Arthur's room.
Merlin shivered on the horse. He really wished for heavier clothes, but most of his meager salary had gone to a new blanket, and the coat he was eyeing at the tailor's would be six weeks' salary. He would be lucky if he could get it before January.
"Stop shaking, Merlin." Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "Honestly, anything that would attack us got as blindsided by the snow as we did. We're perfectly safe."
Gwaine cleared his throat, guessing, if not actually knowing, that that was not what was causing Merlin to shake. Merlin shot him a glance that clearly meant drop it before turning to the king. "If we're perfectly safe, why did you bring archers?"
"Because Hothgar is an ally now but you can never be too careful."
"Because he might attack us? That means he wasn't blindsided by the snow."
"No one likes a smart aleck, Merlin."
"Oh come on," Merlin said, grinning. The banter was keeping his mind off his freezing hands, which he wrapped around the pommel on his saddle so Arthur wouldn't notice them, "You know you'd miss me if I were gone."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that."
Off in the distance, trumpets pierced the cold stillness of the air. Arthur sat up straighter and Merlin respectfully dropped back, behind the king and his knights, behind even the archers. How was it that after all this time, he was still awestruck by the splendor of visiting dignitaries? As Hothgar's men appeared out of the thickets of trees, Merlin sucked in his breath. The blue of their cloaks contrasted deeply with the snow, splashes of color like flowers in winter, where the Camelot men stood stark like blood on a pale cheek, a red that was vigorous and vital rather than violent. Red like passion, like the dawn of a new day.
Merlin shook his head. It was voicing these thoughts aloud that had gotten him laughed at by some of the male servants earlier in the day. In their estimation, he was a pansy as well as spoiled enough to land the cushy job as the king's manservant.
An hour later they were back in Camelot. Hothgar had made some mentions of trolls, and Merlin had seen the lines appear on the king's face at the thought of sending fifteen or twenty men and probably losing them all to the vicious creatures. But what could they do? Hothgar was an ally, and winter was the worst time to walk out of alliances. A food shortage, a sickness, and you may need their help before spring could bring new life to the world.
Merlin was thinking about the matter – for Arthur would ask his opinion, he always did – as he brushed down the horses and draped a blanket over them. "At least one of us should be warm," Merlin said, petting Achilles's cheek. His brown horse whinnied softly and nipped at his sleeve. Merlin laughed, then coughed so hard he ended up with his back against the wall, breathing heavily. Great. Sick on top of everything.
"Hey you! Servant!" Merlin stood up straight and looked warily at the men who approached him. Knights of Arileen, he could tell as much from their cloaks. "Help us with our training, yes?"
"Sorry. I'm needed elsewhere." He tried to move around them, but they blocked his path, raising eyebrows, drawing swords.
"That wasn't really a request."
Merlin sighed. He really didn't have time for this. If he ducked out on helping the other servants set up for the feast he definitely wouldn't be able to get any food from the kitchens – they would give stuff to Gaius, but not to him, and with Gaius gone he hadn't been eating much more than what he could knick. And Arthur would need him to help get ready for the feast, to bounce ideas off of. With Gwen gone, Merlin was the only person he really trusted. Except for Agravaine, and Merlin would do anything to stop Arthur from seeking advice from that man.
"What would you have me do?"
Turns out, knights train similarly whether they're from Arileen or Camelot. Ten minutes later found Merlin standing in the courtyard, a shied hefted on one shoulder, looking warily at the men who were smiling, twirling swords in their hands. He knew what boredom and monotony could do to a knight, and he knew that there were many in that profession who liked to see the suffering of others. Arthur was able to quell behavior like that in Camelot, but not many leaders knew or cared what happened when their knights were no longer on duty.
The first blow winded him. It was cold, and the snow was soaking through his boots. The impact was made all the worse by his chilled skin, his nerves which seemed to be on end in the low temperatures. "Stay still, you." The voice was arrogant, lazy, and Merlin straightened up, determined not to let weakness show again.
But as the blows rained, one after another, it was harder and harder to keep upright, to keep himself from collapsing under the assault. The broad side of a sword caught his wrist and he yelped, dropping the shield, dropping to his knees and cradling his arm to his chest.
A foot caught him in the back and he went flying into the snow. He struggled to get onto his back – if he could face them, he could use magic, and at that point magic might truly be the difference between life and death.
Except by the time he flipped onto his back the only thing he could see was a sword coming for his chest. Too close to stop, too close to do anything but cringe and hope and pray that it wouldn't hurt.
And then the sword came out of nowhere, and Merlin opened his eyes to see the king standing over him. He got a flash then – maybe it was the way Arthur's hair gleamed in the sunlight, or how angry he looked as he twitched his wrist and the sword flew out of the other knight's hand, but at that moment Merlin completely understood their destinies. Arthur was Camelot's best chance at real change.
Merlin's blood was still pounding in his ears from the close call, and he missed most of what Arthur said to the pair of knights. He got the gist, though. Something about how life is worth something on every level, nobleman and servant. Something about common human decency, and about how they'd disgraced their position by lording their power over the weak.
The two slunk off with their tails between their legs, like dogs reproached. Arthur watched them go, then sheathed his sword and looked down at Merlin, still on the ground. "Can you stand?"
"Give me a moment." Merlin's voice was high and slightly hysterical. Arthur must have heard that in him, because he bent and hauled the servant to his feet. Merlin bit his lip so as not to make a sound, and put his hurt arm behind his back. "Thank you, Arthur."
"I hate diplomacy. I knew this was going to be a bad day." Arthur led the way back up the castle, with Merlin shivering and shaking, stumbling in his wake. "And now I have to play nice with Hothgar. And give him knights he's just going to kill."
"You've decided that's the best course of action?"
"It's the only course of action. We cannot afford to lose Arileen as an ally. They're smaller than Camelot, but they have far richer farm lands. If it's a long winter we may need their assistance."
"But you know that whatever knights you send will just be killed."
"I can always hope. From the looks of it, we train our knights better than Arileen trains them. That's something. If we ever come to blows I won't be too worried about the outcome." They reached the first of many flights of stairs and Arthur turned, noticing Merlin was no longer right behind him. "Are you alright?" He said this quietly, and Merlin was touched by the concern.
"Fine. Just cold."
"Why did you do that, anyway? Train with the knights in the snow?"
"They ordered me, Arthur. I don't have the luxury of disobeying an order from a nobleman."
"Why not? You're my manservant. Surely being the king's manservant means something."
"I'm still a servant." Merlin stopped halfway up the stairs, catching his breath. "I can't put on airs. I can't afford to act like my position is higher than any other servant's in the royal household."
"But it is!" Arthur said, reaching a hand towards Merlin's hurt arm. Merlin surged forward, away from the king, and turned when he got to the top of the staircase.
"Without Gwen I have no allies. None. You lost a lover, and I'm sorry about that, I truly am, but I lost my only friend amongst the servants. They've all turned against me."
"Why? Because they don't understand, Arthur. They don't understand why I'm always with you instead of helping to set up for a feast, or with the rest of the city for harvest. And now I have no Gwen and no Gaius and no allies in the kitchen." He'd said more than he meant to, and leaned against the wall, biting his lip as he held his arm. Oh, how he wished Gaius were here, to help him with his injuries. Just to have someone friendly to talk to, someone who was his peer – Arthur was great, and the knights were always kind to him, but there was always that something. They were knights and he was a servant. Arthur was king, and if he knew the whole truth about Merlin he would kill him. What kind of a friendship is that?
Arthur opened his mouth, eyes softening as he really looked at the soaking, shaking young man in front of him. He was about to say something about Merlin having an hour or two off to change, to get some food, to warm up next to fire. But before the words were even part way out of his mouth Merlin ducked his head in a way he rarely did when it was just the two of them alone.
"Excuse me, sire. I should go to the kitchens. They'll need help with the feast. I'll be with you in time to help you get ready." He moved past Arthur, and the king let him go, noticing the color on his cheeks and ears. Merlin was embarrassed. Embarrassed by his injuries and by his outburst, and he wanted to be alone.
And so the only person King Arthur really wanted to talk to left him standing on the steps, alone.
Merlin stood in front of the great fire in the kitchen, trying to be as small as possible. He examined his wrist in the flickering firelight and wished again for Gaius. The whole forearm was one big bruise, and it hurt to move his hand even a little. He was afraid one of the smaller bones had broken, and was starting to get a headache to add to the other aches throughout his body. But at least he was getting warm.
"Move it, you." One of the kitchen boys snarled, hitting Merlin in the back so hard he almost went sprawling into the fire. He'd tried helping bring food and silverware up to the great hall, but after dropping a stack of dishes he'd been told not to help. "Why don't you just go to the king where you belong?"
Because he wasn't yet dry, and couldn't even contemplate traveling through the chilly corridors of the castle still damp. And because…maybe it was Christmas fast approaching without Gaius or Gwen, but the difference between a lowly servant and the king of Camelot seemed more pronounced than ever.
So close to the holiday, and how was Merlin celebrating it? Not with his true family, not with his sort of adopted father, not with any friends. Suddenly he felt very un-cheerful indeed.
"It's an hour to the feast. You better go to the king." One of the baking women grunted, and Merlin flashed a smile of thanks at her. He retrieved his neckerchief from where it had been drying a safe distance above the flames and started the long climb from the basement kitchens to Arthur's high room.
"Merlin. I thought you'd gotten lost."
"Not quite." Merlin said, smiling at the only man he really talked to nowadays. "You ready to face Hothgar?"
"I'll never be ready. Have I mentioned I hate diplomacy? Why can't we just settle everything with swords?"
"Then there'd be no need for a king. We'd just have a bunch of knights out and about, whacking people on the head. I know it sounds like loads of fun to you, but us lowly folk like to think that people in power know what they're doing, and prefer peace to war." Merlin deftly fixed the clasp Arthur was trying to fasten, straightening the cloak around the king's shoulders and looking at them both in the mirror. His clothes were starting to look ridiculously shabby in comparison to Arthur's finery, and he moved out of the reflection before Arthur could see his blush.
"Grab my sword for me?" Arthur said without turning around. He was staring at the scar on his neck, the one he'd gotten from that fight with the bandits on the Eastern border…or was it against the wyverns on the Western one…?
Merlin grabbed the sword, started forward a few steps, and was hit with a wave of pain so bad he collapsed onto all fours, arms wrapped tight around his chest. He vaguely hear Arthur saying his name, first annoyed, then with increased anxiety. There were hands on his shoulders, and he wanted to tell Arthur to get off, please, he was hurting him. The pain was so bad…as if someone was grinding against his internal organs…
Arthur put his hands on Merlin's shoulders, but took them off when the servant moaned at the touch. And his skin! Freezing through the thin fabric. He'd only felt skin as cold on the dead, and the comparison was not one Arthur wanted to dwell on.
"Help!" He called once, and then Merlin shook his head, a hand scrabbling for his arm.
"No, please, it's alright. Give me a moment."
And so Arthur waited, grabbing the heavy covers off his bed and tucking them around Merlin's too-small body. He tried once, twice, three times to look at Merlin's injuries, and each time was shaken off by a snarling, pained version of the servant he'd come to know and appreciate. "Are you hurt badly?"
No, not too badly, and if he'd had time to go back to his rooms for a few minutes since the altercation with the knights, he would have been able to heal himself with magic. "I'm alright, sire."
"No you're not." Arthur stood up and looked at Merlin. Really looked at him. He was too thin, bundled up in a blanket that swallowed him whole. And his clothes – thin, fraying garments as he'd seen beggars wear, not servants of the royal household. "Look, why don't you sit this one out?"
"Sire, no, I can -"
"Stay here, sit by the fire. I'll bring up some food for you. And I forbid you from trying to do anything tonight. Don't even go back to your rooms – those looking for Gaius will find you, and then you'll be roped into gallivanting around the kingdom all night. No, believe me, Camelot can survive for a night. You can't. Think of it as an early Christmas present."
This was so unexpected that Merlin could only gape as Arthur swept around the room, getting the last things he needed for the feast. "So you can get ready by yourself."
"Yes, Merlin. All this time it was just a ploy to make you feel useful." Arthur had to hold his tongue to stop himself from snapping the usual – polish my armor, clean my clothes. "Just relax, okay? Do you want me to send in one of the maids with bandages?"
"No. The injuries aren't that bad."
Arthur gave him a look, one that said that well, yeah, the injuries are that bad, you stubborn prick. His expression softened when he put his hand on the doorknob. "You're the only one I can really talk to, Merlin. The only one who calls me out when I'm doing something wrong. Who I don't have to impress. I couldn't lose you."
Merlin ducked his head. "Well, sire, at the moment you're the only one I have, too."
"What a couple of lonely blokes we are." Arthur was going to be late, but he didn't want to leave Merlin in such a state to go and try to be diplomatic with people he didn't care about. The only person he really cared about anymore was currently freezing, injured, and hungry in this very room.
"Go on then. Everyone's waiting for their king, and you know Gwaine doesn't like waiting. He's liable to jump in there and try his hand at diplomacy himself."
"God save us all if that ever happens." And Arthur left for real that time. And Merlin was alone.
When Arthur got back to the room, with a plate stacked high with food, he wasn't exactly surprised to see that Merlin hadn't stayed put. After all, when was the last time the servant ever listened to him?
"I thought I told you to stay put."
"I did!" Merlin said, testing the water in the tub. "Well, mostly."
Arthur peered at the bath and hesitantly put a hand in it. "It's warm! This must have taken hours!"
"Just the time it takes to finangle at a feast. What of it? Are we helping Arileen?"
Arthur sighed, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. "I couldn't get out of it entirely, but I managed to pledge only a dozen knights. And not until the New Year. They can still have their Christmas."
"Some Christmas this is shaping up to be."
"It's not as bad as all that." Except it was. In the last year, Arthur had had his father and his lover taken from him. This seemed to hang in the air between the two men, and Arthur put the food down on the table with a clatter that seemed extraordinarily loud in the quiet room. "Go on then," Arthur said quietly, looking at Merlin intently.
"Wha -? Oh." Merlin started for, reaching for the clasp on Arthur's cloak, and Arthur shook him off as a horse would shake off a fly. With a sweeping motion that somehow conveyed the depth of Arthur's annoyance, he shook off the cloak.
"No. When was the last time you took a hot bath, Merlin?"
"Gaius drew one for me when we were attacked by the bandits."
"The second time. Leon got a sword to the cheek?"
"That was nearly two years ago!" Arthur said, shaking his head. "No, tonight we're going to get some food in you, you're going to get warm, and then we'll see to getting you some decent clothes. It's not right that the king's manservant should appear in public in such a state. People will think I'm not feeding you."
"You don't feed me, sire."
"But the whole world doesn't need to know that. I'm trying to come off as a compassionate king." Arthur made up a plate with some of the mountain of food he brought in, mostly so that his back would be to Merlin when he said, "Those knights that attacked you have been dealt with."
"They didn't attack me, sire. They just got overzealous."
"They were using their rank to cause harm. That shouldn't be acceptable."
"It's the boredom. They have no wars to wage in the winter."
Arthur studied Merlin as he stripped off his shirt. He'd known that the servant was thin, but never expected this! Ribs so close to the skin he could have counted them, collarbone sticking out. He shook his head and Merlin blushed, embarrassed by how scrawny he was next to one of the most accomplished knights in the world. "Perhaps we can create a system to combat the boredom?"
"Yes," Merlin said, looking supremely relieved that Arthur wasn't commenting on the sad state of affairs that was his terrible thinness. "Like the tournament, only longer. Year-round. A club."
"The knights is already a sort of club."
"Something just for Camelot knights. Exclusive. Have them…oh, look for old treasures. Rescue damsels in distress."
"That was too easy, sire. I expect more. And you know what I mean."
Arthur leaned against the doorframe, studying Merlin as the servant relaxed into the hot water, looking more at ease than he could remember ever seeing him. "I do know what you mean. A club for the men to not get bored. Mind you, it's not like Camelot is boring. We seem to be attacked every week like clockwork." He kept watching Merlin, eyes lingering on the bruises, on the scars. "Please eat something, Merlin. I don't need you passing out on me."
"Everything in good time, sire. Did you notice it was snowing again?"
"I did. It's still not pretty. It's work."
"Ah." Merlin's lips twitched when he heard the gong ring out. Midnight. "It's prettier on Christmas Eve, though."
Arthur started. "It's Christmas Eve?" Of course without Gwen, without Morgana, without even his father, there wasn't much to celebrate this Christmastime. Easy enough to loose track of the days. "Merry Christmas then, Merlin. There's literally nobody else I'd rather spend it with."
"What a couple of lonely blokes we are." Merlin said, echoing the king from earlier. He was hit in the eye with the apple a moment later, and without missing a beat he bit into the fruit, chewing gratefully. The other servants' attitudes didn't matter. Nor, even, did the knights' behavior. He was friends with the king of Camelot, was helping to shape the course of history.
"Merry Christmas to you, too. Arthur."
just something short and sweet for the holiday season. here's hoping everyone's happy, healthy, and with the friends and family you want to be with to celebrate whatever you celebrate this time of year. we, personally, wish everyone a merry christmas from the bottom of our hearts.