Characters: Merlin, Lancelot, Arthur, Knights
Disclaimer: Don't own
Summary: "The measure of a man wasn't always revealed in the heart of battle. More often than not, Lancelot had come to realize, it was revealed in the tests you wouldn't have dreamed possible in a million years. The tests that came at you when you weren't looking." Hurt Merlin and protective knights. Lancelot POV
Measure of a Man
The measure of a man wasn't always revealed in the heart of battle. More often than not, Lancelot had come to realize, it was revealed in the tests you wouldn't have dreamed possible in a million years. The tests that came at you when you weren't looking. Tests such as riding out with your best knights in search of one wayward serving boy, then chasing down said serving boy through a brambly woodland and discovering that angered wild boars are easier quarry.
The measure of Merlin was that when drugged, scared out of his mind and missing the boots on his feet, he was fleet-foot as a deer and a scrapper when caught. Lancelot was secretly glad it was Gwaine, not him, doing the catching. Even with his armor on, Gwaine was going to have some impressive bruises come morning, and in the worst possible places.
Merlin also wasn't in control of his magic when drugged, but when weakened it didn't mean much except to add a bit more punch to his fight. Thus the soon-to-be impressive bruises.
But Merlin wasn't so drugged as to not eventually - ifinally/i - take note of reality and cease to put up such an admirable fuss. He felt quite bad about it as only Merlin could, which was to feel incredibly bad about it, offer up an endless litany of sobbing apologies and all while looking not unlike a small child wanting nothing more than to cling to a parent, but afraid that parent was still mad at them and wanting nothing to do with them.
Gwaine being Gwaine – and Merlin looking terrified, battered, bruised, frozen to the bone without his jacket and limping without his boots – forgave him easily in a rather high-pitched and cracked voice, with perhaps a hint of tears at the corners of his eyes, which Lancelot knew Gwaine would deny to his grave.
That wasn't the end of it, not by a long shot. Because Merlin might have been aware but there were still mind-altering herbs in his body (his dilated pupils said so) and he was still skittish (the latter proven when Gwaine attempted to carry a barefoot Merlin over his shoulder... and paid for it with more bruises in uncomfortable places). For all his sobbing, cringing and general agonizing contrition, Merlin was like a feral animal, seen but barely approached and Heaven forbid if you tried to touch him.
Which was very problematic when they returned to the cave they called camp. Merlin was exhausted, growing more exhausted by the minute, and shaking fit for his bones to pop out of his skin. Winter was coming early to the land, the air so crisp it was already freezing a man's breath into clouds, and there had been rain, lots of it, soaking Merlin to the marrow.
"We can't return to Camelot just yet," Arthur said when he, Elyan and Percieval returned. "The day's almost over. Merlin won't be able to deal with the cold once night comes."
Which, had Merlin been more clear headed, was something he would have protested to vehemently. Mostly for the sake of it, Lancelot knew, because the boy never backed down from a challenge where what he was and wasn't capable of doing (and Arthur) were concerned. That he didn't say anything, his eyes clenched shut and his body curled into a ball on the ground in a blanket as safely close to the fire as possible, said everything they needed to know. It wasn't good.
With the temperature dropping, the fire meager and Merlin a rattling sack of skin and bones with only thread-bare and wet clothes to cover him, Lancelot knew there was only one option.
It wasn't a pretty option, not with Merlin out of his head, tired and once more having lapsed into a state of partial, paranoid oblivion. And, lords, could that skinny, wiry, pale slip of a man put up a fight, kicking and thrashing and adding new bruises not just to Gwaine but Percieval as well. Arthur, being Arthur, kept ordering Merlin to stop. Lancelot attempted a more gentle approach but had to speak over Arthur to do it, and Elyan offered an endless stream of useless advice.
All in all, they got nowhere. Then Arthur sliced Merlin's shirt off with a dagger and made it worse. Merlin yelped, "Cold!" snapped his head back into Gwaine's head, who stumbled sideways into Percieval, who somehow fell just right to knock Arthur's feet out from under him, who landed on the two men in a heap of limbs inadvertently freeing Merlin, who would have made a break for it if Lancelot hadn't caught him.
"Shh, Merlin, I've got you. I've... Merlin, stop it's me, it's..." Now Lancelot had his own bruises he'd rather not brag about.
Merlin passed out – thank whatever divine entity was taking pity on them – and Elyan did a poor job of not laughing at the others while he helped Lancelot stretch Merlin out on a blanket.
The next bit should have been the easy bit. But there was no easy when the man of the hour was about as cooperative as an angry badger. The knights, stripped to their under clothes, were finally able to begin gathering themselves in a nest of blankets, bodies and shared warmth with Merlin relatively at the center. That was the plan, at least. Even an exhausted, out-of-it Merlin knew when he was having none of something, and he was having none this. The knights attempted to settle beneath the piles of blankets. Merlin mustered what strength and consciousness he could and crawled away. Percieval grabbed him by the foot and pulled him back. Merlin squirmed backward the other way. Elyan grabbed him around the waist. Merlin kicked him in the shins.
"Enough! Merlin, I order you to lie still!" Arthur bellowed.
Merlin did, only because he'd passed out again. The knights moved quickly gathering around Merlin, and that would have been the end of that if Merlin hadn't been quite the kicker in his sleep. A rather violent kicker. Now Lancelot had more bruises to go with his other bruises, and Arthur was earning his fair share.
Merlin woke up again and tried to crawl away.
"Merlin," Arthur groaned.
Lancelot wasn't sure what happened next. There was a yelp, a high-pitched, "Don't touch me!" followed by the wet sound of flesh on flesh. When Lancelot sat up, a cowering Merlin was being cornered by Percieval and Arthur was nursing a bloody nose while whining, "He kicked me!"
Gwaine tossed up his hands. "This isn't working, mates. I say we break out the wine skin, get him sloshed..."
"Might make him worse," Percieval said, standing at the ready should Merlin try to make a run for it.
"We need to give him time, wait until what ever was put into him wears off," said Elyan.
Gwaine gaped and gestured sharply at Merlin. "Wait? Are you crazy? Look at him! He'll be a frozen lump of skin by the time that happens. He needs to be warmed and warmed, now."
"Well I'm open to suggestions," Arthur growled, dabbing at his nose with a cloth.
Lancelot looked at Merlin, wide-eyed, huddled with his knees to his chest as he rocked in desperate agitation, back curved tight pressing his ribs and spine in uncomfortable detail into his skin. It was amazing he had put up the fight he had, lasted as long as he had. There were vicious bruises all over him, small cuts, the marks if ill-treatment and, perhaps, the sad tale as to why he had struggled, why he balked so terribly whenever he was touched.
Slavers had taken him; the knights knew when they'd found the disgusting remains of a slaver camp, buried the bodies of those slaves too weak or unwanted to carry on so left behind to die. Lancelot wondered if Merlin had used his magic to escape, and if the slavers knew he had magic and thought drugging him would make him more compliant. Then, when that hadn't work, they had added beatings to the druggings.
Had they caught him, would they have killed him, thinking him too much trouble to keep and sell?
Lancelot's mind shied away from the thought. Merlin; kind, light-hearted, fragile looking yet brave Merlin at the mercy of such... monsters. It made Lancelot's stomach turn.
"Let me talk to him," he said.
Gwaine grimaced. "Good luck."
Lancelot took one of the blankets and walked softly toward Merlin. Percieval backed away, just enough to give them space. Lancelot couldn't have been no more than four steps away when every wiry muscle in Merlin's body tensed.
"Don't touch me!" he snarled fiercely, shrinking back.
Lancelot held up both hands, the one still gripping the blanket.
"I'm not, Merlin. No one's going to touch you. It's just... you look cold." He dropped the blanket to the ground and nudged it toward Merlin with his foot. "I thought you might like this."
Quick as a snake, Merlin snatched the blanket and pulled it tight around his pale shoulders. Lancelot continued edging around until he was able to see Merlin's face, or what he could see of his face, most of it buried behind his knees.
"Can I sit with you?" Lancelot asked.
When Merlin didn't say anything, Lancelot took it as an invitation. His movements remained methodical, soft, non-threatening and Merlin showed no signs of bolting, lost in the comfort of his rocking.
Lancelot thought he heard wet sniffling.
"It's all right, Merlin," Lancelot said, making himself comfortable on the cold, hard, unforgiving ground. "You're all right. You're safe, now. No one's going to hurt you. You're among friends." He nodded to the others. "I think we're good, here."
They didn't look happy, Gwaine and Arthur especially, but there was nothing else for it. Merlin would come when he was ready, and anything else would only make matters worse.
Percieval added wood to the fire, the rest of the knights made themselves comfortable, and time crawled by like snails. Lancelot measured its passage through Merlin – the decrease of his shivers, the relaxed muscles of his shoulders, his thin body slumping against the wall, his arms dropping to his sides. During that time, Percieval approached without a sound and handed Lancelot his blanket.
And Lancelot regarded Merlin, regarded the light-hearted and fragile looking boy who may not have been a knight, but who certainly had the heart of one. The young man who rode into battle without armor, his only weapon a secret that could just as easily end his life as save it, but a weapon he used anyway and always to save others. If there was ever flesh and blood proof that honor and bravery was not measured by a sword and chain mail, Merlin was it. And although he could not be a knight, Lancelot hoped that one day this skinny little good-spirited warlock received the honor he deserved. Until that time, Lancelot hoped Merlin never forgot that he was one of them. Knight or not, he would always be one of them.
Lancelot tried to stay awake and watch Merlin, he did, but the warmth of the blanket and the endurances of the day had sapped him of what strength he'd had left. He only knew he had slept when disturbing dreams startled him awake. In those dreams, Merlin had been among the bodies they'd buried, and when Lancelot found himself back in the cave rather than the grave site, his eyes roamed wildly for Merlin.
He found the boy tucked shivering against his side, his dark head against his arm, fast asleep.
Lancelot picked up a small rock and lobbed it at his fellow knights. It hit Gwaine square on the head. Gwaine bolted upright with a snarl, one hand going to his sword and the other rubbing the offended spot of his skull. But when he looked at Lancelot, an eyebrow quirked.
Lancelot waved him over. If they were going to do this, the time was now.
Gwaine thumped Arthur on the shoulder. A groggy, irritable Arthur elbowed Elyan and Elyan took it out on Percieval with a kick to his shin. They were all going to be wonderfully bruised come morning.
But they gathered around Lancelot and Merlin, adding their blankets and their warmth until the boy finally stopped shivering. It wasn't as comfortable as lying down, but it would do.