Title: Not carved from stone
Rating: PG-13 (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Mordred, Gwaine, Percival, Elyan, George.
Summary: Arthur and Gwaine finish what they began in Caerleon.
Warnings: Violence, angst, issues of rape.
Word Count: 1648
Prompt: #41 Ball
Author's Notes: I've spent a week wrestling with the plot, but now I know where I am going again. I'll try to post one more chapter on AO3 tomorrow. There's some exciting action and some game-changing stuff coming up in a few chapters, so please bear with me as I once again drag Arthur down Angsty Lane.
You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
When Arthur looks around, he feels like he is a part of a moving carving or tapestry. Torchlight creates bronze out of the skin on Percival's arms and neck, Gwaine's hair becomes satin, and Mordred's eyes shine like pale jewels, set in ivory. With blood rushing in his ears, Arthur can barely hear the sharp thump of quarterstaffs meeting, even though the sound echoes in the long, low room, but he can feel in his bones the way each impact against his own staff jars against the flow of his movements.
Mordred is a white, hungry flame; each fall, each bruise stoking his will to rise, and rise again. Arthur couldn't ask for a better pupil. He has taken Mordred away into a corner, and though he absolutely meant to give each knight-in-training equal attention, he has not called on anyone else for the past hour.
Elyan and Leon are in charge of the Fall recruits, being the two knights that best master the basics of combat, but only Elyan is here today. Like an ebony statue come to life, he goes through stance after stance with the staff, his movements focused and precise. The recruits watch him, restless and eager to join him in the dance, their limbs twitchy but their eyes admiring.
Arthur slams into Mordred and sends him sprawling onto one of the straw mattresses that cover the floor. For a moment, the boy is simply heaving for breath, sweat glittering on his upper lip, but then he's rolling over and using the wall to drag himself up. Arthur breathes through his nose, palms his staff and waits. The thrill makes him dizzy.
The moment is shattered as Gwaine appears between them, reaching out to help Mordred stand on his own.
“Time for a break, I think? We don't want to kill our best recruit before his first campaign,” he says cheerfully, and Mordred goes red with delight, and smiles like a little boy.
Arthur has had just about enough of Gwaine making free. Since their fight in Caerleon, the knight has begun acting more and more like Arthur's equal, making decisions and challenging Arthur's orders.
“Was Percival winning?” Arthur asks, tone light and mean. He can't seem to break his stance, still ready for an attack, because everything is an assault to him now, every sight, every smell. Only within the tapestry, where he is nothing but woven surface, can he breathe free of the knot in his stomach. The tight ball of guilt.
“It's just sparring,” Gwaine replies.
“I was though. I was winning,” Percival calls from where he is engaging Sir Erec.
Gwaine throws him a childish grimace, before clapping Mordred on the shoulder. “Off you go. Drink some water. Catch your breath. You're doing great.”
Arthur bites down hard on an urge to order Mordred to stay, because it is beneath him to react to Gwaine’s baiting. And they have been going at it for too long, and Mordred does need to sit down before he passes out, but Gwaine's insubordination is still unbearable.
Only once Mordred has disappeared between the pillars, heading for the benches across the room, does Arthur relax. He makes himself lower his shoulders and place the tip of the quarterstaff on the floor.
“You look like you could need a break too,” Gwaine says, carefully kind. He half extends a hand, and Arthur wants to fall into that gesture of comfort, into the oblivion of grief and healing that comes with confessing, with breaking, but he cannot break. So he looks coolly from Gwaine's hand to his eyes, and makes no move to accept the offer.
“This is your warning, Sir Gwaine,” he says, lowering his voice so only Gwaine can hear him. “The only one you are going to get. Stand down, or I will put you down.”
Gwaine lets his hand fall, nostrils flaring, frustration clear in every line of his expressive face.
A gust of wind makes Arthur’s sweat-dampened shirt grow cold where it clings to his skin, and the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise. George is standing in the doorway across the room, dispassionate eyes darting between the pillars in search for Arthur.
“Here comes your new manservant,” Gwaine says, and the accusation is barely even veiled, causing a roar to build, unstoppable in Arthur’s throat.
“There you are, my Lord,” George says, and Arthur bites down on the sound about to emerge from his mouth, bites so hard his lip splits and blood seeps into his mouth.
Exhausted, Arthur makes himself face his servant. “Yes, George, here I am.”
George’s tone makes Arthur feel like he is five years old. “I thought you might like to know that Princess Elena, Sir Caradoc and Lady Brangaine are arriving as expected.”
“That’s great,” Arthur says automatically. It’s all a play, really. Arthur knew they would be arriving at this hour, George knows that Arthur knew, and he knows that Arthur is here specifically to avoid having to greet them. Right now, they are just more people he needs to convince that he is fine.
It takes a clever man to come up with so many jokes about brass, and George is a cleverer man than Arthur ever gave him credit for. He doesn’t say a word of reprimand, but makes Arthur feel ashamed of himself simply by playing along in Arthur’s little charade. George stands there with his hands on his back, watching Arthur with a mildly expectant expression, and Arthur caves.
“I’d better go upstairs to welcome them,” he says.
George’s expression doesn’t change, but somehow he manages to radiate approval and satisfaction nonetheless. “Sir Leon and Lady Guinevere were gracious enough to agree to meet your guests in the courtyard. You might still catch them, if you hurry. I have brought clothes.”
Of course he has. Arthur wouldn’t be surprised if George has also brought a five-course meal, a group of French minstrels, and every single ball of yarn in Camelot.
“Come on, then. Get me ready.” Arthur leans his staff against the wall and walks towards the door with heavy steps.
But Gwaine is still feeling confrontational. “Say hello to Merlin while you’re out there,” he calls after Arthur. “He’s so lonely in the market square. Might do him good to know that his friend remembers him.”
Red rage crashes through Arthur, and for a moment he is a storm. Then Percival and Elyan are dragging him away from Gwaine, who is lying on the floor clutching his bloody nose.
“HOW DARE YOU?” Arthur roars. The room is spinning, and this is Caerleon again; their standoff continued as if it was never interrupted. The tapestry has frozen, the characters still and pale in shock, with Arthur as the twisting centrepiece.
Gwaine gets up awkwardly. He wipes at his nose, sniffs. The taste of blood is in both their mouths now. “He’s learned to dress warmly,” the knight says calmly, as if he wasn’t just punched in the face. “But you know it doesn't matter how many layers you put on when you have to stand still for hours at the time. His teeth rattle so we can hear it across the square.”
Finally, Percival and Elyan have to let go because Arthur is about to twist his own arms out of their sockets. Percival immediately puts himself between Arthur and Gwaine. He’s wearing that gentle, understanding expression he does so well, and it makes Arthur want to sock him in the face too.
“The law is the law!” Arthur yells. “A servant caused the King of Camelot a full day's delay on his journey, keeping wounded men from their physician, and waiting families in the dark. Not even bloody Merlin gets away with that, no matter why he did it! There is not one law for him and one for everyone else, and there is not a special law for me, so into the stocks he goes, because my only other choice was to have him flogged.”
“That,” Elyan says quietly. “Is the first time you have said Merlin’s name since you came home.”
In Arthur’s heart, Love pulls the two syllables close and cradles them. The sound they make together is precious, full of meaning. To speak them is to remember all the moments that make up who Arthur has become, because Merlin made Arthur: the King and the man. Arthur the King dares speak the name, but Arthur the man is blackened, and has forfeited his right to it.
He tries to recall the sound from his own lips, but it happened too fast.
Gwaine pushes Percival aside with a hand on his shoulder. He takes a step forward and goes down on one knee. “Forgive me, Sire. I am only a man with a sword, who used to believe in nothing and accept no master but myself. Then I met a Prince who gave me an ideal to strive for, and I gave him my heart. Now my heart breaks because I cannot recognise him anymore.” He takes Arthur’s hand and kisses it. “I am a knight of Camelot, and King Arthur’s man, but are you him? Are you the man I pledged myself to?”
Arthur remembers the weight of Merlin in his lap, remembers Merlin jerking, twisting his hips like he was in pain, trembling like he couldn’t stand it, responding like he couldn’t help it. He remembers how impossible it was to catch Merlin’s eyes the next day, how they kept glancing off each other like meeting swords, scraping each other raw. Later, when stupid, reckless, courageous Merlin wanted to chase after the dragon, Arthur had unthinkingly pressed his hand to Merlin’s stomach, and Merlin’s hips had risen automatically even while his eyes widened in fear.
Arthur caused that.
“Come, George,” he says, and leaves Gwaine kneeling on the floor, bereft.