Word Count: ~4500
Warnings/Spoilers: None, as far as I know.
Summary: In the winter, Camelot is under siege, and the people are starving. Arthur and Merlin take care of one another in a slightly dysfunctional manner.
In the middle of a hard and wearing winter, Camelot is under siege. Every time Arthur looks out over the castle battlements he sees the tattered flags waving in the wind, the cluster of black tents surrounding the walls, the sharp points of spears as Alderic’s men march in formation. Alderic showed up in the middle of autumn, before the harvest festival, before Camelot had time to gather and store supplies for the winter. The castle is running out of food.
Arthur never thought he would be glad to see rat stew, but after he hears Gaius and Merlin come around the corner arguing heatedly over whether or not it would be feasible to serve well toads, roasted over a fire on sticks, he eats the stew Merlin brings him for lunch that day without a word of complaint.
“You couldn’t possibly have found something to serve me that tasted worse, could you, Merlin?”
“Could have brought you fried worms,” Merlin fires back, not looking up from where he’s piling logs onto the smoldering remains of the fire.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. Nobody would eat fried worms.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Merlin says, straightening up. “Saw three of the kitchen boys eating them yesterday. Frying a whole lot of them up in a pan.”
Arthur’s face twists into a grimace of disgust before he can stop himself. Merlin smirks, going back to stoking the fire. “Bet you feel a lot better about your stew now, don’t you?” The fire leaps under his hands, sending a wave of warmth through Arthur’s chambers. The winter has been cold, colder than any Arthur remembers. He’s taken to wearing tunics and jackets into bed, and he’s noticed that Merlin has started wearing two of those stupid kerchiefs around his neck.
“What are you doing for food?” Arthur asks idly, sloshing the stew around in his bowl. He’s surprised to see Merlin flush and turn towards the fire, poking it with one of the irons and making sparks fly dangerously close to his boots.
“You are getting enough food, aren’t you?”
Arthur peers at him suspiciously. Are his ears sticking out more than usual, or is it Arthur’s imagination? “If you’re sure.”
“Yes, yes. Just yesterday Gaius and I found a—”
“Oh, shut up, Merlin,” Arthur interrupts, trying hard not to wince.
There’s a moment of silence as both of them enjoy the warmth that’s spreading through the room. Arthur buries his feet under one of the extra blankets Merlin brought over the night before: large, slightly misshapen bundles of patchwork. He’s started eating all his meals in bed, something that he would ordinarily have found deplorable, but it’s just so much… warmer in bed.
Merlin is at the window, gazing out at what Arthur knows is an unchanging landscape: barren trees, black tents, men crawling like spiders over the fields that surround Camelot. “Arthur.”
“We will think of something, won’t we? We’ll drive them away somehow.”
“It’s not you who has to think of something,” Arthur snaps. Merlin’s face shutters immediately, his mouth tightening. There is a tense pause, and then Arthur sighs. “Look, Merlin, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—“
“I know,” Merlin says softly, still looking away, through the window. “You’re frustrated.”
“You do help me a lot more than I like to admit,” Arthur says, and then adds, to lighten the mood, “even though you can be so useless.” Merlin looks at him then, searching his face, and Arthur lets a tiny grin edge onto the corners of his lips. Merlin smiles back, nervous and sweet.
At first Alderic’s men had launched an aggressive attack, all cannons and firethrowers and battering rams. Camelot had answered in force, with arrows and fire of her own. After a while, when the pile of dead bodies wearing both blue and Camelot red had grown high against the walls, Alderic and his men had settled in for a long siege. Camelot had instated rationing immediately, but it was too late; they’d wasted valuable time and resources pressing back against Alderic’s forces.
Arthur doesn’t notice the castle has run out of firewood until he comes across three of his knights, at their posts on the battlements, breaking arrows into pieces to light a fire with.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Arthur demands. “That’s valuable ammunition!”
“But—sire—” one of them sputters, “it’s the King’s orders!”
“What do you mean, the King’s orders?”
“We’re to find alternate sources of firewood, sire.”
“Alternate sources of firewood?” Arthur says distractedly. One of the guards is holding an unbroken arrow, with—is that an eel?—skewered on the arrowhead, already blackening.
“Yes, sire. Our wood stores have run out.”
“I see,” Arthur says, still gazing at the roasted eel-thing. “For God’s sake, break up an old cart or a hovel or something, not our good arrows. Carry on.”
In Morgana’s chambers (after she throws a pillow at him with deadly accuracy for not knocking, then demands that he pick it up and bring it back) Arthur finds Gwen, wrapped in a lot of blankets, fussing over a small fire that appears to have been fed with little splinters of wood from one of Morgana’s cupboard doors. Morgana huddles under her blankets and throws Arthur out of the room.
“Merlin,” he says, minutes later, marching into his own chambers, where a roaring fire is lit and a warm bath is waiting. “Why is there a fire in this room?”
Merlin gapes. It would be unattractive on most people, but it accentuates all Merlin’s oddest features, like those ears, and those cheekbones—like—like—plates. Arthur really doesn’t have a better word for them. Therefore, on Merlin it is particularly unattractive. Not appealing in the least. Not at all.
“Close your mouth, please.” Merlin does. “Good. Now, why is there a fire in this room?”
“Because you would kill me and eat me if there wasn’t one?”
“What? You know you would! I don’t see why you’re complaining!”
“MERLIN. I happen to have discovered today that there is no wood left in our stores.”
At this, Merlin shifts a little, but his eyes remain wide and blue and innocent. “And?”
“And, Merlin, there appears to be a huge fire and a hot bath in my room right now.”
“Well, yes.” Merlin swallows; Arthur sees his Adam’s apple bob. “Which… just goes to show what a good servant I am. Naturally.”
Arthur sighs and scrubs a hand over his eyes. He walks to the fire and stares into it; the fuel appears to be not logs, but broken pieces of wood. Very large pieces of wood. A lot of them, too. “Merlin, where are you getting this wood from?”
“Just like King Uther said. From alternate sources of firewood.”
“I saw three knights breaking our good arrows into pieces for firewood today. Where did you get this from?”
“I’m really good at finding things,” Merlin says, completely unconvincingly.
“And the hot water?”
“That’s a good point. I slaved over that for an hour and you’re just standing there wasting it. Get in. Sire.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and considers putting Merlin in the stocks, just to teach him a lesson, but it is a warm bath, and he’s so cold, and Merlin is, for once, being a good manservant. He holds his arms out to the side, and Merlin comes up to unlace him. His fingers are cold, and Arthur winces, but Merlin is gentle, smoothing his hands over Arthur’s shoulders and hips.
“You have a bruise on your upper arm,” Merlin points out, prodding it. “Where’s it from?”
“Training,” Arthur says brusquely. “Can’t let our guard down, especially not now. And stop poking me, for the love of all that is holy.”
Merlin’s fingers still and gentle over the sore place, stroking over the skin and making Arthur’s skin prickle.
“Are you—petting me?”
“Not at all, sire,” Merlin says, unconvincing as usual. His fingers don’t stop moving over Arthur’s shoulder. With a sigh, Arthur shakes him off and gets into the bath, sighing as he’s enveloped in warmth.
Uther’s plan seems to be to wait it out. “Alderic can’t stay here forever,” Uther points out in council, jabbing a finger at the map of Camelot. “He has a kingdom to run, and the winter can’t be easy on him or his men.”
“Why can’t we just go out and teach him a lesson?” Arthur says, sliding his cold hands into his sleeves, an undignified move he hopes Uther doesn’t notice.
“As I have said a thousand times, Arthur, we simply don’t have the resources to fight Alderic and his army at the moment. Our men are hungry and tired. We must bide our time. The winter will wear them out.”
Arthur leaves the council hall as soon as he’s dismissed, feeling an odd restless boil in his limbs, in his blood. He knows what he wants: he wants Uther to agree with him, to lead a desperate charge against Alderic, to drive that pasty-faced bastard intruder out of Camelot once and for all. He looks out of the window and sees piles and drifts of snow against every upright structure, huge flakes whirling and falling to the ground, the bare arms of trees shuddering wildly in the winter wind. And in the courtyard, there’s—is that Merlin, the idiot, with barely anything on, just those two hideous kerchiefs and his usual tunic and breeches, shivering, handing money to a tall, gaunt man. Merlin opens his hand as he turns back to the doors, and Arthur sees the gleam of a perfect, ripe pear, one of the winter fruits. His stomach feels abruptly hollow and empty. Well, he supposes, he can’t really blame Merlin for a perfectly legitimate use of his own money. The boy must be very hungry.
When the pear turns up on Arthur’s plate at dinner, along with the horsemeat steak Arthur hates, Arthur discovers suddenly that he can blame Merlin for a perfectly legitimate use of his own money, and very loudly too.
“Merlin! Where did this pear come from?”
“I found it in the kitchens.”
“You did not.”
“I did.” Merlin’s voice is stubborn, but his eyes are wide and oddly vulnerable. “Where do you think I found it? In the stables?”
“You need to eat. Keep your strength up. You’ve been working too hard.”
Arthur swallows around the obstruction that has, without warning, appeared in his throat. “I—thank you.”
Merlin smiles, a tiny satisfied smile that’s oddly endearing, and tucks the covers in around Arthur’s feet like a bloody nursemaid, but Arthur’s too busy biting into the perfect, delicious pear to shout at him for it.
When Merlin isn’t there in the morning to draw back the drapes and serve him breakfast in bed, Arthur is forced to do it himself, and even scrounges for an alternative to rat stew in the kitchens. This puts him out immensely, and he stalks to Gaius’s rooms in search of his manservant, thinking about forcing Merlin to draw him another bath.
Gaius’s workroom no longer has tables or stools, and Merlin’s room no longer has a door. Merlin himself is huddled on a mattress on the floor of his room, wrapped in a pile of old blankets, his eyes shut but fluttering as though his sleep is uneasy.
Merlin blinks awake. “What’ve I done now?” His lashes are damp, his face pale and gaunt. Arthur wants to reach out and take Merlin’s chin in his hand, cup his face and tell him he hasn’t done anything wrong at all. Instead he looks around the room, notices that Merlin’s bed is missing, as are all the shelves in his room, and the window seat is hacked to pieces. There’s no fire in the room. An awful feeling curls in the pit of his
stomach. “Merlin, is this where my firewood has been coming from?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Merlin says, but he’s a terrible liar, and his eyelashes are fluttering like a girl’s.
“You’re so cold.” Arthur takes one of his hands, as gently as he can.
“M’not cold, just sleeping. Fine really.” Merlin pulls the blankets closer around himself, but doesn’t pull his hand away.
“Come on, then,” Arthur says decisively, hauling Merlin to his feet abruptly, ignoring the small complaining noise as the blankets fall to the ground.
“I’m not sleeping in your chambers.”
“You’re sleeping in my chambers and that’s the end of it.”
“My room is fine!”
“It is not. Stop arguing with me, and eat your soup.” Arthur doesn’t quite know what’s in it, but he’d stormed into the kitchens as loudly as possible and demanded a bowl of their best soup, so he thinks it ought at least to be something that isn’t toad.
Merlin gazes up at him miserably from where he lies: in the middle of Arthur’s bed, looking pale and skinny against the huge pillows. “Arthur, where are you going to sleep?”
“In the bed, on the side you’re not on. Surely you don’t think I’m going to sleep on the floor.”
Merlin sighs and takes a mouthful of soup, looking more like a prisoner of war than an extremely privileged manservant.
Later that night Arthur awakes to find himself with his nose pressed to the back of Merlin’s neck, which smells clean and sweet. Merlin is such a girl, and how does he smell so clean when half the castle is too cold to risk taking a lukewarm bath? That stupid little tuft at the back of his neck that’s longer than the rest of his hair brushes against Arthur’s cheek.
Arthur wages a fierce battle with himself over whether or not he ought to pull away, but eventually he settles back into the pillows and presses his nose softly into Merlin’s skin, breathing in deep.
“We should get out of bed.”
It’s the coldest day of the winter so far—in fact, Arthur thinks, it’s the coldest day he’s ever known in his life. Neither he nor Merlin can seem to stir a step out of the covers.
“Yes, we should,” Arthur says half-heartedly. They’re lying separate again, each on one side of the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Arthur dragged the remains of the window seat up to his rooms an hour ago, fed them to the fire over Merlin’s feeble complaints, and promptly got back into bed again. Camelot is fading, dying. For all the food Merlin’s begged, borrowed or stolen for him over the length of the siege, Arthur is weak and hungry, a constant unpleasant gnawing in his stomach. Merlin looks much worse. His face is gaunt, pale skin stretching tight across his razor-sharp cheekbones, his ears sticking out like two huge jug handles.
“In a minute,” Merlin agrees.
Neither moves, except for when Arthur shifts a little closer, because he can feel the warmth emanating from Merlin’s side of the bed. When Merlin doesn’t protest, he shifts a little closer. He’s delirious from the lack of food. That must be it. Can’t be anything else really. A little closer. A little closer, until he’s sidled right up next to Merlin, who is, for all his shivering, deliciously warm.
“What is wrong with you?” Merlin says.
As if Merlin has any right to be asking that question. That’s Arthur’s question.
“I’m cold,” Arthur says innocently. He doesn’t expect what comes next, which is Merlin rolling over and wrapping his arms around Arthur, pulling the sheets tight around them. Merlin really is unnaturally warm. Arthur thinks about this for a minute, but is distracted when Merlin buries his head in Arthur’s shoulder.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Said you were cold.” Merlin’s breath comes in little huffs.
Arthur settles onto his back, with Merlin’s head resting on his chest, Merlin’s arms around him like, like a girl’s. What is wrong with him today?
“This must be really hard for you,” Merlin whispers.
Arthur peers suspiciously at him.
“All this waiting, and being hungry, and seeing other people go hungry and not being able to do anything about it.”
Oh. “Yes,” Arthur says softly. “But I’ve an idea I haven’t been as hungry as most people.”
Merlin flushes sweetly. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
“No. I mean yes.”
“Why have you been doing all this?” Arthur says, rubbing a hand down Merlin’s spine, which is far too knobbly, to reassure him. “Aren’t I supposed to be a prat and a clot-pole?”
“I’ll tell you a secret,” says Merlin. “You’re not always a prat.”
“No. Sometimes you’re royal, and noble, and the truest prince I know.”
Arthur tries to ignore the flush of warmth spreading through his body that has nothing to do with actual heat. “You don’t know any other princes.”
Merlin makes a face, and then opens his mouth like he’s going to start arguing and ruin it, so Arthur kisses him. Really, he resists much less than Arthur thought he would, just one scuffling noise in the back of his throat and then Merlin is leaning into him, running his fingers through Arthur’s hair like he has every right, making Arthur shiver. They kiss long and slow and agonizingly sweet until the dark sweeps in through the windows and Merlin has to get up to poke at the fire.
The next day they don’t get out of bed again, and things progress further. Merlin is, as usual, behaving inappropriately, sliding his hands up Arthur’s tunic, rolling them over until he’s on top, which is clearly unacceptable, except that he’s biting Arthur’s neck and Arthur rather likes it. Merlin fumbles with Arthur’s tunic and lacings until, somewhat to Arthur’s surprise, Merlin actually manages to unclothe him.
“If I’d known it’d take just one compliment to get you naked,” Merlin says wickedly, “I’d have stopped calling you a prat much earlier.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
There isn’t much talking after that, just Merlin’s mouth hot and wet on Arthur’s hip, sliding around his cock. Arthur bites the back of his hand to stifle the undignified noises that are coming out of his mouth. Merlin glances up at him nervously, stilling.
“For God’s sake get on with it.” The muscles in Arthur’s thighs are taut as a bowstring. Merlin’s fingers dig into his back and hips, hot as a brand, as Merlin’s mouth slides back down Arthur’s cock, tongue curling around the head, and Arthur comes abruptly, hasty as a boy, with a violent shudder.
Later he pins Merlin’s hands to the bed above his head and leans in to push their bodies together, enjoying the look on Merlin’s face, startled and open and vulnerable.
Merlin is furious with Arthur when he finds the prince standing in one of the lower streets, trying to give away the bread Merlin stole for him (Arthur doesn’t want to think about where the bread came from, or how old it is, but it’s so much better than broiled tentacles).
“You need to eat,” Merlin shouts, jabbing a finger into Arthur’s chest at every second word. “Soon you’ll be so skinny even I’ll be able to kick your arse and then what will Camelot do?”
Arthur attempts to patiently ignore this patent untruth, but Merlin actually starts trying to hit him, pummeling him with determination across the shoulders and chest. Merlin is yelling something stupid like “See? See?” until Arthur has had enough, picks him up (being kicked roughly in the chest by Merlin’s godawful boots) and puts him down firmly on the bed.
“My people are starving!” Arthur shouts back at him, pinning him down by the shoulders. “I can’t just sit here in bed with you!”
“You can put some food in that stupid mouth of yours for a change!” Merlin yells, and goes limp all of a sudden. Arthur collapses next to him so that both of them are staring at the ceiling, panting.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says, after a while. “I just wanted—”
“I know,” Arthur says softly.
“You need to eat, or else you’ll lose all that muscle of yours, and then you’ll get knocked down at training, and then your knights won’t have anyone to inspire them any more, and then—”
“SHUT UP, Merlin. Honestly.”
“No, but you need to listen to me—”
Arthur decides to shut Merlin up by unlacing his breeches, a tactic that works quite spectacularly. Merlin goes silent and still, letting Arthur move his hands up Merlin’s thighs, up underneath his tunic to reach the hot skin underneath. Arthur noses at Merlin’s neck, trying to recapture that clean scent, grazing his teeth across a vein. Merlin shivers, laces his hands through Arthur’s hair, snapping their hips together, trying to roll them over to get on top, which is something Arthur’s noticed Merlin is always trying to do. Sneaky little bastard. Arthur’s a prince, so he should be on top. He attempts to drive the point home by biting Merlin hard on the jaw, but somehow Merlin manages to actually flip them both over, pinning Arthur to the bed with his weight (he’s a lot heavier than he looks, Arthur thinks sourly).
For some odd reason, the sheets seem to have flipped neatly over with them so that they’re both covered in blankets, just as though Merlin had made the bed minutes ago. Arthur would think about this more, except that Merlin’s sitting right on top of his cock, pressing down with his hips, narrowing his eyes and smiling.
After a little while Arthur no longer scolds when he sees people breaking up arrows for firewood. Merlin goes out on errands sometimes, as much as Arthur tries to keep him from going outside by sucking his cock (this only worked the first time), and comes back with armfuls of wood, refusing to say where they came from. People start to die of hunger in the lower villages. Arthur flies into a hunger-fueled rage when Uther refuses once again to send anyone out to fight, and storms back to his rooms to demand that Merlin polish his armor and sharpen his sword because he’s not going to die of hunger hiding in his castle like a coward.
That night he awakes to an empty bed, and the sweet clean scent of Merlin beside him is gone. He looks up then, past the smoldering fire, to the window where Merlin stands gazing out on Camelot, on the fields where Alderic’s armies sprawl like beetles on rotten fruit. Merlin looks over at him then, a strange, dreamy look on his face. He doesn’t seem to notice that Arthur is awake; his eyes gaze through and beyond the bed, somewhere far away. Arthur’s voice freezes in his throat: Merlin’s eyes are beautiful, wide, fringed with dark lashes, the color of molten gold.
Merlin spreads his fingers, turning to the window, whispering, a mouthful of consonants that Arthur can’t understand. Arthur tries to stand, to rush over to him and demand to know what he is doing, but he cannot move. His limbs feel heavy as lead. Merlin whispers some more, something that looks like fire streaming from his eyes, and Arthur finds his eyelids are as heavy as his limbs; he tries not to sleep, but he cannot stay awake, and he dreams of Merlin and fire and those frightening, beautiful golden eyes.
The next morning, even before the sun comes up, Alderic’s men are gone, and in their place is a circle of charred earth surrounding the castle walls, where the snow has melted away. Arthur can’t find Merlin anywhere, and as Uther and his men lead a patrol to examine the burnt lands, Arthur is tearing through the castle shouting at the top of his voice for Merlin.
“Leave him alone for a day, can’t you, Arthur?” Morgana shouts down one of the corridors. “He’s probably out getting some food, or haven’t you noticed that the siege is over?”
He finds Merlin, pale and shaking, sitting on his old mattress in his old room, with Gaius looking anxious and severe at the same time, passing a cloth over his forehead. A rucksack and bedroll sit beside the mattress, alarming Arthur with their sheer neatness, because Merlin usually packs with careless haste, throwing things into Arthur’s pack that get smashed together, like the time Arthur found unwrapped bread and cheese lining one of his spare helmets.
“Merlin,” Arthur announces, stepping through the nonexistent door. “I need to speak to you. Now.”
Gaius gives him an unreadable look, and leaves, but Arthur suspects he’s standing just outside the door anyway. Arthur reaches down to take Merlin’s hand, but Merlin snatches it away.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You saw what was wrong,” Merlin says, in a whisper. “Are you going to kill me?”
“I think you just saved Camelot,” Arthur says gently, sitting down beside him and drawing Merlin into his arms. Merlin twists out of the embrace immediately. “Oh, come on, Merlin—”
“Surely you can’t not be angry with me.”
“I was,” Arthur says carefully, “but.”
“I only wanted to ask why the hell you didn’t think to do that before we all started running out of food.”
“Well, obviously,” Merlin says, bristling, “I didn’t want to be burnt at the stake, Arthur Pendragon, you great clot.”
“No one’s going to burn you at the stake!” Arthur protests. “I would never let that happen.”
Merlin looks away. “And you’re going to keep a sorcerer in your court. Right under your father’s nose.”
“If you haven’t managed to cock it up so far, I imagine you can keep on keeping your secrets until I’m king,” Arthur says lightly.
“I should really leave.”
“I won’t let you.” Arthur places a hand on the back of Merlin’s neck, and forgets to feel stupid about this. “Merlin, last night was—it was beautiful. Your eyes were beautiful. You saved our lives.” Merlin looks up at him with an expression in his eyes that makes Arthur feel almost afraid, except that princes are never afraid, and Arthur plunges ahead. “I’ll never let anything happen to you, and if you go anywhere, I swear to God I’ll—” At Merlin’s hint of a smile, Arthur finishes, lamely, “—I’ll feed you to the dogs.”
“How are you going to feed me to the dogs if you can’t find me?”
Arthur makes an indistinct noise of pure frustration. “Here I am, trying to be bloody nice to you for once, and all you can do is make another of your stupid retorts—”
But Merlin’s eyes flash gold, and after Arthur is done being breathless, he finds that he actually can’t speak. Merlin laughs at the look on his face, and then kisses him, slow and sweet, whispering to him as the sun rises through the window and the sounds of Camelot fill the air.