Title: A building storm
Rating: PG (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin, Gwaine, Percival, knights.
Summary: Arthur seeks an outlet in the wrong place.
Warnings: Angst. Issues of rape.
Word Count: 2301 (I'll get back to legal lengths once this verse leaves me alone)
Prompt: #31 Heartbeats
Author's Notes: "Heartbeats" might as well have been an overall prompt for this verse, and so, rather than using the prompt overtly for this weeks installment, the workings of Arthur's heart infuse the narrative, but invisibly.
Constructive criticism is very welcome.
You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
While it would be nice to have water in his pitcher, and breakfast on the table, Arthur misses the man who brings him these things more than the things themselves. He misses the sound of the curtains being drawn, and Merlin's never-changing “Rise and shine”, the words seeming as much responsible for flooding the room with light, as does the curtains withdrawing.
This morning, Arthur wakes up to silence, and grey light coming through a window that was never covered. He's fully dressed, lying on his stomach on top of the covers, and feels stiff and chilled, but at least he slept. He dreamt too, though, and the evidence is pressing against the mattress. Still hazy with sleep, he spreads his legs a little and rolls his hips lazily, chasing the buzzing pleasure that is fading with the dream.
Merlin's hair against Arthur’s skin, Merlin's lips against his neck, kissing his pulse. Merlin moaning.
There is a knock on the door and Arthur is up in a second, quickly dragging his fingers through his hair and trying to smooth his wrinkled shirt, but nobody enters, because it isn't Merlin on the other side of the door, and nobody else ever barges in on the King of Camelot without permission.
The knock is repeated, Arthur hurries to sit down at the table in front of the window, clears his throat and says “Come in” as casually as he can. His arousal is fading, replaced by a restless unease centred in his stomach.
The door opens, and a young woman shoulders her way inside, encumbered by the tray she is carrying. She is freckled and skinny, and looks run off her feet despite the early hour. On the tray is a plate of bread, cheese and meat, two wrinkly, red apples, and a goblet of wine.
“Um, I've got your breakfast, my Lord.” She curtseys, and Arthur springs forward to stop the goblet from falling off the tray.
She rights herself quickly, blushing. “Thank you, my Lord.”
He takes the tray from her and places it on the table by the window.
The girl looks around, no doubt taking in the cold hearth and still made bed. “Is there anything I can do for you, my Lord?”
“Did the Queen send you?” Arthur asks, because someone must have guessed that Merlin would not be waiting on Arthur this morning.
The girl fidgets, rubbing her fingers together nervously and keeping her eyes lowered. “No, my Lord.”
Arthur sits down, limbs heavy, the storm in his stomach branching out to tighten the muscles in his thighs. He doesn’t want to know, but needs to. “What's your name?”
“Evelyn, my Lord.”
“Evelyn, look at me.”
She does, sighing fretfully and wrapping her hands in her apron.
He leans forward. “Please tell me who sent you. I promise I won't let anyone know that you told me.”
He’s hit the mark, guessing that she’s been sworn to secrecy, because the wringing of her apron intensifies, but he's a King, and she's shy, and all it takes for her to crack is that he waits expectantly.
“Your M-Merlin was down in the kitchens this morning, Sire, wanting to know if you’d had your breakfast. He asked me to bring it to you.”
Arthur hurts. “Thank you, Evelyn.” He sends her away.
Then he turns to his food. This is Merlin trying to keep up with his duties from afar. This is loyalty that Arthur does not deserve.
He doesn't want to eat, doesn't think he can keep it down, but it's been that way for days, and his whole body is beginning to protest. So he eats the apples and the cheese, and takes a bite out of the bread and meat. He tells himself that he owes it to Merlin.
The storm inside is making him restless. It’s not a good state to see the Queen in, but he has to go to her if he wants to have any hope of restoring himself in her eyes. They’ll talk about Mordred, and he will apologise for last night, and then he’ll take Excalibur down to the practice field and kill someone.
But when he reaches the throne room, Arthur is informed that the Queen is in closed council, and will remain there all morning. Like when having to pull an arrow from a wound, he can’t decide whether to be relieved at the reprieve, or frustrated that he can’t just get it over with.
The storm creeps under his skin, writhing unbearably. He can’t meet Queen Annis like this; he doesn’t know what he might do, so he brings his plans forward and goes down to the training field.
Every time he turns a corner, he fears running into Merlin, which he doesn’t, but everyone else he meets looks at him like they know all about last night, which they probably do. The way gossip carries, the whole castle should know. The question is, what do they think it is that they know? Arthur doesn’t dare to think too closely about last night, to remember the things he said, the things Merlin said.
“But it was my fault!”
The training field ground is brown and hard-packed with approaching frost. Winter lies in wait just outside Caerleon’s border, breathing down people’s necks. Arthur fears that when he goes home, he will bring the frost with him, not led by the hand, but pulled along by a string tethered to his heart.
A group of youngsters are practicing with the quarter staff under the watchful eyes of Sir Breunor, Queen Annis’ oldest knight. Another group, consisting of full-fledged knights, are sparring with swords, but they stop when they see Arthur coming. He walks in among them, surveys them for a moment, the scarred veterans and the fresh novices. What do they make of him after last night? But there are no whispers, no leers. They are respectful, and wary of him.
Arthur points his sword at the nearest man. “You. Fight me.”
He’s older than Arthur, handsome, dark. He hesitates. “My Lord?”
Arthur plants his feet and waves the man forward.
The man glances around at his comrades, still not sure what Arthur wants from him, so Arthur lounges. In four strikes he has the man on his knees with Excalibur at his throat.
Arthur backs up a couple of steps. “Up. I told you to fight.”
The man is easily provoked, and gets to his feet quickly. This time, he attacks first. Arthur counters, let’s his body react automatically until he finds the flow of the battle, at which point he immediately takes control of the fight. His opponent doesn’t last a minute. Arthur leaves him on his back on the ground, panting and wide-eyed.
He looks around at the men. All other activity on the field has stopped now, squires, knights and trainees all watching. “Are you supposed to be Caerleon’s best men?” He’s playing a dangerous game, but it’s not a sparring match he’s after; it’s a fight. Something to quiet the storm in him and leave his mind blank.
Sir Breunor steps forward.
“I’ll teach you manners, Pendragon,” he says, and Arthur almost laughs in relief.
“Come on, then.”
Their swords clash and it is so satisfying. Sir Breunor is clever with the sword, must have been to have survived so many wars, and he is surprisingly strong for his age. But he is still a man past his prime, while Arthur is in his May, and once Arthur notices the man’s bad leg, the battle is over. A swift kick, and Breunor crumples, and another kick sends his sword flying from his hand.
Arthur is barely winded, but all around him, the soldiers of Caerleon are narrowed-eyed and hefting their swords. It’s promising. He throws himself at them like a wave on the rocks, hoping to be dashed to pieces.
Arthur has never had reason to regret being Camelot’s best warrior, but when he finally stands alone amidst beaten, groaning men, he does. He extends his hands with something like despair rising in his chest. “Come on! Give me a fight, at least. Someone in Caerleon has to be able to do that!”
Arthur turns around, and his heart stutters. Gwaine’s brows are lowered, his eyes dark. Does he know? Did Merlin tell him last night?
Six more of Camelot’s knights, Percival and Bedivere among them, have come with Gwaine.
But no Merlin.
Arthur snorts, mocking. “You’ve never beaten me, Gwaine, and you never will.” His tone is playful, nothing like the turmoil beneath his skin, which has, if anything, grown worse. But his pulse is quickening in anticipation. Gwaine is ferocious in his anger.
A wind blows across the training field, lifting Gwaine’s cape.
“Where is your armour, my King?” Gwaine asks. “Where is your mail? You can’t take on an army in your shirt.”
“You’re hardly an army.”
Gwaine sighs. He unclasps his cape and hands it to Sir Pelliam, comes forward and draws his sword. He tests the ground with his feet and shakes himself, before bending his knees, ready to meet Arthur.
Arthur spins Excalibur on his wrist once, twice, three times and then he’s flowing into Gwaine’s space, attacking without warning, but Camelot’s best knight does not disappoint; he steps easily into the dance with Arthur, countering him move for move and striking back whenever he can. They dance, vying for control.
The world fades around them. Steel and breath create the only sounds, the violence of their bodies is the only thing that’s important. This is what Arthur needs: the adrenaline to drown out the nausea, the thrill and the fear to counter the shame.
Until he realises that Gwaine isn’t fighting to win. Gwaine is a brilliant swordsman, and against Arthur he has always brought all his ingenuity, speed and strength to bear, and today he isn’t even being arrogant, which is the weakness that usually fells him. But there are no surprise moves, no daring chances; Gwaine is playing it safe, wearing Arthur down.
Fine. If Gwaine isn’t angry enough yet, Arthur can fix that. The next time they have a little space to breathe, Arthur laughs. “After all these years, you still can’t beat me.” Gwaine’s face is set in grim determination, he doesn’t seem to be listening. Arthur frowns. He is coming down from his high; the storm is catching up with him, growing, growing. Too many thoughts are crowding his skull.
He should have left Merlin alone with the stars, given him space to escape from their mutual violation, not dragged him back down to Earth to cater to Arthur’s filthy dreams. Arthur had been desperate to give Ragnor what he wanted, lest the bandit decided to change the game, but he couldn’t do it, couldn’t come with so many eyes scorching him, couldn’t come unless he allowed himself to believe that Merlin wanted him back. He can tell himself that he did it to save Merlin from a worse fate, but that doesn’t lessen the selfish pleasure he gained from it. From raping Merlin.
Arthur dances away from Gwaine’s blade, the storm unleashed and howling inside of him, and in a last ditch effort to make Gwaine give him what he needs, he shouts, “Lancelot was a better knight than you will ever be!”
Predictably, Gwaine’s face darkens with rage, and Arthur’s breath catches in relief. Then he backs right into Percival, who grabs Arthur’s wrists and traps them against his chest. Gwaine rests the tip of his sword against Arthur’s throat.
“Where is your armour, Arthur?” Gwaine asks again, his anger reigned in tightly. “You taught us that a knight is only as good as how he treats his horse, his gear, and the beggar after his coin. You abandoned your gear in Ismere. Why, Arthur?”
Because there were stains on his gambeson, and he had some stupid idea about leaving the past behind with his clothes.
The men of Caerleon are still watching, the youngsters looking a little stunned by the swordplay they just witnessed. Arthur squirms. “Release me, Percival!”
Percival lets go, but not before grabbing Excalibur. Arthur tugs at the hilt, but Percival holds firm, eyes too soft and understanding, and eventually Arthur just can’t fight him anymore. He let’s go of his sword and turns to face Gwaine.
Sir Breunor mercifully barks the order for everyone to get back to their tasks, and the men shuffle off reluctantly, but it’s foolish to think that they will not still be watching.
Arthur’s bruises are finally catching up with him, but all it means is that he feels battered on the outside as well as the inside. He feels worse than when he came out here.
Gwaine lets his sword fall. He looks like he’s despairing. “What’s going on, Arthur?”
“Merlin,” Percival says.
Arthur turns too fast, and there he is, hair windswept and cheeks red from the cold, doubled over and breathing hard from having run.
“Arth- ... Arthur!” Merlin calls, and Arthur is next to him in no time, already certain that something is wrong.
“What?” he asks softly.
Merlin straightens up, runs a hand through his hair and grips, tugging, teeth clenched. Then his eyes find Arthur’s. “They’ve caught Ragnor. Queen Annis is presiding over his trial right now.”
Arthur looks up towards the castle. He can’t make his body move, though he should be running for his life, to get there in time to ... to do what exactly?
“He’ll tell,” he says.
Merlin just looks at him, and Arthur almost blesses the Gods who seem to be so against them, because Arthur and Merlin are now united, if only because they are about be cast out by the world they know.