He couldn't remember the first time it happened, and it would be a while before it stopped.
After stooping to pick up the disgarded tunic of his royal pratness, his right sleeve had gotten caught on his elbow, pulling back to reveal pale flesh. Obviously, it wasn't like Merlin cared much - it was a sleeve, something to be fixed later - but as Arthur came around the divide between them, fixing the ties on his nightshirt, blue eyes narrowed. "What's on your arm?" the blond suddenly asked.
"Are you deaf- Your arm, Merlin, what's that mark on your arm?"
Dumbly, Merlin paused to inspect the mark in question that stretched across his forearm. It was a scar, pale even by his standards and wiry. He hadn't the foggiest idea how Arthur managed to spot the darn thing when Merlin himself could barely make it out. Though, he couldn't remember where he had gotten it; his first guess was that it was an old injury from his childhood in Ealdor. Shrugging his shoulders dismissively, he continued with his task, gathering up the garments on the floor to toss into a nearby basket. "Just a scar, sire," he responded, "and an old one."
Arthur huffed and pulled back the luscious sheets on his bed. "I knew you were clumsy, but never so clumsy to actually hurt yourself."
"An old one, I said. I'm much more dexterous than I used to be."
"Sure you are."
* * *
"I can't remember the last time we had such a terrible storm!" Gwen gushed as they charged for cover in the courtyard. Once the downpour started, it took seconds for the stone floor to be cleared of all living creatures. Both servants were soaked to the bone, water pooling around their feet and swelling to the depths of ponds! Merlin feverishly shook his hair out, throwing himself off balance for a second before he glanced at the girl next to him. Their eyes locked.
Suddenly, they were exploding with laughter louder than the storm itself.
It had seemingly come from nowhere. Dense gray clouds brewed over the castle in a matter of minutes before tearing open, desperate to flood Camelot and her people. Merlin was pretty confident that it wouldn't last forever - a gut feeling, you could say - so the worst it could do was make the roads muddy for a week. The land thirst for something to drink, and the surprise storm was more like a blessing. A passing whim of nature.
As his laughs bubbled down to an infectious giggle, Merlin shrugged off his jacket, wringing out in front of him before extending it to Gwen. She looked a little surprised for a moment. "Hm..? Oh, no, Merlin, I'm fine."
"I insist." The raven pressed the grungy coat into her hands. "You still have to get home. It'll keep you from getting too wet and you can return it later."
"But what about you?"
He snorted. "I live here," Merlin reminded, "and I don't have to stand outside unless absolutely necessary. Besides, I don't think Arthur is so cruel as to have me go out in weather like this." When Gwen shivered, he even went so far as to slip off his neckerchief. Like the jacket, it was wrung out. This was him being a gentleman and nothing more. Gwen was a nice girl and his friend, and Morgana relied on her, so it was his duty to make sure she would be okay. As for him? Well, Gaius' quarters were much more impervious to the weather than his house back home. He could handle anything.
At this point, the woman knew better than to try to fight Merlin off. Smiling sheepishly, she kept her gaze lowered as he tied the damp cloth around her neck. The temperature difference was wild; in spite of the neckerchief's humid state, Gwen's skin felt painfully cold to the touch when his fingers would just barely brush against her skin. It's not like Merlin was a living furnace - tall and lanky didn't usually mean he was warm - but the poor brunette was caught in thicker, waterlogged layers of clothes, so she had to put up with much more than he.
Patting her shoulder in a playful way, he said, "I have millions of these things, so take your time getting it back to me, okay?"
"Ahaha.. Very well. Thank you, Merlin. You're very kind..."
She trailed off, lips pursed in a curious line. Her brow furrowed as she reached out to gingerly tug down on the collar of his shirt. Merlin knew his cheeks were warm but he didn't dare to make a comment- Not until she spoke first. "That's a peculiar scar," Gwen commented, "Looks like it must've hurt. What's it from?"
'Which one? ' he wordlessly asked, pressing his chin against his chest in a futile attempt to look at the mark in question. He couldn't actually see the thing, but already his brain was running rampant with possible causes. As time ticked on and the rain pounded against the courtyard, Merlin realized that all of the sources were too farfetched. Too magical.
He settled for something similar to what he told Arthur not long ago: "I was a really clumsy kid, it's probably from when I fell out of a tree. Or from the roof-"
At her wide-eyed expression, Merlin bit back a laugh and stepped away. "That's a long story. You might want to ask my mother about it whenever you meet her." Gwen laughed with him. Casual, lighthearted. It made him forget the list still running through his head. They said goodbye and the raven waited until Gwen was out of sight before proceeding to the physician's chambers.
* * *
Arthur dug through his pack with a grunt, pulling free a roll of cloth bandages that had sunken to the bottom. Turning to face the manservant sat on a rock behind him, it seemed difficult for the prince to not scoff. "What was it you had said?" the blond mocked as he approached. Merlin, in turn, twisted to look elsewhere. He hissed in a breath when his foot dragged uselessly against the ground. "Lemme see if I can recall... Oh, that's right!" Arthur dropped to a knee in front of the other as he bore the most pleased smirk ever. "You said you were more dexterous now, didn't you? And yet here you are, a twisted ankle after trying to stop from rolling down a hill that wasn't at all steep."
"You...caught me by surprise," Merlin grumbled, "You said something, I turned to answer, and I slipped."
"So it's my fault."
"You said it, not me."
The prince huffed a sort of quick dismissal of the topic before resting his arm across his bent knee. He frowned softly at Merlin's extended leg. "...Does it hurt that badly?" Arthur asked. Merlin didn't answer right away - not verbally, at least. He shrugged his shoulders, like he wasn't sure, but he definitely wasn't in any hurry to move. When his right foot was elevated, it sent a quick burst of fiery pain through his muscles, strong enough to make him clench his jaw. This seemed to be enough for the prince, who moved carefully to pry Merlin's boot off of his wounded ankle.
They were talking. At least, Merlin thought they were. It was more like Arthur was trying to distract him as he removed the boot. He said something about Morgana, made a little pass at Uther for fun. Anything to fill the tense air. Even after it was gone and his toes could breathe, Merlin's ankle throbbed when the leg of his pants was rolled up. Arthur's words fell flat for a moment, stringing off the end of an unfinished sentence.
Something filled its place. "Geez, Merlin," the prince was saying, "I don't think clumsy covers the number of scars you have here.."
"Can you please hurry?" Arthur's head snapped to attention. "We need to keep moving, don't we..?"
"Just because you're wounded-"
"Doesn't mean I can order you around, yes, I know, you've said that before."
"And you still don't seem to understand." Still, the conversation died. Neither of them said a word as Arthur wrapped up Merlin's swollen and bruised ankle.
Frankly, the warlock was grateful that he didn't have to explain himself. He was tired - it was quite the tumble, in his defense - and his brain ultimately deflated when he tried to come up with an excuse for the tendrils of scarring that trailed up his legs. No, Merlin didn't remember when he got it, but it no doubt had to do with saving that stupid, unappreciative, rude clotpole from certain doom.
Ah... Wait... He wasn't all that rude. Merlin smiled softly, something only he was aware of, as Arthur was busy being the exact opposite of rude. A prince shouldn't have bothered himself with tending to the sprain of his servant. ESPECIALLY when that servant was also supposed to be an apprentice to the Court Physician. But Arthur truly was kind, and he cared, and in a way he definitely appreciated Merlin; though, perhaps not for all of the things Merlin did. He just wasn't aware of those ones.
* * *
They were just coming back from a small patrol to a nearby village, stopping beside a leisurely crawling river to wash away the mud that stuck to their tired forms. Merlin hadn't even considered the possibility that someone would bring attention to him. So, like the other knights, the raven stripped off his shirt to rinse it in the current closest to the river bank. He shivered from the touch of cold, frigid water against his hands, felt goosebumps dot across his skin. It was basically the deciding factor of whether or not he would actually clean himself fully - the answer was no.
Leon had been approaching, splashing across the riverbed to strike up a friendly conversation when he set off the alarm: "By the gods... Merlin, what happened to you?"
Merlin's blood ran just as cold as the water that passed over his knuckles. 'Which is it? ' he frantically wondered, 'What is he talking about? Do I just look tired or does he actually see something..? ' In an attempt to feign ignorance, the raven tilted his head when he looked up. "What do you mean?"
The other knights were starting to gather. Including Arthur. Leon reached out carefully, pushing against Merlin's shoulders so he could get a better look at whatever had caught his eye. Slowly, he complied, sparing a glance down. It made his stomach do uncomfortable leaps in his body; the circular burn-like mark just below his breast bone. Memories flooded his head and ache filled his limbs. He couldn't shake away his unease. Nimueh. Nimueh. Nimueh.
It hurt him so, so much when not a single one of his excuses included Ealdor.
There was just no possible way that, despite his best efforts, Merlin could've gone without injury from his encounter. While it healed fast, its scar was deep and heavy. It didn't appear fresh but it felt fresh in his mind. Arthur had come to stand beside him, reaching out just as Leon did but not pulling away like Leon had once Merlin was sitting straight. The prince let his fingers dance over the pale, near invisible marks on Merlin's shoulders, listening to whatever the raven would say while not being completely peeled away.
"Just an accident," was Merlin's answer, his voice thick and his throat tight. Most of their party took it as fact, dispersing to gather their armor before setting up camp but both Leon and Arthur lingered. It didn't seem to be enough. So, he tried for a joke, swatting away Arthur's curious touch and grinning. "Stop feeling me up, will you? I'm ticklish."
Arthur slowly pulled his eyes away, his brow furrowed as he repeated, searching for clarification, "An accident?"
"An accident, Arthur. Really."
"Don't... Don't let another accident like that- Whatever that is, happen again."
Was he seriously being scolded..? Merlin wrung out his shirt and slipped it down over his head, not caring when the wet fabric stuck to his skin like sap. "Whatever you say, sire."
* * *
Merlin had the ability to wipe an entire kingdom off the face of the earth. He had the power to command the greatest beasts legend had to offer. He was the strongest sorcerer to ever live. And yet, he had the hardest time walking home.
His memory was hazy, his sight even more so - more often than not, he'd repeatedly step with one foot before remembering to alternate legs - but something drove him to move. What was coursing through his veins? Poison? His own blood? Adrenaline, maybe? Who could say... Certainly not he. Merlin's magic had warned him about the presence of something way beyond unfavorable and, like a fool, he went off to face it. The rest had felt like he was caught in a bottle of ink, charging through murk against a shadow in front of him.
They- Ah, right, it was someone with magic. Merlin couldn't recall much more than that as far as their voice or appearance went. They were in the middle of ritual, one that selfishly turned the world around it into a dying nightmare as it sucked up all energy nearby. It tried to feed off of Merlin's energy, his magic… Maybe that was why he felt so bad.
There was a fight, but that might have been an understatement. Merlin was content, at first, with just watching from the sidelines, resisting the toxic pull that the ritual was having on his very soul. He only listened, trying to gage the severity of the situation. He had come to fix the problem but he never considered the possibilities of what he might face. The sorcerer had been spouting a monologue between incantations. He threatened Camelot, threatened her people - the usual. He threatened Uther - no surprise there - and it wasn't until he spat out his boundless hatred for Arthur of all people that Merlin truly lost all of his sensations. Instead of a fight, there was no doubt in his mind that it had been a fierce battle.
He sprung from the safety of his tree like a rabid squirrel, tackling the sorcerer out of his painted circle. In hindsight, he could've done literally anything else, but he had been angry, so angry that the red of his rage overtook the gray of his surroundings. Yes, Uther was the enemy to people of magic, but Arthur had yet to truly commit as great of an offence as his father. Arthur was the one people should've been trying to appease, he should've been the one magic users glanced at with a slightly open mind. He was so, so incredibly important and they just choose to overlook it?!
Target Uther for all he cared, despise Uther, but-
"Don't you dare curse the name of Arthur Pendragon," he spat, blood seeping from an open wound on his back, skin prickling with the charge of an electric spell that had taken him off his feet. The sorcerer didn't know who he had just stabbed or who he just attacked, and Merlin was practically baring his fangs. His eyes glowed molten gold. His hand raised and the sorcerer tried to match. They shot feverish spells at each other.
Right... The moment came rushing back so fast it just about swept him off his clumsy feet.
Merlin collapsed into the cot reserved for patients with a sharp gasp. He knew Gaius was rushing to get a rag - he heard the familiar rattle of the farthest most drawer - and bucket - the water sloshed over the sides, slapping against the floor when it landed - before pulling up a seat at the raven's side. "My poor boy..." the old man muttered under his breath. He carefully pulled off Merlin's jacket, tossed it to the floor, and then slipped off the blood soaked shirt. All the while, Merlin couldn't find it in him to argue or complain. He was tired... Going on a rampage had that effect, didn't it..?
Not only that, but it was as if he could still taste the gross magic his opponent had been trying to seep into Camelot. As Gaius dabbed the dampened rag against the deep wound on his back, Merlin smiled into the tough blanket that was pushed against his face. He was almost...pleased with himself. He had stopped something bad from happening before it had a chance to actually hurt someone. He stopped the problem before it began.
He protected Arthur well before the prince was in any actual danger. That was more than enough for Merlin.
He had been tipping back and forth between consciousness when there was a knock at the door. With no time to get Merlin something for the pain, Gaius whispered a quick apology and hobbled for the entrance. He opened it only slightly. "What can- Ah, Prince Arthur, to what do I owe the pleasure..?"
'Arthur...' It surprised Merlin how desperately his thoughts seemed to call. Now was a pretty bad time to be seen by his master, but... But maybe it was the personal satisfaction in knowing that he probably (yet again) saved the arrogant fool's life. Swallowing thickly, the raven strained to listen in on the conversation.
At first, all Merlin caught onto was that Gaius had just said he didn't know where the prince's lazy servant was. "I haven't seen him in a while, sire," the physician smoothly lied, "He might very well be out looking for herbs or in the lower town. I'll send him up to your chambers the moment I lay my eyes on him."
"See that you do, Gaius.." A sniff interrupted Arthur. "Ah, before I forget, Father was asking for you. Immediately, too. It seemed important."
"Yes, well, let me just turn off my burner and I'll be right there."
Gaius shut the door a little too hastily - Merlin flinched at the sound of the door smacked against the frame that was just a centimeter or two tight for the entrance itself. Grunting, he turned his face towards his mentor, blinking the blur out of his eyes. Sure enough, Gaius was turning off the little burner of one of his beakers, but he was also grinding something down into a thick paste. He hobbled to Merlin's side and offered a thin-lipped smile of worry. "I can't keep Uther waiting," he said, "and I don't want to leave you alone, but..."
"I know..." Merlin croaked in response. He sighed deeply when a cool salve was applied to the wound on his back. Cool relief spread throughout his body, erasing tension and replacing heat with the soft kiss of comfort. Being on the receiving end of treatment was, sometimes, really nice. He shook his head against the pillow, offering Gaius a smile of his own. "I'll- I'll be fine.. It's not so bad that I'll...y'know, die. I think... I think I just need to sleep it off.."
"If you say so, Merlin. We'll get you to your room when I return, so for now, just relax." The man stood up and began to head for the door. "I'll be back as soon as possible."
The solitude wasn't bad at all. If anything, it just lulled Merlin into a sense of peace. Even without Gaius telling him to relax, it would've happened anyways. Merlin wanted to fold his arms under his head but moving still hurt; he wanted to roll onto his side but the paste Gaius applied was still fresh. He listened carefully to the noise beyond the chamber walls, to the chatter of people, and to the dying boil of one of Gaius' potions. Being aware of the it lowered to a simmer, then to a stillness, was almost entrancing. His eyes flickered shut and darkness swallowed him for a solid five seconds.
The door creaked open and a breath caught in the visitor's throat. "What in Albion's name happened to you..."
Panic exploded in Merlin's body. It overpowered the calm and the relief, turned the cooling sensation to one of intense heat, and yet Merlin couldn't find the strength to move. "Arth...Arthur..!" When he tried, against his better judgement, to push up off of the cot, his head spun and spots danced in his vision. He collapsed on his chest again, nearly rolling off and onto the floor when strong arms stopped his descent.
With care, he was settled back into place, staring straight into the concerned blue eyes of his prince. In all honesty, Merlin expected to be scolded, to be told off or to be cornered for an explanation. Arthur did none of those things. Instead, he pulled up the chair Gaius had previously been occupying and sat close, hunched forward with his lips pressed against his knuckles.
Merlin didn't think. That was becoming quite frequent with him when it came to confronting Arthur over something. "Sor...ry.." he mumbled.
"You should be," the blond retorted quickly, "You made me deceive Gaius."
His face scrunched up in confusion and Arthur, in response, chuckled. "I knew you had come back from the woods, Merlin," he said, "and I was totally going to yell at you for loafing around. You looked absolutely drunk, the way you were teetering and stumbling on your way to Gaius' chambers. What if someone saw you, hm? What would you have said? 'Oh, that prat Arthur has me working so hard, I had to drink away my problems and then somehow return home'?"
Throat rough and scratchy, the raven coughed once, still confused. "What- What does that have to do...with you deceiving Gaius..?"
"I'm a knight. A warrior. I could smell the blood before I was even sure you were there. So, I had to get him out of here."
Arthur's expression seemed to soften a bit. He glanced at the pile of clothes that still sat on the floor, then Merlin's back, where he would no doubt be met with a myriad of other scars and scratches, but all the while he avoided Merlin's eyes. And those eyes were trained so precisely on the prince's face; poor Merlin was having a hard time focusing on the present moment, he had to stare at something.
Even so, the question needed to be asked eventually. "What happened, Merlin?"
"An accident my ass," Arthur snapped, "Did you not just hear me? I'm a warrior. I know what a wound from a blade looks like." He shook his head a bit, trying to regain his composure before proceeding. "So, you were attacked. What for? Were you mugged? Was it an accident? Did you piss someone off? Yes, that must be it... There's no other explanation."
Personal satisfaction gone, now Merlin was pissed. Here he was, a wounded man, and his royal pratness was insulting him! He bit his lip. Somehow, he found the strength to snark back. "Don't come-" Merlin hissed in a quick breath. "-crying to me next time...someone plots...to harm you..! You hear me, clotpole?!" Speaking was difficult with his exhaustion, and the more worked up he got, the worse he felt in every way. "Last time I worry about you..."
Perhaps he just outed himself. It wasn't difficult to write off his outburst as a joke, but Merlin kept hesitating to fake a laugh. He finally said something that bothered him for months - this lack of acknowledgment for all that he sacrificed for Arthur - and now he could be proud of himself, even if he did retract the statement. There was no way Arthur, prideful and arrogant as he was, would take kindly to the idea of some lowly servant worrying about his wellbeing. And yet, something stopped Merlin dead in his tracks.
Arthur was staring at the exposed skin of his manservant's back with wide eyes, seemingly in shock from the sudden verbal attack. So, someone tell Merlin why he saw the look of knowing on Arthur's face.
It was because the prince actually considered what Merlin involved himself in. Even if it was in order to make a smart quip, even if it was because the idea was strange, Arthur still considered it. He was reassessing the scars that carved Merlin's skin into pieces, some faint and some rigid, and made connections. He could make the connections in the first place because not all of these old wounds were products of magic. Many were the work of steel and weapons, beasts and the elements; whatever Merlin struggled to overcome was written there in swollen, pearly ink.
Time passed and Merlin, finally, said, "Don't think too hard, Arthur.. You'll really hurt yourself this time."
"You're telling me these are all accidents?" Arthur shot a quick glare the raven's way at the comment, but he found something else to worry about. "Every single one of these is an accident, something you "accidentally" got involved in."
"Wrong place, right time, I s'ppose.."
"You said the proverb wrong, idiot..."
"No I didn't." Merlin caught himself smiling through his fatigue and relief. "Only I could be so capable to save your sorry ass on accident."
It couldn't be helped. Arthur sputtered with laughter, shaking his head and hunching over in the seat. He said something about Merlin being some kind of idiot - they had already been over that - and how he couldn't believe how reckless the raven was - it's not like there had been any reason for doubt, considering how frequently Merlin spoke out of turn. But it was this laughter that sent Merlin to sleep with a light heart.