VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 10)
It had been quiet for over half a candle mark. Leon did not know whether that should relieve him or not.
The oak door separating kitchen from corridor was thick, but it did not prevent sound from seeping outside. He could not make out individual words, but he had heard quite a bit of yelling earlier.
Yet, knowing how deeply Arthur cherished Merlin, and that the prince's manservant returned such sentiment tenfold, Leon had not left his post to investigate. What business of his was it, after all?
It did help that Arthur and Merlin were probably each other's best protection, but knowing that did not prevent him from worrying.
The past few days had been taxing for everyone, with Arthur in and out of lucidity and the knights scouring Camelot and its surrounding lands for anyone remotely connected to the attempt at usurping (they had gotten the information from one of Boris's lackies). Even prior to that, something had clearly been wrong with Merlin.
And Arthur, Leon reflected with a rueful smile, gods bless him, has hardly been subtle about his concern.
He wondered if the Crown Prince were yet aware of the impact his moods had on his men. He certainly never had been in the past, laying about with his sword during practice like a gods' cursed demon if he had argued with his father, lost men on patrol, or had a more severe tiff with Lady Morgana. No one ever protested, because they knew, for the most part, that something had gone wrong or the prince had a problem he needed to work through. Leon had trained Camelot's knights to be so.
Arthur exhibited no such temperament when he emerged from the kitchens a quarter of a candle mark later, shouldering open the oak door with a quiet creak. In his arms he carried Merlin, all his attention focused on the dark head balanced on his shoulder.
Startled, Leon straightened and stepped forward, slight alarm in his voice as he began to ask, "My Lord, are you sure you should be lifting-?"
Arthur wrenched around to face him, exhaling a pained hiss, "Leon…!"
Leon grabbed him underneath his arm as he stumbled, steadying him. Then he stepped back, bowing apologetically, "Forgive me, Sire."
"It's fine," Arthur's slightly dazed response did not do much to assuage the concern now unfurling in Leon's breast, but at least he was now aware of his Head Knight's presence.
Pursing his lips, Leon studied the two young men in front of him, noting a distinct red tint to the elder's eyes and the exhaustion that rendered the younger limp in Arthur's arms.
"Is he all right?" inquired softly as he moved forward to touch a hand to Merlin's forehead. Leon's heart jolted a bit as he noticed a sticky, clinging residue on the servant's cheeks.
The trail it made glinted dully in the torchlight, and when he pulled his hand back, it came away warm.
"We…" Leon stared a little as Arthur's voice cracked. "We had a…rather intense…conversation. It…wasn't easy for him. H-He will be fine…I think. He's just…exhausted. Did he really never once leave my side? Not even to sleep?"
They had already had this conversation on the way here, but Leon suspected Arthur had not comprehended much beyond worry for his manservant. Judging by their state now, that worry had only increased. Bowing, Leon murmured, "He did not, Sire, although Gaius and Lady Morgana's maid did try to persuade him."
"To little avail, apparently," Arthur snorted thickly. To Leon's astonishment, the prince scrubbed the heel of one palm over his cheek, momentarily shifting his manservant to one arm.
His wince did not go unnoticed. Even though this was perhaps the first time in Leon's memory that Arthur did not try to hide his emotions from him, he chose not to acknowledge it or the deep trust it implied. Instead, seeing Arthur's arms tremble with the exertion of shifting Merlin back in place, he braced the Crown Prince's arms with his own, "Allow me to take him, Sire. You are not yet fully healed."
The Crown Prince bit his lip, knowing when Leon addressed him by name, he was quite serious.
"Very well," whispered, as he relinquished Merlin into Leon's sure hold.
At the release of pressure on his ribs, Arthur gasped, vision flickering white as pain shot through his side. He grabbed at it, gritting his teeth as the flare up ran its course.
Leon's alarmed cry reverberated down the corridor, but as his arms were full of Merlin, he could do nothing to help.
Hissing as the tension eased, Arthur shook his head and slowly straightened up, offering his worried Head Knight a tight smile, "I'm…all right. It's not—It's nowhere near as bad as…before..."
"Be that as it may, my Lord, there are half a dozen corridors and three long staircases we must traverse before we reach your quarters. Are you sure I should not fetch Gaius?" Leon's green eyes surveyed Arthur's pale countenance worriedly.
As an answer, a brilliant blush suffused the prince's cheeks.
Momentarily taken aback, Leon wondered why…until he realized he had assumed, without question, that they were returning to Arthur's rooms.
He bit back a sudden laugh, "My apologies, My Lord. Is that not the case?"
"N-No," stammered, "no. I…that is, er…"
Coughing to hide his chuckle, Leon murmured, "Sire…?"
Arthur blew out a breath, his blush subsiding, and squared his shoulders, "No. I would like him to be brought there. If you would, Leon…?"
Leon bowed as best he could with Merlin in his arms, unable to conceal a small grin, "Certainly, Sire."
As the night watch struck the tower bell once to announce the first hour of morn, Leon reflected—rather ruefully—that he was likely to be subject to many more of these awkward moments between his prince and Merlin before the time of his service was up.
As they traversed Camelot's corridors, Arthur noticed that Leon seemed to move at a slower gait than he might have otherwise. Not only because of Merlin's weight (which, he reflected darkly, remained far too slight), but also in deference to his prince's still-healing side. They stopped often, and frequently paused before climbing the next set of stairs.
He appreciated Leon's caution, truly, but other than the occasional sharp pain that quickly subsided, he did not have a repeat of the flare up that had occurred in the kitchen corridor.
Not, he thought, that Merlin needs to know about it. Or about any of this, for that matter.
Arthur already knew would catch trouble from his friend for attempting to lift him in the first place. Dignity aside, Merlin was as much of a mother hen as Leon, if not more. He would be less than pleased Arthur had aggravated his injuries again.
Of course, Father would say it isn't a servant's place to worry about such things.
Arthur shook off his thoughts, focusing back on the man at his side. "My…my apologies, Leon. What did you say?"
Green eyes studied the prince, worry in their depths. "I did not say anything, My Lord. I merely meant to gain your attention. We are at your rooms, Sire. Shall I bring him in?"
Arthur blinked, bringing his surroundings back into focus. Were they really?
There, sure enough, sat the ornate carving of the Pendragon crest that marked the door of this room as his own.
"Oh…" he ran a palm tiredly over his face and pushed it open, gesturing for Leon to enter ahead of him.
Leon bowed, tightening his grip on Merlin's back and knees, "Sire," and straightened, pushing through the door with Arthur behind him.
It was chilly in the Crown Prince's rooms, the fire in the grate having long since burnt to embers. It smelled stale, of sickness and medicine, but Leon did not comment on it other than to ask, "Shall I fetch you a servant once I am through here, My Lord?"
Arthur pinched the sides of his nose and sighed, nodding, "If you wouldn't mind, Leon, I'd appreciate it."
His Head Knight bowed again, "Of course not, Sire. It is of little trouble." He straightened and eyed the unmade bed, "Where shall I place Merlin, my Liege?"
A small blush worked its way across Arthur's cheeks as he caught what Leon was implying. He certainly had not thought this all the way through, wanting only to have Merlin close by. Neither one of them were in any shape to sleep on the floor, and the chair near his bed promised to be little better. It would, of course, be completely inappropriate to have Merlin with him in his bed, but then…hadn't that always been the case?
There was no "normal" for them. They had surpassed that long ago.
"Over here if you would, Leon," he gestured to the bed he now stood by and Leon dipped his head in acknowledgement, carrying Merlin over to him. Carefully, he lowered the younger man onto the mattress.
Arthur bent down to gather up the strewn linens at his feet…and hissed, immediately aborting the attempt as his side unhelpfully reminded him of his present state.
Leon stilled him with a large hand on his shoulder, tightening his grasp as Arthur straightened with a wince, "Allow me, Sire."
Grimacing, the prince nodded, a faint flush of embarrassment highlighting his cheeks.
Gently, Leon squeezed his shoulder, releasing him to lean down and scoop up the duvet from where it had fallen. Arthur helped him pull it up over Merlin's shoulder and underneath his chin.
With an ache in his ribs that could not entirely be blamed on his injury, Arthur sat beside his best friend on the mattress. Uncaring of Leon's presence—indeed, not even fully aware of it—he released a quiet groan and leaned forward, crushing his nose against the crook of his friend's neck as his hand and then forehead pressed against Merlin's shoulder.
Fatigue pounded in his temples. His side ached. And Merlin's warmth and scent had been a constant companion during the past three days of his ordeal, so why should he change it now?
"May I take my leave of you, Sire?"
Arthur started, but could not muster the willpower he would need to pull away and speak with Leon. Instead, he just nodded into the leather of Merlin's jerkin and murmured, "You may go, Leon."
He did not sense Leon's worried glance at his slumped shoulders as the Head Knight exited his chambers in search of Gaius.
Arthur had already begun dozing, despite the cold, the discomfort of his position, and the smell by the time Gaius arrived at his rooms.
"Your Highness, really…!" the Court Physician did not censor his reprimand as he bustled in, various jars and phials in his hands.
Arthur jerked upright from his slumped position over Merlin as Gaius set them down with a faint clatter on the table.
"Gaius…?" mumbled as he scrubbed a hand across his face. "What…what…? I thought Leon sent for—"
Gaius favored him with a fond, half-smirk as he read the young man's fatigue in his eyes, "Well, I am a servant in a manner of speaking, Arthur. I just happen to be your physician, as well. And as your physician, I must ask you plainly, My Lord…what were you thinking?"
Arthur groaned, sitting upright, and tried to ignore his protesting ribs, "Not you, too, Gaius. I am perfectly fine. It's just—"
"Arthur," Gaius shook his head and swept over to examine the prince's injury, leaving his medicines behind. "It is almost half past the second hour of morning. You may be my prince, but I am your physician, and I would respectfully advise you not to test my patience. You are hardly recovered, Arthur! For what purpose could you have possibly needed to leave your bed?"
Arthur sighed, recalling a little too late that the elderly physician had never had the greatest patience with him when he was tired, not even when he had been small. So, he did the only thing he could think of at that moment, "I apologize, Gaius. I did not intend for Leon to wake you."
…Gaius about fell over at the prince's doubtlessly genuine apology. Unsure quite how to respond, he finally patted the young man's knee, "Well…quite, Your Majesty. Shift up, Arthur. I need to check if all your cavorting about inflamed the wound."
Arthur almost pouted, but lifted his shift, stilling a wince and biting back a gasp as Gaius prodded at the bandages wrapped around his abdomen, "Gaius…!"
The physician hmphed, peering beneath the linen, "No bleeding, but that stopped three days ago. Sticky so doused in honey. Clean, for the most part, but…Arthur, when did Merlin last change your bandages?"
The Crown Prince winced as he shrugged, letting the tunic fall back in place and lowering his arms. "Th-Three hours ago? Maybe? We…were a little busy."
Gaius glanced up sharply, a scowl on his face.
"Nothing physically demanding, Gaius, I promise!" Arthur assured, holding his hands up in attempt to placate the overprotective physician.
Gaius’s scowl morphed into a thoughtful frown as he surveyed the two boys in front of him, apparently having concluded that Arthur's midnight wanderings had something to do with Merlin.
Swallowing, Arthur defended weakly, "He…Merlin needed me, Gaius."
By now, the elderly physician's scowl had disappeared altogether and when he glanced back up at the prince, Gaius's blue-green eyes glimmered sadly, "He told you about Balinor, Sire?"
Arthur swallowed again, rapidly blinking back tears…and nodded.
Sighing, Gaius patted his shoulder and straightened, aged joints creaking. "It was out of your control, Sire. Yours…and his. He would never use that…gift…against you."
Watching Gaius sweep over to the table where a fresh stack of linens sat alongside a jar of honey, Arthur felt his breathing hitch as he whispered, "That…that's not what concerns me."
Gaius had lifted one of his other jars to squint at its label in the dimness of the prince's chambers. Now, he shook his head and sat it back down on the table's hard surface with a clack.
Heading over to the Crown Prince's woodpile and picking up the kettle that had become a permanent fixture in Arthur's rooms over the past few days, he hung it over the orange embers, tossed a few logs onto the coals, and stirred the faggots to flame. Then he stood up with a wince and brushed the soot off his robes, turning a bit to glance over at the prince, "What does concern you, Arthur?" he asked softly.
"…He was Merlin's father, Gaius."
The ache in Arthur's voice brought the elderly physician up short. "Yes…" he acknowledged quietly, folding his arms in his robe's sleeves, and tilting his head.
"He was Merlin's father, Gaius, and Merlin never-!"
Gaius thought he might understand now.
The older man crossed the room to sit beside Arthur on the prince's bed, casting a sad glance at his ward who slept on, oblivious, "I told him not to, Arthur. For reasons I am sure you understand."
"But if I had known-!"
Gaius shook his head, "Knowing would not have changed his death, Sire."
"Maybe not," Arthur's breathing hitched as he buried his face in his hands, "but it would have changed how I reacted to it."
…Or perhaps he did not understand. Not fully, at least.
"Arthur, what do you mean?"
"In the forest…" Arthur's voice caught, and for a moment it looked like he would not continue. But then he barreled ahead, "In the forest…I told him to leave Balinor behind. That we needed to leave…The Great Dragon was attacking Camelot, and people were dying, and although Balinor had died honorably, he couldn't…he couldn't…"
Gaius placed a cautious hand on the prince's shaking back. Arthur stiffened under the unexpected touch, as Gaius had half-expected he might. Before he could pull back and apologize, however, the shoulder he had touched nudged a little further beneath his palm.
"Do you know what I said to him, Gaius?" the prince's cracked whisper caught him by surprise, but Gaius did not say anything as Arthur's hand rose to cover his eyes and the tremors in his shoulders worsened. "I told him, 'No man is worth your tears.' Can you believe it? 'No man…' and all that time…" Arthur's breathing hitched. "All that time…it was his father laying there."
Gaius closed his eyes in sad comprehension, Oh, Arthur…
Without a word, the elderly physician rose and fetched a blanket from the large trunk up against the wall, bringing it over to wrap around the prince's shoulders. As he sat back down beside Arthur, Gaius slid an arm around him and tugged him into a one-armed embrace. "It is how your father raised you, Arthur," the older man murmured. "Do not fault yourself for that. Merlin would not."
Arthur gave a derisive snort, shaking off Gaius's arm and staggering to his feet. As he whipped around to face the startled physician, pure self-loathing dripped from his voice as he remarked, "Right, like I should not fault myself for the fact that the Dragonlords—and the Dragons—are all but extinct? Like I am completely blameless because my father went on a gods-cursed manhunt nearly twenty years ago, thus ensuring Merlin lost his father? Never mind how many other families I have broken because I was blindly following my father's orders-!"
Gaius and Arthur froze, hearing the soft, bewildered murmur that emerged from the cocoon of blankets marking the location of the Crown Prince's manservant on his bed.
"Merlin…" Arthur breathed, hurrying to kneel on the floor beside Merlin's head.
His best friend was too exhausted to notice the barely-concealed wince Arthur bit back as he settled near the bed, but Gaius clucked his tongue and stood up to retrieve the supplies he would need to treat his headstrong prince's injury while the two young men talked.
"How are you feeling?" Arthur asked softly, intently eyeing the weary lines that creased the other boy's face.
Merlin snorted, struggling to lift himself out from underneath the heavy duvet, "Sh'ldn't I b' askin' you that?" muttered peevishly, his eyes sleep-heavy and voice slurred.
Arthur gave a thick chuckle, keeping the blanket around his shoulders with one hand and reaching the other out to gently press his beloved friend back onto the mattress, "I'm fine. I wasn't the one who—"
The rest of his retort ('…was such a girl's petticoat that I cried myself to sleep') got choked off as he realized how poisonous it would be, in light of his recent discussion with Gaius.
Merlin frowned, fighting Arthur's hold to lean up on one arm and reach out to brush his fingers against the prince's cheek. " 'thur? Y're crying…! Thought you said—"
Arthur's laugh came out rather strangled, "I did, Merlin, and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I-I…"
Merlin's frown deepened, but he was at least awake enough to follow Arthur's thought process. " 's not your fault." The hand he had used to touch his friend's cheek now slid around to cup the back of Arthur's head.
The prince's breathing hitched, "Merlin, I don't—"
Abruptly, the hand on his head turned into a clumsy embrace as his best friend's arm slid around the back of his neck and pulled Arthur forward against Merlin. "F'rgive you," the whisper got smothered against Arthur's hair, but he did not particularly care. "C'n you…f'rgive…me?"
Arthur sputtered out a strangled sound that was half-laugh, half-almost-sob, "Merlin—"
But before he could tell his servant there was nothing to forgive, Gaius cleared his throat.
Arthur stiffened, as did Merlin. Both had honestly forgotten their mentor would have witnessed their entire exchange.
When the two of them glanced up, Merlin's arm still draped around Arthur's neck, the prince felt slightly mollified when he noticed his best friend looked at least as embarrassed as he did.
Carefully drawing away from Merlin, Arthur awkwardly rubbed the back of his head and offered the physician a tentative smile.
Gaius coughed to conceal a laugh, eyes a bit over-bright, and raised a pointed eyebrow, "Your Majesty, while I am sure neither of you mind your current positions, you are still recovering from a sword wound and you have just woken up after battling blood loss and a fever. You should be in bed."
Arthur blanched, "What? Gaius, I'm-!"
"Arthur," the other eyebrow raised.
Glaring a little at Merlin for the hastily smothered snort of laughter he heard from his manservant as the younger man slowly sat up, Arthur sighed and stumbled back to his feet.
He hated that Merlin's amusement disappeared the instant he caught the flinch Arthur did not quite manage to hide, but he was able to sit without help on the mattress, and pointedly nudged his worried friend in the ribs, "There. See? I'm fine."
Merlin rolled his eyes, but Arthur noticed he did not bother to hide his tiny, relieved grin as Gaius came over with a steaming cup of tea.
When he caught the scent of peppermint, Arthur groaned, "More tea, Gaius? Merlin already-!"
The elderly physician gave his prince a pointed look as he handed him the cup, "Drink all of it, Arthur. Despite what you may think, your blood has not fully replenished itself, yet. You were on the brink of death, Sire. That is hardly something you can recover from in three days! No matter what other type of assistance may have been rendered," and here he sternly side-eyed his apprentice, who had released a small laugh at his friend's plight.
Abashed, Merlin bit his lip and ducked his head, causing Arthur's lips to curl up in a faint smirk over the rim of his tea cup.
Trust Merlin to notice.
"Oy, shut up, you prat," although the retort was more whine than tease, the elbow Merlin dug into Arthur's unwounded side was gentle.
Smothering his laugh, Arthur took a sip of the tea, ruefully admitting (if only to himself) that it tasted far better than many of the other concoctions the two men had forced down his throat over the past couple of days.
Merlin watched him as he drank it. Likely, Arthur thought with a small roll of his eyes, to make sure I drink every drop.
And of course, he noticed the faint, relieved sigh when he finished.
Shaking his head and not-quite-ignoring the warm ache in his chest, Arthur handed the empty teacup back to Gaius with a nod of thanks before turning his attention to Merlin. As the Court Physician swept off to fuss over the new bandages, Arthur knocked his forehead gently against Merlin's, "I am all right, you idiot," muttered fondly as he smiled into the blue eyes mere inches from his own. "Really. You and Gaius ensured that with the foul-tasting glop you call medicine."
If Merlin's chuckle caught a little on the end, Arthur charitably chose to ignore it, especially when his best friend knocked his forehead back, "So 'm I, you great prat," whispered with a grin.
And he truly looked it. Exhaustion aside, a faint sparkle resided in his eyes that Arthur had not seen there in…gods, months. A new easiness sat on his shoulders, even if he had not shared everything, and it warmed Arthur somewhere deep inside to know that he had helped bring it about, given at least a little back to the man who had given up so much for him.
Of course, the moment could not last. But as Gaius called over, "Merlin! Are you planning to help me with these bandages or not?" and his best friend laughed, leaning forward to briefly nuzzle their noses together, Arthur thought it might be enough.
Right now, he thought with a somewhat watery grin as Merlin stood, tugging the blanket more firmly around Arthur's shoulders before making his way over to Gaius, it's more than enough.