Characters: Merlin, Arthur, Gaius
Summary: Tag for The Gates of Avalon. A day in the stocks after being thrown into a wall does not a happy back make, and that's just the start of Merlin's problems. Merlin whump. Friendship. Gen.
Of Being Thrown into Walls and Other Woes
Merlin woke and immediately wished the sidhe man had killed him. How in this world and beyond did a body go from relatively fine if a bit tomato-stained to this mass of aches, pains and congestion from chest to his head? Merlin knew some of those vegetables could be bloody hard but not so hard to warrant his body the impression of having endured a brutal beating. The congestion took a little longer to place. The lake, no doubt – it had been chilly that day, and having had time enough to change clothes but not to properly warm up couldn't have helped. But it wasn't like he was the only one who'd taken a plunge.
"Please tell me Arthur's been coughing fit to bring up a lung," Merlin said (not whined. Definitely not whined, even if it did sound like a whine, but then congestion often did make one sound whiny) as he staggered somewhat bent down the stairs.
Gaius glanced up from the pot of porridge he was stirring, took one look at Merlin and rearranged his features into a sympathetic grimace. "I've received no complaints as such, I'm afraid."
Merlin made an incoherent noise of lament (that was not a whimper) and slouched his painful way to the table. He was immediately accosted by Gaius' hand on his forehead.
"Definitely a bit warm. Often the result of spending far too long in a freezing lake, I'm afraid."
"But Arthur was in it longer than I was! He was practically half-drowned when I got him o-" Merlin was cut off by a series of violent sneezes that he could have sworn were trying to turn his head inside-out.
Gaius sighed, patting Merlin's shoulder with one hand while offering him one of his collection of rags piled on his work bench with the other.
"Blame it on stress," Gaius said. "Nothing wears a body down faster than putting it through an ordeal. Arthur would have been quite relaxed, being enchanted as he was."
Merlin snorted, coughed, then finished his snort. "Right. I save Arthur's arse yet again - cover for said arse, by the way - he's healthy as a horse and I get tomato in my hair, a bloody cold and not to mention whatever the hell is going on with my back; Gaius, it hurts just to sit." And, yes, even he had to admit that what came out of his mouth could not be called anything but a whine. He didn't care. His back felt tied in knots making it difficult to sit straight and ease the pressure off his packed lungs – lungs so packed, in fact, that whatever it was packed with had spilled over into his head that would soon explode at any moment.
Frowning, Giaus vanished behind Merlin, and suddenly Merlin's back was feeling incredibly cold.
"Oh, Merlin, my boy, I am so sorry. Er... try not to move while I fetch something for the bruising."
"Bruising?" Merlin said, giving his head another reason to protest when he tried to get a look at his back. His bunched up shirt was mostly in the way, but from what he could see (mostly of his shoulder, and mostly not much of it), his poor back had seen better days. Never had he carried so many bruises on one small part of his body, and that included post-sparring sessions with an extra prattish prince.
"You were thrown against a wall, remember?" Gaius said, medical kit in hand. "I fear between seeing to Arthur and ensuring a proper cover story for the event, it had slipped my mind that more than just your head was rattled. You in the stocks would have made it worse. I'm sorry to say it but you're going to feel a bit stiff for some time."
"Why now? I was perfectly fine the other day?"
"You were also moving about and your sickness had yet to settle. Aches often manifest when you're no longer moving."
Merlin groaned, burying his head in his hands while Gaius dabbed at his back with healing ointments.
"I'm supposed to go with Arthur today... inspect some farmlands or something and I don't think – ow! Gaius!"
Gaius had proceeded from gentle dabbing to digging his fingers without mercy into Merlin's flank. "I'm ensuring your ribs are still intact, Merlin. That was a vicious hit you took," he said with his usual impatience over things he thought should be obvious.
"Yes, Gaius, I'm very aware of how vicious it was," Merlin griped. "But somehow I still don't think it's going to be enough to get me out of traipsing around the countryside on horseback."
"Yes, well, it never hurts to at least try, and I do suggest you try. It may be spring but there's still a chill to the air, and riding will only do your back more harm."
Merlin sighed feeling prematurely weary before the day had yet to begin. "I'll try."
But unlike his and Arthur's destiny, trying and succeeding were not always two sides of the same coin. No sooner had Merlin made his slumped and coughing way to the prince's chambers than he was met by said prince coming the other way, dressed for travel and looking extremely annoyed.
"Good lords, Merlin, can't you do anything on time? Go get the blasted horses ready. We leave now," Arthur said, and he kept on walking, taking any chance Merlin had of talking his way free of todays venture with him.
Which, at any other time, Merlin wouldn't have stood by and let happen. But pain and a stuffy head had made him obnoxiously compliant. Merlin did as told and, lords, was it a lesson in torture. Merlin had never fully appreciated all that one's back had to put up with. Bending down was hell enough. Saddling the horses was like being thrown into the wall all over again, and the blasted beasts who didn't deserve the name "battle horse" kept flinching every time he coughed.
By the time Arthur, four knights and Merlin set off, the chills set in and Merlin was shivering fit to make his teeth chatter, which furthered Arthur's annoyance and provided excellent fodder for him to call Merlin a skinny little girl and say that he bet Merlin got chills in the deep summer if there was so much as a breeze. Oh, and that if Merlin wanted to keep warm he should wear more petticoats (the royal bastard). Gaius was also right – riding was not good for an injured back. In fact, it was worse than trying to saddle a horse. Merlin could have sworn his vertebrea were grinding together.
Merlin should have said something before they'd set off, if not about his illness and pains then at least something equally insulting. He'd had plenty of time to voice his complaints, but the sad fact was he'd been so focused on ignoring his discomforts in order to accomplish his tasks that he'd completely forgotten to say anything at all until he was mounted and they were moving, and the back pains refused to let him speed his mare up long enough to put him alongside Arthur.
One of Arthur's many responsibilities was to ascertain the condition of those fields personally owned by the royal house – or, to put it more simply - ask how the current planting was coming. It was a way to help boost morale and faith in the kingdom, Arthur said. It was busy work and a lesson in responsibility because Uther loved lessons in responsibility, Merlin thought.
There was a good chance Merlin was still feeling a bit bitter about the stocks.
There weren't that many villages to visit, but they were far enough apart that Arthur's little entrourage would be out for most of the day. Gaius had also been right that there was still a chill to the air, the kind of chill that slipped through the skin and coated the bones. Merlin coughed periodically and wretchedly into his hands, and becasue of it his throat now felt as though it were on fire.
"Lords, Merlin, you're an utter misery guts today. Normally you'd have talked my ear off by now," Arthur said as they left village number one, which had finally put Merlin's horse next to Arthur's.
Merlin coughed wetly into his hand before speaking. "Sorry, sire. A little under the weather today."
"I can see that. Why didn't you say anything? The last thing I need is you swooning right off your horse like the dainty little girl you are and slowing us down. Clumsy and inconsiderate. I have to wonder, sometimes, what possessed my father to make you my manservant."
Merlin glared daggers at Arthur – flaming daggers with little barbs along the edges, but they might as well be wrapped in wool for all the reaction it got.
"I'm so sorry sire that the state of my health has become such an inconvenience, sire. Would you like me to become magically better, sire? Oh, wait, I can't." Although not for lack of trying, and making matters worse for his back, Merlin could have sworn.
"Even if you could, magic is outlawed." Arthur said it like a line rehearsed whenever someone happened to mention magic, even if the mention was a purely sarcastic one.
Merlin rolled his eyes, then wished he hadn't when it made him dizzy. The last thing he needed was to faint and prove Arthur right. Yes, he should have said something. He had wanted to say something, but the illness hadn't let him, and now here he was, trying to stay upright and cursing his sudden inability to speak up when it had mattered the most.
"I'll be fine," Merlin muttered petulantly.
"You had better. I refuse to carry you back like some limp, helpless maid."
Merlin glared flaming daggers and a poisoned sword at Arthur.
Village number two, and Merlin was hunched even deeper into himself, coughing until he thought his ribs might pull apart and the pain in his back like hands twisting his spine without mercy. After village three, it was time for a meal, and that meant dismounting.
Mounting a horse had nothing on dismounting after a long ride, adding further knots to the muscles of the back. Pain robbed Merlin of any grace he might have possessed to show off and prove he wasn't clumsy or inconsiderate, and it seemed a miracle he was still standing. No, not a miracle, a tree. The moment Merlin's feet touched the ground he had toppled sideways, shoulder digging into the rough bark of an oak, while he fought his body not to buckle in on itself.
Merlin must have made that noise that sounded like a whimper but most definitely wasn't when Arthur was suddenly by his side, spooking Merlin with his sudden presence. The man could be unnervingly stealthy even when loaded down by clanking armor when he wanted.
"For goodness sake, Merlin, how sick are you?" Arthur demanded.
Merlin, his eyes squeezed shut against the pain, slowly peeled them open, blinking back the tears. He swallowed, the saliva in his mouth like thistles scraping his throat raw.
"S-sorry. Sorry, just... need a minute. Back ache," he mumbled.
Arthur curled his lip at him. "This soon? A sore bum I'd understand but your back... Let me see, maybe you pulled something."
Before Merlin had a chance to realize what the king was up to, a gloved thumb dug deep into the muscles along his spine. Cold fire erupted down Merlin's back and Merlin cried out, his leg buckling and forcing the tree to take all of his weight when he clung to it for dear life.
"Merlin, what in the world...?" And, suddenly, Merlin's back was cold again. "By all that is... Merlin what the hell happened to your back! Did someone do this to you? Who was it? Names, now!"
"No one!" Merlin forced through clenched teeth. He panted, coughed, panted more, then said when the pain was no longer liable to drop him. "I mean, no one. No one did this, it just happened. Knocking someone out with a bit of wood isn't as easy as it looks, you know."
A beat of silence, then, "I – I didn't do this," Arthur said, and from one breath to the next sounded almost vulnerable about it.
Merlin shook his head easily. "No. The clocking you on the head part was easy, chasing you down was the problem. Lots of rocky ravines that like to come out of nowhere. If you think I'm clumsy now you should have seen me trying to follow you," he said with a chuckle.
Merlin's shirt and jacket were lowered as well as adjusted more comfortably. A strong but gentle grip on his arm gave Merlin the support the tree couldn't, and helped him to straighten as much as he could, which wasn't much at all. Arthur's expression, for the most part, was mild exasperation, but Merlin could have sworn he spotted a hint of concern in the eyes.
"Come on. Let's get you to Gaius. I know a thing or two about sore backs and the less strain you put on it the better. Besides, your incessant coughing is tiring."
"But, the villages..."
"They can wait," Arthur said, quickly and easily and, Merlin thought, a bit too happy about it.
They took the journey nice and slow yet still managed to return before sundown. Uther, of course, wasn't happy about it. That they had returned for the sake of an ill servant made him even less happy, and a displeased Uther was often a stock-happy Uther.
"No, father, he's my servant. I'll discipline him," Arthur said as he supported Merlin up the courtyard steps. "Merlin you are clumsy and inconsiderate and there will be consequences. You will muck out the stables, polish all the armor in the armory and..." but once they were through the doors and out of hearing range, Arthur stopped.
That is, stopped berating, no stopped talking.
"You really are a clumsy fool, Merlin."
Merlin remembered not to roll his eyes.
"But, seeing as how I was the reason for your current state," Arthur said grudingly, "a loyal clumsy fool. So you can ignore the orders I just gave you."
Merlin smiled. "Ignore your orders. Easy enough."
"The orders I just gave you, not all my orders, Merlin. You may be a pain in the arse but you've more than earned a respite."
"Hm. And you're not as big a prat as I thought."
"Keep it up and I will have you muck out the stables, bad back or not."
Merlin stretched his smile broadly. "As you wish, sire."
A/N: With all the times Merlin's been thrown into walls I'm surprised there are not more Merlin-with-back-problems fic. We need more Merlin-with-back-problems fic!