Merlin jumped as the door to Arthur's chambers slammed open. He turned to look and flinched back as Arthur stalked into the room. He couldn't remember the last time Arthur looked so angry.
"Merlin, you idiot! Can't you even attempt to be slightly less clumsy?" Arthur ranted as he strode towards his manservant.
Merlin stuttered for a moment before asking, "what did I do?"
Arthur threw up his hand and gave a humorless laugh. "What did you do? What did you do?" He turned and looked Merlin in the eye. "Did you not drop Queen Catalina's gowns on the stairs this morning?" he asked quietly.
Merlin swallowed. It was never a good thing when Arthur got quiet after ranting and raving. "Yes."
"And did not the Queen see you do this?"
"Yes. She did. Do you know what she did after?" Arthur said in almost a whisper as he leaned closer. Merlin shook his head no. "She went and complained to my father about what shoddy servants we have and then she demanded you be punished!" Arthur's voice raised into a yell.
Merlin shrunk back and gave Arthur a nervous smile. "So I should report to the stocks then?"
Arthur closed his eyes and leaned against the chair next to him. "No, Merlin you should not report to the stocks. She's demanded that you be flogged," he responded in an almost normal tone.
Merlin dropped the blanket that he had been folding. "F-flogged?" he ask.
"Yes." Arthur turned away from Merlin and ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "I've tried to argue her out of it, but she's determined to see you properly punished. My father is leaning in her direction."
"But- I – Arthur, what am I going to do?"
Arthur turned back and looked at him. Merlin's stomach jumped up into his throat when he saw the concern in Arthur's eyes. He walked over to Merlin and placed his hands on Merlin's shoulders. "Look. Even if I can't get my father to accept a different punishment I'm fairly certain that I can keep the number of lashes low. Five is not an unbearable number."
"Five?" Merlin's voice climbed. "How is five not unbearable? How would you know? You've never been flogged!" Merlin was too distraught by the idea of being flogged that he didn't even bother to hid the small amount of condescension in his voice.
Merlin's attention was brought back to Arthur when the Prince's hands tightened on his shoulders before releasing. Arthur crossed his arms and stepped away from the warlock. "Go," he barked. "I'll see what I can do. Go to Gaius."
Merlin looked at Arthur in an attempt to figure out what he had done to change the prince's attitude towards him but Arthur just glared at him and Merlin hurried out of the chambers. He kept his head down as he hurried towards the tower where the rooms he shared with Gaius were located. He could feel the other servant's looks and he all but ran through the corridors and across the courtyard.
After what seemed like the longest trip of his life he pushed the door of Gaius' workshop open. Gaius looked up in surprise. "Merlin? What are you doing here? I thought Arthur needed your assistance today?"
Merlin made his way over to the table where the older man was working and dropped into the chair opposite him. "Yeah, he did need me. I was supposed to help the other servants take in Queen Catalina's stuff."
Gaius put down the mortar and pestle that he was using to grind up herbs for his various potions and ointments. "I take it from the sound of your voice that it didn't go well."
Merlin dropped his head into his hands. "No. I was carrying some of the Queen's gowns and I tripped going up the stairs. I dropped them just as the Queen walked by."
"Sounds like an honest mistake to me."
Merlin looked up at him. "It was. But she complained to Uther. She said that the castle had terrible servants and that she wanted me punished."
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "Ah. And how long will I loose you to the stocks this time?"
"Arthur told me that she's demanding that I be flogged," he said in a dejected tone.
"Flogged? That seems a bit much."
"That's what I thought. Arthur appears to agree but he said he couldn't get them to agree that the stocks would be as effective. He thinks that he's gotten them down to five lashes though."
Gaius nodded his head. "Five lashes isn't terrible."
Merlin's head shot up and he glared at Gaius. "That's what Arthur said. What would he know. He's never been flogged."
Gaius narrowed his eyes at the younger man. "Please tell me you didn't say that to the prince."
Merlin stood up and started to pace. "Of course I did! How could he know what it's like? He's a bloody prince!" His pacing stopped when he looked over at Gaius who was shaking his head and looking at Merlin as if he was the biggest idiot he'd ever seen. "What?"
"Merlin," Gaius sighed. "There are times when I wonder if the magic you have hasn't damaged your brain. You dress and bathe Arthur. Don't tell me you haven't noticed the scars on his back and legs."
Merlin opened his mouth to reply before closing it with a snap. He thought back to only this morning. He had noticed the scars but he'd always assumed that they were from knight training.
"Are you... Do you mean he was..." Merlin's voice trailed off as he thought about what Gaius was insinuating. "But why? How? Uther wouldn't-"
"No, it wasn't Uther, and it's Arthur's story to tell if he chooses to." Gaius held up a finger in warning. "But do not ask him about it. It isn't forbidden to ask about it but only because it would cause rumors to be started and don't ask any of the other servants. None of them know the story."
Merlin nodded in acceptance and made his way to his bedroom. There he curled up on his bed and fell asleep with his mind racing with fear over his possible punishment and curiosity over Arthur's scars.
The next morning brought the welcome news that Arthur had managed to get the Queen to agree to Merlin spending three days in the stocks. It wasn't his favorite place to be but he wasn't going to complain. Plus it also kept the kids of Camelot busy and out of trouble while they chucked rotten vegetation at him.
After a few months Merlin had mostly forgotten about the whole indecent, but on occasion the scars on Arthur's back would cause him to wonder. He wouldn't find out the answer for another five years.
It had only been a year since Arthur had been crowned King of Camelot and every day there was a dozen new messages from Kings and Nobles requesting his assistance. Merlin had taken to opening the requests and dividing them into different categories. He secretly called his categories, not stupid, stupid but important, and by the gods how stupid are these royals. Arthur had claimed not to be amused by the names but Merlin could see the gleam in his eye that disputed his words.
While going through the latest group of messages he found one that he wasn't sure quite which category it should belong to so he set it aside to bring to Arthur's attention later. All of the other messages seemed to fall in the final category and would be relegated to the kindling pile that he rarely needed to use.
After eating the lunch that one of the many servants that had been added to the castle had brought him he gathered up his usual papers and the message and headed for Arthur's chambers. The entire court knew that after lunch was always Arthur's time to meet with the Court Sorcerer and if they interfered with that time, they could expect to have any number of unfortunate things occur to them. He was still rather put out by Arthur's demand that said unfortunate things had to be temporary. He thought that if they were stupid enough to interrupt them, they deserved to live with the consequences. Arthur was turning into a stick in the mud.
He magicked the door open and dropped his papers on Arthur's desk. He waved them into piles that Arthur would be able to make sense out of. The last time he just dropped them there Arthur had refused to discuss business with him until the mess was cleared up. He placed the message off to the side to be discussed after the rest of the normal business was finished.
He sat down in one of the massive chairs that loomed in the room. He had no idea why Uther had decided to have such large chairs and he had even less of an idea as to why Arthur kept them. He suspected it might have something to do with either laziness or Arthur never really thinking about what he was sitting in. Either option worked.
After a few minutes of staring up at the ceiling Arthur strode into the office. Arthur never walked anymore. He always strode. Merlin rather missed the days when Arthur would slink into a room. Merlin always liked it when Arthur would slink, though it did make it hard to concentrate on other things.
"You do know you're supposed to stand when I come into a room," Arthur said with a scowl as he strode over to the other chair.
"So you tell me every day," Merlin said sitting up straight.
"One day I hope that it will finally filter down into that thing you call a brain." Arthur dropped down into the chair and sighed. Merlin flicked a finger and the door closed and locked. Arthur looked up. "They won't be able to bring me my lunch with the door closed."
A knock sounded on the door and with another flick of a finger the King's meal appeared on the table in front of him and a screech sounded on the other side of the door. Arthur glared at the younger man. "That wasn't very nice."
Merlin grinned at him. "But it was fun."
Arthur shook his head as he plucked a few grapes from the plate. "I thought you were supposed to be the one who was nice to the servants. After all you used to be one of them."
Merlin shrugged as he stole some of the cheese. "You'd think so, but having been a former servant I also know how much time they spend doing goofing off."
Arthur grinned at him before looking at the piles of papers. "Less than usual," he said waving a hand towards them.
"I'm getting the impression that magic users are finally realizing that you are not your father and that you really did mean it when you lifted the ban on magic."
Arthur gave him a look out of the side of his eyes. "So, does that magic cause brain damage or are all magic users idiots? It really shouldn't have taken a year for people to realize it."
Merlin glared at the king before shrugging and making a face that showed a slight amount of agreement. "These seem to be the extremely dense ones. They are also the once that could have cause the least amount of damage. But we are seeing less and less property damage and destruction of crops. Also fewer monsters being called up to try and lure you out to kill you in extremely painful ways."
"That's a positive."
"I agree." Merlin picked up the message that still screwed up his categories. "We also received this message. It's from the King of Cantia." Merlin held it out to Arthur who took it with the hand what wasn't full of chicken leg.
He read it over and then handed it back to Merlin. "Send a reply that we accept and will start delivering supplies once the hand over is made."
"Yes, Sire." Merlin magicked up his quill and ink and was about to start writing the response when he looked back up at Arthur. "What exactly does this mean?"
Arthur sighed and put down the chicken. He wiped his fingers and sat back. "Basically it means that for the next ten years we will have the first son and heir of Cantia as our hostage. The king needs supplies. They have been an enemy of Camelot for quite some time and they have been making some noise that they have been thinking about attempting to test my resolve. But they've been hit with hard times lately. A large drought has killed a great deal of their crops and they are requesting assistance from us.
"There is the risk that if I provide assistance to them, once they grow stronger they might attempt to attack us. This is security against that risk. They know that if they attack us while the boy is here we could kill him. He's the king's only son and if he dies that would send the kingdom into upheaval. Not something many kings would risk."
"Oh." Merlin looked down at the paper and then back up at Arthur who was staring into the fire with a look that Merlin wasn't sure he really wanted to decipher. He cleared his throat and the king looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "So I'm to tell him that we accept and delivering supplies. Is there anything else?"
Arthur shook his head and went back to eating his lunch. Merlin quickly jotted down a reply, sealed the message with wax and pressed Arthur's seal into it before waving a hand over the parchment. It vanished off of the paper. "The message should be on the king's desk."
Arthur grunted a reply. Merlin tried to think of something to say but decided that Arthur's mood had turned so he gathered up his papers and gave the king a small, slightly mocking bow. "If there is anything else, Sire you know how to reach me." He turned and left the office without waiting for a reply.
The rest of the afternoon was spent teaching a young boy who had come to try out as his apprentice. The boy had no real talent for magic but he was bright and quick and would be an asset to the castle. With Arthur's new standards in place the boy would have an opportunity unlike previous generations. He just had to convince the steward that the boy would make a good assistant.
One that was done with and he'd sent the boy off to find other things to get in trouble with, he headed out for his daily walk around the castle. It afforded him time to get out of the spacious yet stuffy rooms of the castle and to find out any new gossip that might be floating around. He greeted each servant as he passed and listened to any complaints or comments they might offer him.
Finally he made his way to the courtyard where he was surprised to find Arthur and his knights. Training was always done early in the morning before the heat of the day and any duties that Arthur might have to deal with came up. It didn't look like a training session however. The knights were lined up more as if they were preparing to go off to battle, minus their armour.
Arthur stood before them halfway down the stairs leading up to the main entrance of the castle. Merlin assumed it was so that even the knights at the back of the formation could see and hear them.
"We have received a message from King Idris of Cantia. The kingdom has fallen on hard times and they have requested our assistance in aiding them. I have agreed to send supplies and men to help them in their time of need. The King has also offered his son and heir as a hostage to prove his good faith during this time. I anticipate that the prince will be here with in the month. I know you have heard how such hostages are typically treated. I will not have that here. He will be treated as any son of a noble would be treated. He will be trained as a knight and I will assign him to be squire to one of you. You will treat him as you would any other squire. If I hear of you mistreating him you will be stripped of your title and banished from Camelot."
The knights looked at each other and a low murmur came from them. Merlin wouldn't say that the looks were surprised, more like curious at the King's statement. Merlin couldn't really blame them, he was extremely curious by Arthur's statement himself. It seems like something everyone should have known, but perhaps it was just to head off any sort of bullying or pranks that could make a young prince extremely uncomfortable.
Arthur dismissed the knights and Merlin made his way to his side. "That was an interesting speech," Merlin said.
"They needed to know what kind of behavior I expect from them. There are certain things that I will not accept."
Merlin looked at Arthur's profile. "What's this all about?"
Arthur gave him a quick look. "I have to speak to the nobles here in the castle. Come to my chambers after supper and I shall explain."
"As you wish, Sire." Merlin stood on the stairs and watched as Arthur ascended the stairs taking them two at a time. He turned to look at the knight who had joined him in watching the King. "What do you think is going on?"
"There's something deeper going on there. The rest of the knights are rather confused," Lancelot said with a frown. "You need to find out."
Merlin nodded. "I'll find out tonight." Lancelot placed his hand on Merlin's shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze before releasing it and leaving to join the other knights.
Supper that evening was one of the longest that Merlin could remember in quite some time. Finally he excused himself and headed for the king's chambers. There at least he could attempt to distract himself with some of his books that he'd been meaning to go through for months. He was going through a book on exotic medicinal herbs when the king finally arrived. He was closely followed by Henry, the king's manservant.
Arthur sent Henry off for some mulled wine and two goblets. While he waited for the boy to return Arthur removed most of the courtly attire that he still grumbled about having to wear. Merlin had told him several times that as king he could refuse to wear them, but Arthur had come back with an argument about showing a proper amount of strength. Merlin still wasn't sure what a jacket and cape had to do with strength.
Once Henry had arrived with the wine and Arthur had sent him away for the night, telling him that Merlin would assist him with anything that he needed help with, he poured them both wine and settled into the chair closest to the fire. Merlin waited silently for Arthur to start. He knew well the king's moods and this was not time to tease him into talking.
"What little do you know of my childhood?" Merlin jumped slightly at Arthur's words. He'd been expecting a longer silence.
Merlin frowned at the fire. "Not much. I think I'd heard that you were fostered out to a noble family in the northern part of the kingdom."
Arthur chuffed lightly. "I believe that was the official story. My father wanted everyone to believe that, that's where he sent me."
Merlin looked at him. Arthur stared into the fire, occasionally taking sips of his wine. "I take it that's not the real story," he said finally when it appeared that Arthur wasn't going to say anything else.
"No. That's not where I was sent. The purge of magic users wasn't an easy battle and it left a lot of damage in this kingdom. When I was six years old the drought on one end of the kingdom and flooding at the other end began. It had been seen before and normally there would have been enough in storage to see the people through it. But so much of the stores had been used by the guards and knights in the field that there wasn't much left. Most people made it through the winter however and looked forward to the new season to begin planting.
"Unfortunately the new season only brought the same. Eventually my father realized that we needed help. He appealed to his allies and they sent some supplies but it wasn't enough. He had to ask for assistance from an old enemy. They weren't actively fighting anymore but there was the occasional rattling of swords in each other directions. The other king agreed to help. On one condition. That I was sent as his hostage."
Merlin sat forward in his chair. He tensed as he waited for more of the story but Arthur continued to stare into the fire. He seemed to have no interest in continuing. Merlin reached out and laid a hand on Arthur's arm. "Sire? Do you wish me to go?"
Arthur shook his head slightly. "No. But this is not an easy thing for me to discuss. Only my father and Gaius knew the whole story. One or two of the older knights knew part of it. I never spoke of my time away."
"If it's too much-"
"No," Arthur interrupted. "No, you need to know what happened. I need you to help me keep an eye on the people in this kingdom. Most of them I trust to follow my orders, but some might be willing to try and find holes." Merlin jerked back slightly as Arthur suddenly turned to look at him. "I will not allow what happened in that kingdom to happen here. My gaze cannot be every where. But yours can."
Arthur sat back in the chair and turned his attention once more to the fire. "I was seven when my father told me that I would be leaving. He had agreed to the king's conditions. He did have a few conditions of his own. That I would be instructed in battle and strategy. That I would be trained as a knight and that I would be taught the book learning that I would need as a future crown prince and king. The one other condition my father should have demanded but didn't, was in regards to my treatment."
Arthur looked around the courtyard of the Castle of Cornwall. It was not quite as grand as Camelot's but it was still impressive. The stone was darker and there were more statues and gargoyles gracing the roof. He dismounted from his horse and turned to face Sir Yueins. The knight gave him a half smile and then straightened, his attention going to the front stairs.
Arthur turned and saw a man in a long cloak and crown descending the staircase. Arthur stepped forward and bowed. "King Clarion, I am Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Camelot here to complete this final part of the agreement between our kingdoms."
The king stopped before him and looked him over. "Welcome to Cornwall, Prince Arthur. You will be my guest for the next ten years." He hooked an arm around the young prince's shoulders.
"Let me show you were the supplies your men will be taking back to help feed your people are. I'm sure you'd be interested to see that we have upheld our part of the agreement."
Arthur murmured an agreement and let the king lead him to the other end of the courtyard where wagons filled with barrels and burlap bags were lined up. "This is what we are offering to help feed the good people of Camelot during their time of need. There is grain and dried fruit. Salted meats and beans. It will not mean full bellies but it will mean that people will survive to plant next year. We can only hope that the curses laid upon your kingdom will have eased."
Arthur looked at the king in confusion. He had heard some of the servants in the castle saying that the drought and flooding must have been caused by magic users using their last breaths to try and bring down Camelot, but no one said it in public where all could hear it. He took a deep breath and stood straight. "On behalf of my father, the King of Camelot and of the people of Camelot we thank you for your grace and goodwill towards us. This will not be forgotten."
The king grinned down at him. Arthur tried not to let his feeling show on his face, but the smile was not a pleasant one. "No, I'm sure this will not." Arthur stumbled slightly as the king clapped him on the shoulder. "Come, we have prepared a feast for you and your men. We shall celebrate this new agreement between our Kingdoms." The king motioned for servants. "This is one of the many servants that we have. He will show you to your room. I'm sure you would like to wash off some of the dust and dirt from your long trip. My knights will show your men to the area that they will be spending the night in."
Arthur gave the king one last bow before following the servant into the castle. He turned and looked back at his knights. Sir Yueins gave him a nod before the doors of the castle blocked his view. The room that the servant showed him to was slightly smaller that his room in Camelot but the furniture was just as grand.
The servant bowed. "Your luggage will be delivered shortly, my lord. There is also a bath and a small repast that will be sent up. Do you request anything further?"
"No, you may go," Arthur said to dismiss the servant. He bit the inside of his cheek to avoid showing any of the emotions that were roiling inside of him. Once the door had closed behind the servant Arthur sagged. He sank down into one of the chairs and buried his head in his hands. He had no wish to stay, but the needs of his people came before his own and he had promised his father that he would make him proud.
"This will be just like at home. Drills with the knights, tutoring in languages, math, science, and history. It will just be with different instructors. It's good to have different teachers. I won't get bogged down into one way of fighting or thinking," he muttered to himself. He'd been telling himself that since his father had informed him of the agreement between Cornwall and Camelot. Sadly it wasn't working any better now than it had then. If anything finally meeting the king had only made it worse.
A light knock sounded on the door and he called for the person to enter. A few servants entered carrying his trunk. They placed it at the foot of the bed. They gave the young prince a bow and left the room. The door had been left open and just as Arthur was about to get up and close it, more servants arrived carrying a metal tub with more following with buckets of steaming and cold water.
They set up the bath and all but one of the servants left the room, closing the door behind them. The one servant who remained behind bowed. "I'm Arlis, my lord. I'm to be your manservant for the evening. If you would wish to bathe." He waved towards the changing screen on the other side of the room. "Bathing sheets have been placed there."
Arthur nodded. He stood and headed for the screen where once behind he removed the dusty and sweaty clothes he had been wearing for the past few days. He wrapped one of the sheets around him and made his way back to were the tub was waiting. He was grateful to see that the servant and turned around and was arranging the platter of fruits and cheeses on the table. Arthur quickly shed the sheet and slid into the warm water.
"Is the temperature of the water to your liking, my lord?"
Arthur leaned his head back against the edge of the tub. "Yes, thank you." He pulled the small scrub cloth off of the edge of the tub into the water and looked around for the soap. The servant plucked it off of the table and offered it to the prince.
"If you need any assistance..." the servant's voice trailed off.
"I will be fine until I need to rinse my hair," Arthur said not looking up from where he was rubbing the soap into the cloth.
"Yes, my lord."
Arthur made quick work of his bath and soon he sat at the table wrapped in a clean bath sheet picking at the fruit and cheese while the servant dug through his trunk. The servant pulled out a pair of leather breeches and a shirt of Pendragon red that had been edged with gold thread. He held them up for the prince's approval and at Arthur's nod he placed them neatly on the bed.
Arthur stood and allowed the servant to dress him. He sat to pull on his boots and looked around the room before finally taking a good look at the servant. The servant had the same worried and pinched look that the others he had seen had. It was doing nothing to help quiet the nerves in his gut.
He gave the servant a nod and followed the older man through the corridors of the castle to the feasting room. His men had already arrived and he made his way to the high table where the king awaited him.
"I hope your room is to your liking, Prince Arthur," the king said as he waved the prince to a chair.
"It is. Thank you, and thank you for the bath and food. It was most gracious of you."