“It’s snowed!” Arthur had enthused, pointing out of the window, as if Merlin hadn’t just had to wade through the damned stuff in the courtyard, trying not to slip and drop the pitcher of warm water he’d carried all the way from the kitchens.
Merlin had later found out that in Camelot, the punishment for tardiness during the winter season was to become a living, moving target for the knights impromptu snowball fights. He spent many an evening huddled around the small fire-pit in Gaius rooms, draped in a blanket and trying not to let the sound of his teeth chattering together keep the old man awake.
In subsequent years, Arthur’s childlike glee at waking to find Camelot blanketed in white did not diminish one iota. Merlin, on the other hand, came to hate snow with a passion.
Four years of service under his belt, and Merlin had at least learned that the surreptitious use of magic allowed him to complete his chores on time in the mornings. But somehow, the moment it snowed, Arthur managed to find enough fault to have Merlin once again elected ‘Snow Target’, and he ended many a morning with snow melting down the front of his tunic and extremities turned blue with the cold.
Arthur had been particularly accurate with his barrage this morning. So much so, that Merlin had gone down face first into a snow drift and decided just to stay there while Arthur bombarded him with snowballs the size of cannonballs. Okay, maybe they were not really that large, but they sure felt it as they knocked the breath right out of him.
He was just beginning to realise that there was a real danger of suffocation, when the volley stopped, and he risked raising his head a little in the hope that Arthur has been ambushed by a hoard of boisterous knights. Alas, Arthur was not being attacked by the knights, but he was standing over Merlin, holding a dripping snowball in each hand and wearing a rather puzzled expression on his face.
Merlin spat out the snow that had somehow managed to make it into his mouth and sighed. “Go on then,” he said flatly, “finish me off.”
Arthur dropped his icy arsenal and placed his hands on his hips.
“You’re not having fun, are you, Merlin?”
Merlin rolled his eyes and shook the snow out of his hair, shivering as a big plug of it slithered down the back of his neck.
“What gave it away?” he drawled sarcastically, getting unsteadily to his feet, and wrapping his arms tightly around himself in an effort to preserve what little body heat he still had.
“Look, you can fight back you know!,” Arthur complained. “In fact, it’s not really much fun at all if you just lie there like a dead boar!”
Merlin tried stomping his feet a bit, hoping that the feeling might come back to them. “Arthur, I actually can’t feel my feet or my fingers. I’m soaked to the skin. I’m a few degrees short of frostbite and I missed breakfast this morning in order to make sure you had a nice, blazing fire to wake up to, so forgive me if I don’t feel like rolling around in the snow and squealing like baby!”
Even he knew that this was no way to address royalty, but right then, he didn’t much care. His whole body was shaking violently with cold and he was pretty sure he could feel icicles forming in his hair.
Arthur gaped at him, reminding Merlin somewhat of the fish Gaius had fried for dinner last night. “Well perhaps you should put on more clothing, you idiot,” Arthur scoffed, waving a hand in Merlin’s general direction and taking in everything from his leaky boots to his thread-bare jacket. “Even a pair of bloody gloves would seem sensible.”
Arthur, of course, was clad in thick linen undergarments, at least two shirts, his padded gambeson jacket, and a layer of chainmail, as well as rabbit-fur-lined leather gloves and a couple of pairs of socks. Merlin tried jumping up and down on the spot and blowing into his cupped hands. “I don’t own any gloves you prat,” he scowled. “We can’t all afford such luxury.”
Arthur’s frown grew even deeper and Merlin realised that it could go either way at this point. Arthur could have him freeze to death in the stocks for his impertinence, or (and it was a long shot) actually apologies for being such an ass.
But Merlin would never know, because Leon and Percival chose that moment to ambush them from behind a fortress of snow shovelled from the courtyard earlier that day, and once again, he found himself face down in a snow drift. The only difference was that this time, Arthur was right there with him. On him to be exact, pressing against him from top to toe and not doing anything at all to help Merlin’s shivering problem.
Arthur rolled off quickly and cast Merlin a long suffering look. “Very well you big girl’s petticoat. I’ll hold them at bay while you run along to the kitchens and have the maids prepare me a bath. Tell cook you have my permission to stand before the fire pit until you are a more pleasing colour. Then I will expect you in my Chambers at noon with a very large, and very hot mid day meal for me.”
Merlin took off from their meagre cover like a bat out of hell, not willing to give Arthur the chance to change his mind and use Merlin as a human shield. His ears rang with the sound of Arthur’s whooping war cry as he launched himself into the fray with a snow canon-ball in each fist.
Merlin didn’t stop running until he skidded into the royal kitchens, where cook scowled at him for dripping water all over her newly scrubbed floors.
“Um, the Prince would like a hot bath,” Merlin aimed his comment at the two scullery maids warming their hands at the bread oven. Margaret... Millicent... oh, Maude, that’s right, Maude looked down her long nose at him.
“Why you tellin’ us? That’s your job it is. We got plenty else to be gettin’ on wiv.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Merlin felt the rush of embarrassment flood his cheeks. “I’m supposed to thaw out a bit. Target practice, you see?” At their blank looks, Merlin continued, “Well, I was the target. And they threw snow. Lots of snow. I nearly froze to death. I could lose my fingers you know.”
The maids screwed up their faces in disgust but made no move away from the heat of the oven. “So, yeah. His Highness wants a bath, and he wants maids to draw it for him so that there’s no danger of finding a disembodied finger floating in it, I guess.”
The two maids looked quite ready to dig their heels in over the injustice of it all, when cook, thankfully, intervened. “Well, ‘op to it girlies. Unless you want to be s’plaining to the Prince why ‘is bath ain’t ready. I hear ‘e’s in a foul mood this mornin’.”
The two maids glared daggers at Merlin, but snatched up two pails each and wrapping themselves in shawls, trudged out into the courtyard to draw water from the well.
“You best not be lyin’ about this lad,” Cook admonished. “Them two harpies fancy themselves a bit above the likes of us, ‘aving the ear of the lady Alice. They could make life difficult for you, given ‘alf a chance.”
Merlin risked cooks anger by moving a little closer to the fire. “More difficult than it already is?” he scoffed. “I doubt that’s possible, and no, wasn’t lying. I’m supposed to dry out then bring up a hot meal to his chambers.” He peered into the black cauldrons bubbling on the hearth. “If you had some venison stew in one of those pots, I would be eternally grateful. That’s his favourite.”
Cook snorted and picked up a ladle, stirring one of the pots until the delicious aroma filled Merlin’s nostrils and made his stomach growl. “There ‘asn’t been a hunt in weeks, boy. The Prince can ‘ave chicken broth with fresh bread, or I could whip up some bacon and eggs? ‘ow’s that sound?”
Merlin wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded wholeheartedly. “Bacon and eggs are his second favourite, especially if the eggs are pickled.”
Cook grinned, as she knew full well what the Princes' preferences were. “Make yourself useful then – bank up the fire, there’s a good lad. Them two ‘arlots will be back in a minute with the water for ‘is bath.”
Merlin put plenty wood on the fire and added just a smidge of magic to make it burn hotter and quicker than it would naturally, then stood back to enjoy the heat and the smell of bacon cooking. Sometimes, he mused, life in Camelot wasn’t so bad. Back home, he would still be eating turnip broth and sleeping on a cold hard floor, even on this of all days. He decided to count his blessings, and ignore the little irritations for once. If the ‘little irritation’ would let him.
His clothes where still a little damp, half an hour later, when he jogged up the stairs to Arthur’s chambers carrying a huge tray of bacon, egg, fried tomato and hot crusty bread, plus a pitcher of warm wine. The smell of it was making him a bit dizzy with hunger, but he figured that Arthur would let him pop back home to grab a sandwich while he ate.
The maids had carried the water up ten minutes previously, so he remembered to knock on the door before shoving it open, in case Arthur was still in the bath.
Arthur was not in the bath.
Arthur was, however, standing in the middle of the room wearing nothing but a bath sheet wrapped loosely around his hips, wet hair plastered to his head like a cap and another one of those room-illuminating smiles splitting his face.
“Merlin!” he all but shouted, as Merlin awkwardly kicked the door shut behind himself, trying to look anywhere but at Arthur’s naked chest. “You’re timing is perfect for once. Put that down on the table will you?”
Arthur nodded at the tray Merlin was balancing precariously. Doing as he was bid, Merlin turned to request a couple of minutes break to grab some lunch of his own only to be faced with Arthur’s stark naked bum!
His words died on his lips as he stared wide eyed at Arthur clambering into the bath and sliding down into the steaming water with a soul-wrenching sigh of contentment. He had assumed that Arthur was just out of the bath, but in retrospect, his hair would have been all wet from the snowball fight, and he really, really needed to stop gawking at Arthur like a love sick puppy.
In four years, Arthur had never requested help to bathe. It was one thing the prat seemed to be able to do perfectly well himself, and Merlin was very relieved about that fact. He wasn’t sure he would have been able to remain totally professional in the face of all that gorgeous, wet, naked flesh.
Coughing, Merlin hurried over to the fireplace and threw an extra log on to make sure the room would be toasty and warm when Arthur finally did get out of the tub.
“If you don’t need me for anything more...?” Merlin gestured wildly in the direction of the door.
“Actually, there is something.” Arthur’s voice sounded deep and gravelly, much like Merlin imagined it would sound during... no – not going there. Bad idea. Very bad idea.
“Yes, Sire?” Although he couldn’t imagine what else needed doing so urgently. He could see that Arthur had already laid out fresh clothes for himself, his lunch was still hot and waiting for him to tuck in, and the room was warm enough. So then what...?
“There’s a bag on my bed.”
Merlin looked over his shoulder, and there was indeed a large leather saddle bag lying on the covers. It looked old, but still in good repair, if a little dusty. He turned back to Arthur and nodded encouragingly.
“Your observational skills astound me, Sire. You want me to hang it up?”
Arthur lifted a leg out of the tub and began soaping it up. “No, Merlin, you idiot, I’m not a complete incompetent. I’m perfectly capable of hanging up a bag by myself should it be required.”
“It’s for you,” Arthur grumbled curtly. “Or rather the contents are for you. Just some... stuff.”
Merlin raised his eyebrow in confusion. “What sort of... stuff? Oh, Lord, it’s not another bloody hat is it? Your hunting dogs chased me right up a tree the last time I had to wear that monstrosity to a feast. They thought I was a pheasant or something. And it itched. You have no idea how...”
The leg that Merlin had been trying very hard not to stare at splashed back into the water as Arthur lobbed a wet wash rag at Merlin’s head. “Oh for pity’s sake!” he yelled. “Just take it and get out, will you!”
Merlin dodged the rag expertly, grabbed the bag and sprinted for the door, thoroughly confused and totally unsettled by the whole affair. As far as he could tell, Arthur was embarrassed. This was confirmed a moment later as the door swung shut and he heard Arthur bellow, “We shall never speak of this again.”
In his room, Merlin laid the bag on the bed and reached a tentative hand towards it. He was almost afraid that a viper would leap out and bite him, but he was also insanely curious.
Taking a deep breath, he flipped open the catch and upended the contents onto his bed.
His eyes bugged out in amazement as they slid over the pile of well worn, but perfectly serviceable and clearly expensive clothing. There was even a pair of leather gloves. No fur lining, but sturdy and warm looking.
On the top of the pile, there was a hand-written note in Arthur’s flowery scrawl.
Merlin felt the grin grow until it took over his whole face.
He tried to picture Arthur buying him a cloak and looking out his old clothes after finally noticing that Merlin was so poorly equipped for the harshness of winter. It made something swell deep inside his chest, and although the rest of the day was his own, he wanted to spend it with Arthur anyway. Shrugging out of his old, damp clothing, Merlin donned almost everything in the pack, including the cloak and gloves.
Arthur was sitting at the window, gazing down into the courtyard when Merlin entered. He was not expecting the attack, and it was all Merlin could do to contain the laughter that threatened to bubble up from the depths of his soul at the sight of Arthur shaking snow from his hair.
“Why you... You little....”
Merlin lobbed his second snowball hard at Arthur’s midrift and turned on his heel. He figured he had a couple of minutes grace while Arthur pulled on his boots and a jacket, but he knew that eventually, the prince would catch up.
Which was why he had taken the time to rebuild the snow-fort and collect a sizeable arsenal of snowballs before launching his attack.
He’d also stopped off at the kitchen to tell the maids that Arthur would be needing another bath.
Yeah, sometimes, life in Camelot wasn’t so bad at all.