It was with much annoyance that Arthur was starting to realize that he had a lot to learn about employing a personal manservant. The epiphany was an utterly ridiculous one as far as Arthur was concerned. There shouldn't have been anything to learn – just look regal, look stern, make an order, wait for the order to be promptly fulfilled and anything else the steward or head maid or head cook could handle. There had been the servants who brought his food, the servants who appeared and disappeared almost mysteriously to keep his chambers clean and his fire stoked, the servant who dropped by every morning to ensure he was dressed, and whoever happened to stop by the rest of the day per Arthur's orders whenever he needed anything else.
There had never been a reason to regard a servant as other than the means by which Arthur met his own personal wants and needs.
Until Uther decided that bestowing the position of manservant to the prince was a reasonable reward for saving Arthur's life. Arthur loved his father, he did, but there were times he wondered if Uther wasn't starting to get a little touched in the head with age, because who in their right mind would assign such a complete idiot to oversee the care and feeding of the future king of Camelot?
But idiocy Arthur could handle – that was what the stocks were for, after all, and watching Merlin get pummeled with rotten vegetables was rather entertaining. Still, Arthur missed the days of having someone ready and waiting to help him dress, fetch his dinner before it grew cold, and not take a bloody hour to get him into his armor. And if that wasn't enough, it was up to Arthur to make sure the buffoon actually got paid for his pathetic services. Honestly, if the boy wasn't so blasted entertaining (he did make such an excellent target when Arthur was in the mood to throw things) he would have sacked him the moment Uther had hired him.
It didn't stop there, though. Oh, no. Because while Merlin might have been assigned to Arthur he was still subject to the whims of the king. And that meant, on occasion, Arthur having to wait even longer for Merlin's services while Merlin simultaneously served some other knight or lord currently without their lackey.
It made Arthur feel rather bitter toward Lord Gladstone, whose son – a year or two older than Arthur – had currently lost his own manservant to old age. And Uther, being the generous host, had assigned young Fergus Gladstone Merlin for the duration of their stay.
“Don't be cheeky,” Arthur had warned Merlin. “Don't talk back, don't be late, and for goodness sake, don't be an idiot.”
It wasn't because Arthur was worried about Merlin. Not one bit. Actually he was more concerned with having to deal with Merlin's impertinence, a simple enough task most of the time but one Arthur wasn't in the mood to put up with. Fergus might have been older but the man was a spoiled brat and could be very ridiculous in his demands, especially when it came to retribution. He had once attempted to challenge Arthur to a duel when Arthur was three, because Arthur's hand had been covered in berry juice and he had tugged on Fergus' silk sleeve. Uther did love reminding Arthur of that incident, still thinking it hilarious even to this day.
Arthur wanted as little to do with Fergus as possible. Be that as it may, he still expected Fergus to hound him with complaint after complaint about Merlin.
What Arthur got was Merlin making sporadic appearances full of apologies because he was serving Lord Fergus... and not much else. No complaints about Fergus, no back-talk to Arthur, nothing. Those times when Merlin was able to serve Arthur he did so quickly, quietly, no doubt in a hurry to meet the needs of two masters.
This new found obedience bothered Arthur all the same. He wasn't sure why, and took to studying Merlin closely but surreptitiously whenever Merlin managed to show up. But other than being quiet and subservient, there wasn't much in the way of difference. Merlin's ability to clean Arthur's room was still shabby, and if anything he was even more sloppy in dressing Arthur in his armor.
It took three days for Arthur to finally spot it – the look on Merlin's face each time he arrived. It was tight, far too neutral. But as the days passed, it became tighter, more... confused was the word that popped into Arthur's mind. Confused, uncertain, like Merlin was thinking too hard, like he wanted to say something but couldn't find the words or wasn't sure if he was even allowed to speak.
Day five of Merlin's duel duties, and Arthur could have sworn the boy was becoming skittish. Merlin was serving him dinner, since he had the time. Arthur had set his cup down a little too hard, that was all, nothing more. His father had been rather displeased by Arthur's swordsmanship during practice and had decided to say something about it, out loud, in front of everyone, and it had put Arthur in a foul mood. So he took it out on his goblet with a good slam to the table.
Merlin leaped a good inch in the air, dropping the chain mail he'd been polishing. The mail landed on the floor in a rattle of links, Merlin already bending down to retrieve it.
Arthur rolled his eyes and opened his mouth, readying a witty retort on idiot servants and their buttery fingers. The words stuck in his throat when he noticed how Merlin's hands were trembling.
“Merlin,” Arthur said.
“Yes, sire?” Merlin said, and respectfully of all things. “Sorry, sire. A bit clumsy today.” He retrieved the chain mail, sat down and resumed polishing with a vigor as if his life depended on it.
Polite, apologetic, dutiful. Arthur frowned. “Merlin, is something wrong?”
“Why would anything be wrong, sire?”
“You just called me sire. Twice.”
Merlin shrugged, and looked up long enough to flash Arthur a cheery smile. “I often call you sire.”
“Not twice, not unless you're being sarcastic.” Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Are you being sarcastic with me, Merlin?”
Merlin's smile struggled to stay in place as his throat spasmed in a nervous swallow. “Of course not, s-- er, um... Arthur. I'm just... trying to be more respectful, that's all.”
“Mm-hmm,” Arthur said. “Merlin?”
“Tell me what's wrong, that's an order.”
Merlin's hand, still vibrating with slight tremors, paused in its polishing. “Nothing's wrong, s-- Arthur. I thought you would like me showing more respect.”
“And I thought pigs would fly before that would ever happen. So I order you to tell me what's wrong.”
“Nothing's wrong!” Merlin snapped, and immediately tensed. “I mean... I'm just a bit stressed is all.” He forced his weak smile back into place. “It's not easy serving two masters. I think I just forgot which master I was serving, that's all. But I can be less respectful if you want?”
For being such an idiot, Merlin was rather adept at deflection. Arthur sighed. “Actually I would rather you clear up my dishes.”
“Of course, sire,” Merlin said, and Arthur rolled his eyes again when Merlin hopped-to, gathering the dirty plates and cup as though he actually enjoyed such menial labor.
Then came day seven, the day Merlin hardly spoke at all save for a few mumbled yes sires and right away sires. There was something almost frantic in the way he did his chores, and as much as Arthur wanted to chalk it up to Merlin hurrying things along to have time to attend to Fergus, Arthur's gut instinct told him otherwise.
Something was wrong, something that was like a bad taste in Arthur's mouth he couldn't wash away. Day eight, Arthur dropped his fork, on purpose, just to see what Merlin would do. Merlin, folding Arthur's clothes, immediately stopped what he was doing and scrambled so fast, seemingly half panicked, that he tripped over his feet landing in a sprawl on the floor. Merlin was practically synonymous with tripping, and in fact Arthur couldn't call it a proper day until Merlin had landed on his face for one reason or another. But whether it was a stumble or a full drop, Merlin always came out of his tumbles unscathed.
Except today, when Merlin cried out in pain. But he brushed that pain aside, scrambling to his feet and grabbing the fork like a knight snatching up an infant inches from the jaws of a wolf. And as he set the fork triumphantly on the table with one hand, the other hand was occupied pressing against his ribs.
Something was very, very wrong, and if Merlin wasn't going to talk then Arthur would find someone who would.
Unfortunately, princely duties decided to occupy most of Arthur's day – training, more training, a council meeting, more training, lunch with his father, more training, and another council meeting. Between the exhaustion of so much training warring with the mind-dulling monotony of council meetings, Arthur nearly forgot that there was another issue in need of his attention; not until he entered his chambers to see another servant who was very much not Merlin preparing his bath.
Right, Merlin was usually playing servant to Fergus around this time. Fine, then. It was Fergus Arthur had planned on speaking with, anyway. Fergus, then Gaius, maybe Gwen – someone had to know something about what was going on with Merlin.
Arthur arrived at Fergus' chambers to find the man sitting rather awkwardly on one of the wooden luggage chests. Fergus' face was nearly as red as his long hair, but then Arthur entered, Fergus snapped his head up looking more than ready to tell the intruder off, and all color trained from his skin. He quickly adjusted himself attempting to look comfortable, as though sitting on luggage chests was common practice in his realm.
“Arthur! What a pleasant surprise. Done with training, I see. Was it enjoyable?”
Arthur frowned. If Merlin being respectful was odd, Fergus being friendly was one of the signs of the Apocalypse. Fergus didn't do friendly. His brand of friendly was a curt nod and a sour “Arthur” said as though spitting out something foul.
“It was... fine,” Arthur said carefully. “Thank you. Um... listen, is Merlin here? I need to ask you something about him...”
Something within the room thumped.
“What was that?” Arthur said, glancing around for the source.
“Nothing. You were saying something about your manservant? Dreadful fellow, I'm afraid,” Fergus said quickly. “Doesn't even know how to make a bed properly.”
Another thump, louder than the last.
“There it is again,” Arthur said. He entered the room fully, attempting to locate the sound.
“Probably rats. I've asked that manservant of yours to be rid of them – which he's rubbish at as well. Honestly, I don't know how you put up with him. But I haven't seen him, if that's what you're wondering.”
“No,” Arthur said absently, more intent on the mysterious sound than Fergus' rambling. “I was going to ask if you thought he's been acting odd.”
“Of course he acts odd. He's an odd fellow,” Fergus said, and barked a rather manic laugh at his (pathetic) wit.
There came another thump, followed by another, weaker than the last.
And then, “Arthur?” It was muffled, so timid and unsure that it was nearly inaudible.
Arthur stiffened. He turned to Fergus, his eyes flitting between him and the trunk. Arthur said, slow, low and terse, “What. The hell. Was that?”
Fergus shrugged. “I didn't hear anything.” Someone coughed weakly, the sound muffled. Fergus coughed in a poor attempt to cover it up.
“Move,” Arthur said.
Fergus raised an eyebrow. “Pardon?”
“I said move!” Arthur snarled. He didn't wait for Fergus to reply, marching up to him then grabbing him by the back of his velvet coat and hauling him from the trunk. Arthur ripped open the latches, flung back the lid, and felt the blood drain from his face.
Merlin was curled up inside, balled impossibly tight so that his knees were tucked under his jaw. His skin was blotched with red and shiny with sweat, and his breathing fast, shallow and desperate. But what alarmed Arthur the most was Merlin's half-lidded eyes that were glassy and vacant.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelped.
Merlin coughed weakly. “A-Arthur?”
Arthur pulled Merlin from the chest by the arms. The moment he had Merlin's upper-half upright, Merlin sucked in a massive lungful of air. Fergus stood by, gibbering on and on about how it had just been a joke, that he was just teaching Merlin a lesson, that he hadn't meant anything by it. Arthur ignored him except to grace Fergus with the most heated, scathing, murderous look he could muster. Merlin was near-limp, and lifting him from the stuffy confines of the trunk was not unlike lifting a giant rag doll. Even freed from the trunk Merlin continued to pant as though the oxygen in the room wasn't sufficient.
Arthur didn't think about it when he leaned Merlin against him and supported him as they hurried from the room, taking him to Gaius – a task his father would have left to a guard or another servant. But all Arthur was aware of was Merlin's ragged breathing, his shaking, and getting him to the physician.
How long had Merlin been in that box? In the dark. The air running low. Curled up so tight his ribs wouldn't have been able expand to let his lungs take a sufficient breath. And Fergus sitting on the lid, laughing at him.
Arthur startled in surprise when he found himself in front of Gaius' door. Arthur burst inside, yanking Gaius' attention from whatever he had been doing, Arthur wasn't aware enough to know what let alone care. Arthur deposited Merlin on the cot then adjust his arms and legs more comfortably. Stretched out, Merlins' breathing began to slow, the redness fading away leaving only pale, clammy skin.
“What happened?” Gaius demanded as he began checking his ward over.
“Fergus,” Arthur spat. “That... bastard had Merlin locked in one of his trunks.”
Gaius glanced up at Arthur in alarm, then narrowed his focus to Merlin. “That explains the breathing.” He touched Merlin's face with both the back and front of his hand. “He's warm, sweaty. How long did he have him trapped?”
“I – I don't know,” Arthur said, ripping his fingers through his hair. Merlin's eyes were no longer open, but his breathing had finally begun to calm. Gaius poured a cup of water from a pitcher then roused Merlin long enough to get him to drink. After that, Gaius lifted Merlin's shirt, and Arthur thought he was going to be sick. Merlin's body was covered in bruises.
“Nothing is broken, thank goodness,” Gaius said after feeling along the bones of Merlin's chest. “And his breathing is getting better. You got to him just in time, Arthur. Any longer and he might have died.” His voice cracked a little there at the end.
Arthur stared down at Merlin, watching him breathe. He noticed a small patch of skin on Merlin's chest that seemed to be pulsing. It was right where his heart would be, and it was pulsing fast.
Fergus had stuffed him into a trunk, into the dark, where the air would have run out and Merlin's chest unable to expand to let him breathe.
Arthur remembered hearing Merlin's voice, calling his name, small and timid as though begging.
“Excuse me, Gaius,” Arthur said politely. He left the chamber, walked quickly but regally back to Fergus' room, and punched him in the face.
He got in trouble for it, as he knew he would – a day spent in the dungeon – but he made sure to tell the guard escorting him to relay to Gaius that Merlin was to have the next two days off. Fergus and his father would be gone by then.
Arthur was released the next day. The day after that, he was at his table, picking at his breakfast as he observed Merlin tidying up the room. The tension had gone out of Merlin's shoulders, and he no longer jumped. He did flinch whenever Arthur's fork happened to tap a little too loud against his place, though.
“Why didn't you say anything?” Arthur asked.
Merlin whirled around, broom in one hand and a discarded glove in the other. “Say what?”
“About what Fergus was doing to you. Why didn't you say anything?”
“Oh,” Merlin said. His face pinched with confusion. “I... didn't know I could.”
Arthur's eyes rounded over. “You didn't know you could? Are you serious?”
“Well... Lord Fergus is a noble and... it's usually frowned on for a servant to speak ill of a noble, at least to the king. I mean, there was that whole Valiant mess. That didn't exactly go well for me when I did complain if you remember--”
“Yes, but if you recall only because you didn't have immediate proof for your accusations. You did have proof with Fergus. It was written rather plainly all over your body.”
A mild flush spread through Merlin's cheeks. He quickly began busying himself with sweeping, his eyes on the floor.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I didn't know I could.”
“Well, you can to me,” Arthur said. “You may be my servant but as your master it's just as much my job to look after you.”
And it hit Arthur then. It was his job to look after Merlin. Well, not literally his job, of course. His responsibility. Merlin wasn't just some random servant sent along to complete some random task for the day. He was Arthur's servant, under Arthur's care.
Under his protection.
Merlin could have died had Arthur not been paying close enough attention.
It was unsettling, sickening, even, the thought of waking one morning to a servant who wasn't Merlin, no more cheeky remarks, no more having someone to laugh at when they tripped over nothing, no one for Arthur to practice his witty comebacks on.
But the thought of Merlin at the mercy of Fergus, being beaten, being stuffed into that box to nearly suffocate, was even more sickening. Arthur was not just responsible for a servant, he was responsible for another human being.
“I mean it,” Arthur said, prompting Merlin to stop fussing and look at him. “You may be a pain in the ass but not even you deserved such treatment. If anyone hurts you like that again, you need to tell me right away. You nearly died, Merlin. No one has a right to treat you that way.”
“Oh,” Merlin said as though the concept were a novel one. “Oh – okay.” Then he brightened. “Does that mean you'll stop throwing things at me?”
Arthur scoffed. “How does me telling you to tell me when someone is abusing you mean that I don't have to throw anything at you? Besides, you know I miss on purpose.”
“Really?” Merlin said dryly.
Arthur shrugged, non-repentant. “I can't be blamed if you don't duck fast enough?”
“Fine. If you get to keep throwing things, I get to keep dragging you out of bed and dumping you on the cold floor.”
“No,” Arthur said.
“It's only fair.”
Arthur threw his fork. Merlin easily ducked it, and said with a grin, “So who do I complain to about you?”
“Oh, shut up.”