I hate tournaments, Merlin grumbled to himself. As if polishing the prince’s armor under normal circumstances wasn’t bad enough, now he had to deal with constant interruptions from all kinds of people who thought they were better than him. He wished he could complete his tasks in the relative comfort of the castle, but no, he had to be close to the tourney grounds. The temporary structure he was holed up in had no source of heat, and the noise of warriors practicing for their useless dick size contest was starting to needle into his brain. On top of that, these folks from out of town seemed to think that he was their personal servant as well as Arthur’s. The stack of dingy helmets and gauntlets was starting to pile up.
Rubbing his hands together and blowing on them for the thousandth time, Merlin finally gave in to the temptation of his power. He whispered an incantation, and a small flame appeared in his palm, spreading its warmth across his skin. Irritation flared inside of him at the sound of the door opening. He extinguished the fire as quickly as he’d produced it and returned to his work, head down, hoping that the visitor would take no notice of him.
No such luck. He knew as soon as the grimy men stumbled their way through the doorway that they were only here to cause trouble. Long dark hair, peppered with grey and criminally unwashed, hung around the face of one man, and the other was bald as a melon. “Well, look what we have here,” Said the greasier one, “A human washrag.”
Raucous laugh erupted from the both of them as if something entertaining had been said. Merlin returned to the task in front of him. Ignoring these kinds of people usually worked best. However, usually did not mean always. The thud of a boot slamming down on the bench next to him snapped Merlin’s attention back to the men. The dark-haired man leaned close, dragging his gaze over Merlin’s face, and gestured to his muddy footwear. “My boots need cleaning,” He snarled.
For a moment, Merlin fantasized about spitting on the man‘s disgusting shoes and telling him to piss off, but at an event like this, starting a fight would be more trouble than it was worth. Instead, he nodded passively and got up from his bench to look for a rag that didn’t have polish on it. The shift of leather armor from behind him wasn’t enough to warn him before the hiss of a whip shot through the air, ending with a harsh snap on his ass. “Did you hear me, boy?”
Adrenaline coursed through him, covering the stinging that would surely become a welt. He spun around as the burly men took a few to many steps closer. The familiar feeling of rage threatened to claw its way out of his throat, but he bit it back as always. “I’m trying to find a clean cloth.”
“I don’t care if you use your tongue,” The man growled, savoring every sound of that last word and raking his eyes over Merlin’s body.
Merlin backed up against the shelf behind him. His blood pleaded with him to use his power. He could feel it in his hands as the men closed in on him, but he pushed it down as always. The threat of the punishment for sorcery hung over his mind, immobilizing him, making it impossible to defend himself.
“I think he was being disrespectful,” The bald man offered with a dark grin.
His friend nodded in agreement as he wrapped the whip tightly around his gloved hand. “I think we’re gonna have to teach him a lesson.”
Before Merlin could duck out from between them, the man with the whip pulled his fist back and struck him clean across the left cheekbone. Disoriented, Merlin stumbled back only to be caught under the arms by the bald man. An aching pain radiated through his jaw and around his eye. His shoulders were roughly jerked back, the man’s hands clasped behind his head, holding him in place. With his chest and stomach so exposed, he knew what was coming next. This knowledge did nothing to prepare him for the barrage of blows that followed. A myriad of spells sprang to mind with every gut-wrenching strike, but he held his tongue, fearing the pyre far more than this temporary pain.
“Please,” He managed weakly. “Please let me go.”
“Oh, you want to beg?” A sickening crack split the air in the wake of a particularly powerful blow. “Seems like if you wanna beg, you should be on your knees.”
Merlin felt his control slipping away. Cruel hands shoved him to his knees, adding another pair of bruises to his battered body. He lifted his eyes to the man that stood above him, dread oozing from his heart to his limbs.
“That’s better.” The man took a half-step closer, crowding Merlin’s space in an intimately violating way. “Y’know, he looks almost pretty down there like that.”
“Yeah,” The other man leered over Merlin’s shoulder. “He does, doesn’t he?”
“Please,” Merlin repeated between ragged breaths.
“Don’t worry, boy,” His attacker said in a mocking tone, “I know just what you need.”
Tears streamed unbidden down Merlin’s face, desperation forming a spell on the tip of his tongue. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sound of a metal belt buckle being undone. The man holding him laughed and smacked him over the head. “Open your eyes.”
Suddenly, a familiar voice came from outside, filled with annoyance. “Merlin!”
Relief crashed over Merlin like the powerful waves of the ocean, overriding his embarrassment at Arthur finding him like this.
“What’s taking you so long-“ The door burst open, and Arthur’s accusatory question was cut short by the sound of him drawing his blade, “Unhand him or be run through!”
“Who do you think you are-“ The man swung around, stopping mid-sentence himself when he saw Arthur’s cloak.
Merlin felt his body released, and he fell limp to the ground. Despite the pain in his ribs, he scrambled into the corner, as far away from the men as he could get. He looked on through bleary eyes as Arthur’s sword cut clean through the air, the man’s whip powerless to stop it. A righteous fury shone in the prince’s eyes as he hacked through the leather armor, ridding the earth of the cretin’s existence. He then leveled his blade at the other man. “I hope you cared about your accomplice,” He ground out through gritted teeth, “Because you’re going to spend the rest of your life in the dungeon regretting this day, and I want you to suffer.”
The living half of the duo raised his hands above his head, and Arthur called the guards in to take him away. He stood ignoring Merlin and pointing his sword at the man until they arrived. The guards carried away the partially unclothed corpse first, then a trio of knights, led by Sir Leon, followed to bring the other man to the dungeon.
Merlin, still fighting for consciousness, locked eyes with Sir Leon as he entered the room. The knight started towards him for a moment, but one look at the cold fury on Arthur’s face stopped him. Leon and the others took the object of the prince’s fury out of the building, leaving Arthur, standing stock still and breathing heavily, alone with Merlin.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered through the thick silence. “Help me.”
Merlin half expected Arthur to berate him for getting himself into this situation. Normally he could take it, but he had a feeling that one harsh word from Arthur in this moment would undo him completely. He quickly learned that his worry was unnecessary. When Arthur finally turned to face Merlin, there was a liquid sheen on his eyes. He stalked to his side and knelt down next to him. “Can you stand?” He asked quietly, his voice close to breaking.
When attempting to move only succeeded in making Merlin cry out in pain, he shook his head and slumped back into the corner. He kept his gaze fixed on Arthur to keep from losing himself. He watched him work his jaw, his brow furrowing even further. “Okay, hold still then.”
Merlin then found his body ever so gently lifted from the ground. The aching and sharp stabs across his body were lessened by the security of Arthur’s arms around him. Unable to hold himself up, Merlin let his head rest against Arthur’s shoulder as he carried him. “Arthur, I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what he was apologizing for. He couldn’t think through the ringing in his ears. All he knew was that this wasn’t where Arthur was supposed to be.
“Hush, Merlin.” Arthur replied with a softness he’d only ever heard him use towards Gwen. “I’ve got you.”
The sound of Arthur kicking the door open followed, and Merlin started. “They’ll see you.” He said, as urgently as he could manage. His left eye was beginning to bruise shut, but through his right, he could still see Arthur’s face just barely. The serious expression on it quieted his heart.
“Good,” Arthur replied gravely.
In the wake of fear’s intoxicating effect, Merlin’s whole being ached. He could tell the points where bones were broken from the screaming fire of pain. He couldn’t shake the feeling of the man’s hands on him, holding him helpless against his will. He groaned quietly and pitifully into Arthur’s arm.
“Shh, it’s alright.” Arthur whispered. “I’m taking you to Gaius. He’ll have you right as rain in no time.”
The distant sound of swords clashing and a crowd cheering reminded Merlin of what today was supposed to be for Arthur. This event, ridiculous as it was, meant a lot to Arthur, and here he was, dragging his useless ass to the healer. He groaned again, this time in annoyance with himself. He should have just killed the men when he had the chance and figured some way out of the consequences. “I’m sorry, Arthur.” He said again.
“For Heaven’s sake, Merlin.” Arthur rolled his eyes, but his tone remained quiet. “You were attacked. I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
The next few steps were taken in silence. Merlin didn’t have the strength to pretend to disagree. Not that he thought this was Arthur’s fault, but he had to admit, hearing the man apologize would be somewhat cathartic.
Arthur looked down at Merlin, straining his neck at the strange angle. Then with a solemn nod, he set his gaze forward. “I swear to you as the prince of Camelot and as your friend, nothing like this will ever happen to you again.”
Merlin chuckled in response, regretting it instantly. It felt like his ribs were trying to violently make their way out of his body. Arthur would be back to his old self as soon as Merlin was. Probably before. But still, the sincerity in his voice made Merlin feel safe, and for now, that was enough.