A/N: Now, I don't always like what I write, but I'm pretty proud of this piece. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Resemblances to Truth
Growing up, Arthur had always had one magic- wait, no not magic. Scratch that, he didn't want to end up dead. Growing up, Arthur had always had one golden rule: magic was evil, and thus the dungeons were unfit for the young prince to explore. His father had always told him gravely that he must stay away from the cells below, which held a number of magical foes and their horrible instruments of destruction.
Arthur had always listened, his father's son through and through. So when as a teenager on the brink of adulthood he finally did go to said dungeons- well, you can imagine it was a shock for him.
Merlin had had one golden rule growing up as well: hide your magic. It was thought to be evil, his parents had warned him, and he'd been told to avoid and fear the crown. Merlin had listened for the most part; he had a few slip ups here and there, but fear of the pyre made a good child of him.
Life has a way of ensuring it cannot be planned through, so it was unavoidable that Merlin's secret was to be found out. By the age of ten, he'd found himself locked away in the dungeons, kept alive only as a secret weapon for the king who despised him. If he'd not been called Emrys, they'd have called him dead.
He'd stayed there, unable to escape, for seven long years. Then the prince came to visit and- well, you can imagine it was a shock for Merlin, too.
"Sire, are you sure you have to go alone?" Leon asked again, brows furrowed as he followed the prince.
Arthur didn't waver- in fact, his pace seemed to increase as he walked briskly down the stone hallways. And yet, he didn't reprimand the knight for persisting in his question. Leon never disobeyed the crown, so the fact he even dared to doubt Arthur's current destination showed he was truly worried.
"My father was very clear, Sir Leon. Only the crown goes beyond the first floor of cells."
"But sir-" this time it was another knight, Percival, who hesitantly spoke up- "You've heard the rumors, too. And sending you alone without a clear mission seems… unwise."
At this, Arthur didn't comment at all, besides to dismiss his two followers a little waspishly. Percival was right on one point; the sudden request from the king had been a surprise. But the prince had been given information that the knights had not, so he tried to focus on that and not the duo's uncomfortably accurate complaints.
"Sire." The prince started, thinking his knights had returned, before realizing it was just the guards saluting him. He'd reached the dungeon entrance.
Said guards must have known he was coming, because they opened the doorway for him immediately.
"Sire," echoed one guard again, looking up at Arthur from the thin slit in his helmet. "Watch your step down there, my liege. They're dangerous."
"I know," Arthur replied shortly. He suddenly felt irritated by all of the concerns, despite sharing most of them. Did people really think he was so incompetent? "Let me pass."
The guard obliged with a bob of his head, and the prince found himself descending down the dungeon stairs. The difference from the upper levels of the palace was stark. The stairs were uneven and twice the royal almost lost his footing. The torches flickered in the damp air, and the very walls reeked of mildew and rot. Faintly, Arthur could hear the drip of water from unlocated leaks. It reminded the prince of ancient ruins; uncared for and ominous.
All too soon, he'd reached the first level of cells. It was for the non-magical, "normal" criminals, but it still made the hair on the back of Arthur's neck stand up. For petty thieves and debtors, the ragged group looked surprisingly threatening from behind bars. Not for the first time, Arthur wished he'd been permitted to bring his knights. His single sword didn't feel like adequate protection.
You're being ridiculous, he scolded himself. They're already captured. If they could escape, they would have. Get over it. Still, his pace quickened slightly as he hurried to the next flight of stairs.
The second level was much like the first appearance-wise, but the air felt heavier to the prince with the knowledge that all of the convicted there were guilty of magic. A crime worse than murder, his father would say. Similarly to the first floor, Arthur didn't loiter.
At the entrance to the third and final floor, Arthur paused. It was the only floor that had an additional door, and the iron key seemed to grow heavier in the prince's pocket as he stared at the hard wood. What had his father said? The door is five feet thick and iron reinforced, so you don't need to worry. You'll be perfectly safe. Even with the door, the criminal is still behind bars. No need to look so concerned.
With a deep breath, Arthur inserted the lock and pushed the door open. It was surprisingly heavy and made a dry, scratching noise as it was dragged across the gritty stone.
Entering the room, Arthur got his first good look at the prisoner. His father hadn't lied; a line of bars still separated the two men (not that the blonde was complaining). Behind the bars, Arthur could see a thin body leaning limply against the far wall. The man's bony hands were chained at head-height, but because of his slumped posture they stretched above him. His clothes were dirty and torn, and even from the doorway Arthur could see splattered red across the manacles. Faintly he wondered if the blood was from escape attempts- the thought was unsettling.
The noise from the door seemed to wake the man and he lifted his head, blinking blearily at the prince. His face was as thin as the rest of him, making his cheekbones protrude and his blue eyes seem large despite how he squinted at Arthur. His black hair was messy, but not long, and he had no beard, so the prince knew he'd received some care. Or maybe the guards had just cleaned him up a little bit for the royal's visit; actually, looking at the criminal, the latter seemed more likely.
"Hello," Arthur said finally. It seemed like a dumb way to begin, but if the prisoner shared the opinion, he didn't show it.
"Hello," he said finally, his voice dry from disuse and dehydration. Shifting his weight, he climbed to his feet so he fully faced Arthur, although he still leaned on the wall for support. "You must be Prince Arthur."
"You knew I was coming." It wasn't a question. There was no other way for the criminal to recognize him.
"Yes," the man admitted. "The guards seem to think you're here to kill me and they didn't mind telling me so."
"And you're not worried that that's true?" Arthur asked, raising both eyebrows. "You're a criminal, I'd be justified. Maybe that is what I'm here for."
"Gods, I hope so." Arthur paused, trying to see if the man was lying, but he looked serious. "But you're not, are you? If you were you wouldn't talk to me. You'd just do it."
"You want to die?" The prince asked cautiously.
"Wouldn't you?" the prisoner fired back, and then seemed to deflate. "Just get on with whatever you're here for, Arthur."
"That's Prince Arthur to you," the royal snapped, ruffled. Privately, he found the other man unsettling, but he wasn't about to show it.
"What does it matter?" He asked, rolling his eyes. "Will calling you 'prince' change my situation in any way?"
Arthur decided to ignore him on that point. "I'm here for information, actually. I'm going to give you the opportunity to tell me on your own, or I'll force it from you. Your choice." The prince had no intention of whipping the man, criminal or no, but he kept that to himself. Besides, if the man didn't cooperate, Arthur knew the Captain of the Guard would have no such reservations keeping his hand from the whip, so it wasn't really a lie.
"Why you, though?" The man asked. Arthur couldn't hide his surprise quickly enough; threatened and captured, and that was the question he asked?
"What do you-?"
"No, really," the criminal interrupted. Arthur bristled again at being interrupted, but his companion either didn't notice or didn't care. "It's always been your father before. Why you now?"
"I'm eighteen, I can handle you myself," the royal snapped. Oddly enough, that made the man smile. No, not smile, beam. Arthur blinked in surprise, thrown off by the sudden change in mood.
"You're eighteen? I'm seventeen- at least, I think I am. Near there, anyway. I've never met anyone so close to my age before. Most of the guards are at least thirty," he babbled, still grinning.
"You think I care?" Arthur snapped, trying to ignore that the man didn't know his own age and never had any company. It wasn't completely unheard of for guards to grudgingly befriend some of the more long-lasting prisoners, but it seemed this one had had no such luck despite his weirdly cheerful demeanor. No sympathy. He's a monster. A monster, understand? He thought to himself, steeling his mind. He didn't notice that he was quoting his father.
The prisoner didn't reply, but the smile didn't quite leave his eyes, either.
"I need information about the Druids," Arthur continued. That wiped the smile from the other's face.
"Oh," was all he said.
"I need to know fighting techniques, military locations, and of any secret weapons," the prince carried on. Across from him, the prisoner seemed to sag.
"You're waging war on the Druids?" He asked finally, not looking Arthur in the eye. Maybe the action was supposed to guilt the prince, but Arthur found it was easier to talk to him when he wasn't looking directly at him, anyway.
"Of course not," he scoffed. "They're waging war on us."
"You must have a different definition of 'peaceful'."
"They don't fight, Arthur." The conviction in his voice was hard to argue with, but the prince was not a quitter.
"Then they've changed. Go on then, tell me." Arthur was determined not to let the criminal change the subject.
"I don't know," the man shrugged- or, at least, he tried to. He seemed to have a shoulder injury, because he immediately stopped like the action pained him.
"How can you 'not know'?" Arthur demanded. "You're Emrys. You're practically their king!"
"I am not," Emrys snapped. "They don't have a king. And don't call me Emrys."
"That's your name, idiot," the prince hissed. This man was crazy, Arthur decided.
"My name is Merlin," Emrys argued. "And how could I possibly know? I've been locked up in here! Do I look like I get bloody Druid visitors?" The sorcerer demanded, resent practically dripping from his voice for the first time.
"Remember what I told you about not cooperating," Arthur warned coldly, crossing his arms.
"You're just like your father," Emrys spat, like it was the worst insult he could think of. "I don't know."
"Fine!" Arthur cried back. "But don't blame me when you get beaten!" On that note he stormed out; or at least, he would've. He had to close the door, which took a moment and completely ruined the exit.
By the time Arthur reached the throne room, his temper had cooled. He couldn't believe he'd allowed some sorcerer to get him all riled up, but now all he felt was regret. He was going back to his father empty handed- at the thought, a fresh wave of shame washed over him.
Entering the throne room, Arthur found his father right where he said he'd be; on the throne, alone. Crossing the floor, Arthur felt like he was shedding years the closer he got, until he felt like a small boy about to apologize to a disappointed parent for disobedience.
"Well?" Uther asked. He seemed not to notice his son's somber mood.
"I'm sorry, Father. The prisoner refused to cooperate," Arthur admitted, his head dipped in shame.
"He never does," Uther agreed, waving away the apology easily. "I meant what did you think? Was he more responsive to someone his own age?"
"Wait, what?" Arthur spluttered, his head snapping up to gape at his father. "You're not upset?"
"With him, yes. With you, no," Uther clarified, giving his son a rare smile. "He rarely offers any useful information, Arthur. I would have been stunned if he'd actually been honest with you."
"Oh," the prince replied blankly. He felt completely blindsided, like someone had pulled a rug from out under his feet. He hadn't been expected to get the information after all? "Then what was the point?"
"The point was for you to meet him. I want your opinion," Uther explained, standing up to pace in front of his throne. "How much do you think he knows?"
"I think…" Arthur paused, replaying their conversation in his head. "I think he really doesn't know. He believes the Druids are peaceful."
"Don't be so naïve, Arthur," Uther snorted. "They aren't peaceful."
"Of course, sire," the prince assured his father. "I know that. But I don't think the prisoner does. He seemed very convinced."
"Perhaps he's gone senile in his confinement," Uther mused, pausing his pacing thoughtfully.
"Maybe," Arthur agreed, although privately he didn't believe Emrys was crazy. Crazy unhelpful, perhaps, but nothing beyond that.
"You're dismissed," Uther said finally with a wave of his hand. "I'll deal with him myself."
"Yes, father," Arthur bowed and took his leave, leaving the king to stare thoughtfully at nothing.
When he heard the dry scratch of the door being opened for the second time that day, Merlin thought maybe the prince had returned. In an odd way, he had enjoyed talking to someone his age, even if he was a Pendragon.
It was for this reason that he found himself disappointed to see the more familiar face of the king.
"Monster," Uther greeted dryly, gazing at his captive unflinchingly. Merlin didn't reply. He knew from experience that defending himself was no good, and pleading his case never worked. The king could not be swayed.
Opening the cell door, Uther entered so that he stood directly in front of the smaller man. This did spark some surprise in the warlock; normally, only the Captain of the Guard entered the cell. Then forbidding flooded him- whenever someone did enter his cell, it never ended well for him.
"I hear you're being about as useful as usual," Uther continued, his distaste clear. "Do you feel no guilt for your sins against the crown?"
"I've never sinned against the crown," Merlin said finally. Uther hit him hard for the comment, making his head snap back against the stone wall painfully and the chains around his wrists rattle.
"You dare lie to me, sorcerer," the king hissed, red with rage. Merlin didn't reply- instead he opted to watch the blood drip from his lip to the dirty floor. The red was a striking contrast to the gray. He tried to focus on that instead of his throbbing jaw, with little success.
"Since pain has proven not to sway you," Uther added darkly, and Merlin's mind flew to whips and red, so much red- "Let's see if hunger will loosen your tongue. Maybe next time I see you your memory will have… improved."
Then he left, leaving Merlin alone in the near-darkness once more with nothing but his throbbing jaw to keep him company.
It had been two days since Arthur's "mission" to the dungeons, and since then he'd had trouble keeping Emrys from his thoughts. He couldn't seem to banish the memory of the young man- practically a boy, really- lighting up at having some company his own age. It was something that Arthur could relate to as crown prince, and though he was loathe to admit it, it had struck a chord of sympathy in him.
He hated it, but couldn't change it, so he tried to keep himself busy. On the second day (third, if you included the day of the incident), he found himself at a feast, bored out of his skull and with too much time for wandering thoughts. Even his desperation to be occupied couldn't drive him to conversation with Lord Borin, the noble sitting at his left. His father, who sat to his right, was already deep in conversation with Morgana, and was thus not an option either. Arthur found himself in the perfect predicament.
With a sigh, he accepted the inevitable and let his mind wander as he stared at his mostly-full goblet. The feast was in honor of the harvest's end, and was a popular holiday in Camelot. He couldn't help but wonder if Emrys had ever celebrated a harvest's end. Did sorcerers have holidays of their own?
No, stop, the prince thought sternly. It doesn't matter. They're evil. He's evil. His people are irrelevant right now. It doesn't matter!
Despite this, he couldn't seem to completely banish the thought. He kept thinking of Emrys, delighted to meet someone his own age… what did prisoners normally eat? Just bread and water, as far as the royal knew. Maybe they got soup or porridge, too, Arthur didn't know. They had to be living off of something, although admittedly Emrys had looked pretty underfed.
It didn't seem fair that the whole kingdom was celebrating and the prisoners didn't get even a slice of fruit to commemorate the holiday. Stop! 'Fair' doesn't matter, they aren't regular people, he scolded himself. He needed to stop thinking so… radically. It was dangerous.
He managed to master his thoughts for a few moments, and then gave up. It was no good. Excusing himself from the table, he grabbed his plate (still mostly full) and left the room.
He'd prepared a lie to feed the guards, but it turned out he needn't have bothered. They were gone, probably to celebrate at the nearest tavern. Arthur almost made a mental note to reprimand them later, before realizing he'd have to explain his absence from the feast and presence in the dungeons to do so.
Besides, wasn't he here in spirit of the holiday anyway? Might as well overlook the guard's laziness just this once. It was too late now, anyways.
The prisoners on the first and second level didn't seem quite as intimidating this time, but the prince still didn't hang around. He had a job to do, and the quicker it was over, the better.
Reaching the third floor, Arthur opened the door to find Emrys in the same position he'd been last time; presumably asleep, leaning against the wall with his arms chained above him. This time the door didn't seem to wake him.
Walking further in, Arthur closed the door just in case and set the food down on the floor. He hadn't realized it before now, but he was going to have to enter the cell to deliver the food. At least he's asleep, he thought uneasily, drawing his keys again. He was here now; might as well go through with it.
Compared to the floor door, the cell door opened silently. Walking across the gritty floor, Arthur set the food down within arm's reach of Emrys- then he realized the second problem. With his hands chained the way they were, Emrys would never be able to reach the meal, much less feed himself. He'd have to unchain at least one arm.
Leaning back on his heels, Arthur hesitated uncertainly. Unchaining him presented potential for escape. But at the same time, the prince knew the sorcerer wasn't in top condition. It was possible he didn't even have the strength to.
Actually, thinking about it, the man looked even worse for the wear than last time, which was saying something. What little color he'd had had vanished, and spreading across the line of his jaw was a dark purple bruise that faded into a greenish yellow around the edges. His lip was cut and slightly swollen, and Arthur realized he'd been struck- hard- by someone wearing a few rings.
Making up his mind, Arthur nudged the man with his foot. Blinking, Emrys straightened, looking around in confusion.
"Arthur? What are you-"
"Prince Arthur," the royal interjected, more from habit than from actual irritation this time. "I need your word on something."
Emrys' eyes hardened. "I told you, I don't know anything about the Druids."
"This isn't about the Druids," Arthur said bluntly. "It's a holiday and I thought you might appreciate some real food. But if I let you eat, I want a promise first that you won't do any magic."
Emrys blinked at him owlishly, and Arthur felt a small spark of pride that he'd surprised the man.
"You brought food?" He asked, unable to hide the longing in his voice. For the first time, he seemed to spot the royal's plate and goblet.
"Do I have your word?" Arthur asked again, praying that Emrys put some weight on a promise.
"Yes," Emrys said quickly, eyes still glued to the food. Taking his key, Arthur unlocked one shackle, leaving the other one still bound above his head.
Although he was clearly hungry, the sorcerer didn't go for the food right away. Instead he lowered his free arm slowly, hissing in discomfort as the sore muscles relaxed. Arthur had to admit he hadn't considered how painful it had to be to be bound in such a position for hours at a time. Now that the cuff was off, Arthur could see that the man's wrist was scarred and bloody from being chained.
Once he'd stretched out his arm, Emrys grabbed the plate and shoveled the food down.
"Gods, it's like you haven't eaten in days," Arthur scoffed, taking a seat on the far wall and watching the other man with a stunned fascination.
"'M haven't," Emrys said around his meal.
"What?" Arthur asked, confused. "They feed the prisoners."
"Not me, these last few days," Emrys said, still focused on the food more than Arthur. "Curtesy of the king." First Arthur felt horror; he'd directly disobeyed his father, and to a greater degree than he'd thought. Then it faded out, to be replaced with unease. Prisoners were not usually starved for information, especially information they claimed not to have. In addition to that, his father hadn't told him he'd employed such measures on their prime captive. It didn't sit well with the prince.
"Oh," was all he could say. Soon Emrys had eaten half of the plate's contents and was eating at a slower, more civilized pace.
"Although a meal, courtesy of you, was not expected either," Emrys added, shooting a curious look the prince's way.
"Don't question it, just be grateful," Arthur snapped. In truth, he wasn't sure how to answer the question himself.
"Fine, then I'll ask something else," Emrys said, not to be deterred. "Why have you never come to the dungeons before? Why at eighteen?"
"I was never needed in the dungeons before," Arthur said. He wasn't sure why he answered at all, but he supposed it was because it was hard to look at Emrys and think of him as a threat. "It's hardly the place for a prince."
"Hardly the place for anyone," Emrys commented innocently.
"It's different when you've committed a crime," Arthur amended, rolling his eyes.
"Right," Emrys said, unconvinced. "And what's my crime?"
"I can't believe you'd ask me that!" Arthur all but laughed, a look of disbelief on his face. "You're kidding right? Magic!"
"That's inconvenient for me," Emrys mused. "Since I can't do anything about it."
"You, Emrys, could've chosen not to study it in the first place," Arthur stated matter-of-factly. Emrys didn't comment at first. Then:
"I thought I told you my name wasn't Emrys."
"Right, right," Arthur said, rolling his eyes again. "Marvin, right?"
"Merlin," the sorcerer corrected indignantly. In truth, Arthur had remembered the name, but it was nice to get a rise from someone for once.
"Yeah, okay. Whatever you say, Marlin," Arthur grinned.
"It's Merlin. With an e," he complained. "Get it right, you prat."
"Did you just call me a prat?" Arthur echoed, eyebrows rising to his hairline. "I'm your prince!"
"Oh no!" Merlin gasped theatrically. "What are you gonna do, send me to the dungeons?"
A small snort of laughter escaped Arthur at that, which he quickly tried to cover up with a cough. Suddenly feeling uncomfortable again, the blonde got to his feet and motioned for Merlin to put his hand above his head. Reluctantly, the sorcerer obeyed.
Re-latching the lock, Arthur noticed the metal was etched with circlets of tiny symbols.
"What are these for?" He asked. Later he would wonder why he'd expected Merlin to know the answer.
"They restrain my magic," Merlin grumbled. "At least, I'm fairly sure it's the manacles that do it. I know something in this room does."
"Ah," Arthur said, dropping the chains like they were hot. "I see." Gathering the dishes, he re-locked the cell and headed for the door.
"Hey, Arthur?" Merlin called just as Arthur was leaving.
"Thanks for the food."
Arthur couldn't help but smile, although he didn't turn to face the prisoner again.
"Shut up, Merlin." As he slid the door shut, he faintly heard Merlin give a little cheer at having his name pronounced correctly.
After the prince left, Merlin found himself in renewed spirits. The food had filled his hollow stomach and efficiently warmed his blood, making him feel almost content, and his arm was no longer painfully stiff. The company had been an added bonus as well, although Merlin had to admit he was no longer sure exactly what to make of the younger Pendragon.
He'd clearly been raised by his father's ideals, and yet he seemed not to have inherited them. It was confusing; although Merlin had a feeling it was just as confusing for the man in question. In the very least it gave him something to think about, which he was grateful for.
His good mood was dampened somewhat when Uther finally made his appearance a few hours later. Unlike his son, he did not come bearing food- or anything that could bode well for Merlin, actually.
In his right hand he held what looked like a lump of charred wood. In his left, a whip was neatly coiled. The former Merlin could see no obvious use for, but he did feel fear bubble up in response to the latter. He tried to master his fear, with little success.
"Emrys," Uther greeted, eyes hard and mouth in a thin line. "Do you have anything you wish to share with me? There may be a meal in it for you if you do." Earlier, it would have been tempting. But the fact still remained that Merlin had nothing to tell.
"I don't know anything about the Druids," Merlin said flatly. He suddenly felt a renewed wave of gratitude for the meal- it made it easier to look Uther in the eye and tell him what he didn't want to hear.
"Humph," Uther grunted, eyes narrowing. "So hunger masters you as poorly as pain."
"There's nothing to master," Merlin said, almost pleading with the king. "I don't know."
"Lies. They never end with you," Uther hissed. Then he straightened, forcing himself to remain calm and collected. "Since hunger is inefficient, and pain is useless, I will try a different tactic. How do you handle fear, sorcerer?"
Merlin didn't respond, so Uther carried on.
"Do you see this?" The king asked, hoisting up the whip and letting it uncurl. Even from his seat on the floor, Merlin could see it was braided with what looked like glass and metal. His stomach turned at the thought.
"This is the best that could await you," the elder Pendragon carried on. "You must be punished for your disobedience, but you would live. On the other hand…" here the king paused and turned to the block of wood. Merlin suddenly had a horrible feeling he knew where this was going. "I may decide the great Emrys is no longer useful to me. Do you fear the pyre, boy?"
Merlin didn't answer, but mentally recoiled. Yes, of course he did. He didn't fear death, he'd told Arthur as much, but death by fire was a different matter entirely. Better to be hung or beheaded than burned alive. Uther seemed to read the fear in Merlin's wide eyes, because a grim smile crossed his face.
"Good. I'll let you think it over, hm?" Then the king tossed the charred wood between the bars, letting it tumble to a stop by Merlin's feet. He automatically scooted back, to Uther's great satisfaction. Glad he seemed to finally be getting through to his captive, Uther left in good spirits. Merlin could not say he felt the same.
For Arthur, the next week flew by. With the harvest over, winter would soon be approaching and seasonal treaties were due to be revised and renewed. Predictably, such talks would take place in Camelot that year. The crown prince spent his time training for tournaments, hunting for feasts, and discussing politics with his father. From time to time Merlin would come to mind, but he was a little easier to dismiss now. After all, he'd done the man a favor and so Arthur's conscience felt adequately appeased.
That was not to say he could be dismissed entirely. There was something about the prisoner that made him linger on the edges of Arthur's mind, he just couldn't put his finger on it. With so little free time, however, he found that it didn't matter much.
That was, it didn't matter until he found himself in the company of Garvin, the eldest son of a visiting lord. Garvin was Arthur's age physically, but mentally he resembled more of a young teen drunk on his family's power. Needless to say, he got on Arthur's nerves and the two rarely saw eye-to-eye.
It was on that day that Arthur found himself out in the fields, shooting at targets with the other man and wishing desperately for an excuse to leave. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur watched as his companion skewered another perfect bulls-eye. Although he claimed otherwise, Garvin clearly had chosen the current set up to show off and not to challenge himself.
"Fantastic range you have, my liege!" Gushed said man suddenly, turning to face Arthur and lowering his crossbow. Arthur accepted the compliment with a nod but offered no further reply.
"Forgive me for saying so, highness, but you seem a little absentminded today," Garvin added, now looking a little irritable. He'd tried several times to get Arthur to talk to him, and so far none had worked.
"My apologies, Garvin," Arthur said, mirroring the other's stance and lowering his own weapon. "I'm afraid I have pressing duties later that have consumed my attention somewhat." It was a blatant lie, of course. Uther had (regrettably) given Arthur a day off to "spend time" with Garvin, despite Arthur's protest. What I wouldn't give for some good old-fashioned paperwork right now, he grumbled mentally.
"Well your distraction hasn't impeded your aim," Garvin commented, unable to hide his envy. Like Garvin, Arthur's target boasted of several perfectly-placed arrows. Also like Garvin, the exercise had not been challenging to Arthur, which irritated him to no end and made the whole thing seem like an even bigger waste of time.
"You've had a fine practice yourself," Arthur allowed, for politeness' sake. "But I do wonder if you'd excuse me? I can send some knights to continue with you, if you'd like."
"Ah, no. I think I'll call it a day as well," conceded Garvin, pacified by the royal's compliment. "I think I'll accompany you back to the castle instead. May I ask what these pressing matters might be?"
There was no polite way for Arthur to say no to either request. So the pair left their crossbows with the servants and started back to the castle.
"Nothing concerning the treaties," Arthur assured Garvin, scrambling to come up with a plausible story. "I… am needed questioning a prisoner we've had in our custody. Nothing too serious, but necessary. I'm sure you understand."
To Arthur's immense surprise, Garvin immediately perked up.
"Oh, yes!" He nodded vigorously. "Could it be Camelot's secret, milord?"
"I'm sorry?" Arthur asked, baffled.
"Camelot's secret," the other continued enthusiastically. "The rumored warrior captured and hidden in the castle."
"Where did you hear of such stories?" Arthur asked, looking at Garvin out of the corner of his eye as he walked. The man had to mean Merlin (the humor of that was not lost on the prince), but how did he hear of him? Arthur had heard rumors growing up as well, but as a member of Camelot's aristocracy he'd never given it much thought. It had never occurred to him that others outside of the castle walls might have heard of Merlin.
Luckily, Garvin was all too eager to share.
"It is rumored that Uther has a secret weapon he used to scare away the Saxovs," Garvin explained, eyes bright. Arthur did remember the Saxovs, a nomadic tribe of skilled warriors that had threatened the kingdoms years prior. Uther and several other monarchs had met with their leader; mysteriously, they'd never been an issue again. "A warrior he threatened to unleash on them if they bothered the kingdoms again. And there were legends that the Saxovs knew of that spoke of the warrior, so they fled. Milord, I'd love to meet him!"
"I'm afraid no such warrior exists," Arthur lied smoothly as they reached the castle doors. Mentally, his mind reeled. His father had used Merlin to defend Camelot? Why condemn him if he had only planned to use him?
"Oh," Garvin said, deflating slightly. "Then who are you talking to?"
"Just a petty criminal. Some new evidence has come to light recently about his case," Arthur said distractedly. "I must take my leave of you. Good day, Garvin." He walked off with a new purpose in his step- something was going on between Merlin and his father, and he planned to get to the bottom of it.
The path to the dungeons was familiar now, and it was hard for Arthur to remember ever feeling intimidated. He opened Merlin's door easily; this time, the man was awake.
"Evening, Merlin," Arthur greeted, closing the door.
"Arthur," Merlin replied, looking pleased. "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten I was down here."
"I've tried," the prince admitted. "But some people drive even me to the dungeons, I'm afraid."
Merlin's eyes sparkled with humor. "You're hiding," he said, laughter in his tone.
"If you'd met Garvin, you'd hide, too," Arthur accused, pointing a finger at the sorcerer. "Although he did tell me some interesting tales. Were you involved in the defeat of the Saxovs?"
"Depends. Who are the Sagofs?" Merlin asked.
"Saxovs," Arthur corrected. "And they were a tribe of horsemen from the Northern Valley. Big, dark, deadly with a bow and arrow. Threatened the kingdoms five or so years ago."
Merlin thought for a moment, and then nodded slowly. "Yeah, I think I do remember them, actually. Big meeting, all the rulers went? Uther hung around after and made me do some magic tricks for their leader. They feared magic, you know."
Arthur nodded, but inside he felt sick. His father had used magic. Maybe not directly, but close enough that had someone else done it, they still would've been sent to jail. "I see." Maybe it was no wonder there were rumors.
Sitting down, Arthur leaned against the door, one leg stretched out in front of him and the other bent so that he could rest his arm across it. "Does that happen often?"
"Does what happen often?"
"Does my father use you to help him resolve issues," Arthur clarified.
"Ah. I dunno, really," Merlin admitted. "It's happened a few times, but he doesn't normally let me leave my cell, so I only really know he's done it if he brings them down to see me."
"Right," Arthur said. He could be lying- the thought crossed his mind briefly, but was dismissed. Merlin didn't seem like the intentionally dishonest type. Although really, how much did he know about him?
"How long have you been down here, Merlin?" Arthur asked, genuinely curious.
"Best I can figure, near seven years," Merlin replied honestly. "It's hard to tell. I know I was ten when I was arrested."
"Ten," Arthur echoed, mouth dry. "That's very young."
"Yeah, it is," Merlin agreed softly.
"What happened to your family?"
Merlin paused at the question, as if rolling it around in his mind before answering. Finally, he said:
"I'm not sure. My father is dead. He was a Dragonlord- that's how I got caught. The knights came after him and discovered me. I'm not sure what happened to my mother." The sorcerer's voice was very quiet, and he didn't look Arthur in the eye when he spoke. "When I was young, I used to think maybe she'd survived somehow and was coming to get me."
"It would be impossible for any one peasant to break someone out of the dungeons," Arthur said, shifting somewhat uncomfortably.
"I know," Merlin said, finally looking Arthur in the eyes. "But at the time, false hope was better than no hope."
Merlin's words awoke a new struggle within Arthur's conscience. He was finding it increasingly difficult to combine the monstrous sorcerer Emrys with the very human-seeming Merlin.
"Was that why you studied magic? Did you see your father practice it?" Arthur asked instead.
"No," Merlin said, his mouth curving into an odd little smile. "My father was a Dragonlord, not a sorcerer. And I never learned magic, I was born with it. It was a… unusual gift to be born with, but there was nothing I could do about it growing up."
"That's not possible," Arthur accused, furrowing his brow. "Sorcerers aren't born with magic."
"Warlocks are," Merlin countered. "It's not impossible, just rare."
Arthur didn't say so out loud, but the admission made him uneasy once more. Merlin was sounding increasingly innocent.
"You told me once you would rather die than stay down here. Is that because…" Arthur trailed off briefly, unsure exactly how to word his question, before continuing- "Is that because no one came to get you?"
For the first time, Merlin balked at the question. "Not exactly," he said shortly, looking extremely uncomfortable. "I- I don't have much of a life down here, you see, and I can't ever leave. Sometimes death seems easier."
"Maybe one day you will leave," Arthur suggested, barely realizing the treasonous implications even as the words left his mouth. "If you were banished or something, you could start a life far away from Camelot in safety. It'd be better than prison."
"No, you don't understand," Merlin pleaded, looking frantic suddenly. "I can't leave. I have to stay here. I- I just…" Merlin trailed off and took a deep breath. "I really don't want to talk about it, actually." Arthur could tell the man had closed up. Why, he wasn't sure, but it looked like he wouldn't find out today.
He felt a conflicting mix of confusion and relief at the development. While he was curious about the warlock, he still had never been good at dealing with emotions. Besides, pressing the matter felt like a betrayal to his father, so he let Merlin change the subject without protest.
"You never actually told me why you were hiding," Merlin tried after a beat of silence. "Someone named Garvin?"
"Ah, yes, Garvin," Arthur groaned, letting his head fall back against the wooden door. "He's probably up there looking for me right now."
"Who is he?" Merlin asked, slowly beginning to relax again now that the spotlight seemed to be passing away from him.
"He's a noble's son, visiting for political reasons. He's an extreme bore, and rarely offers any conversation worth having," Arthur grumbled. Merlin grinned.
"So you came to talk to me? Why Arthur, I'm flattered!" Merlin teased cheerfully.
"Shut up Merlin," the prince retorted. "Don't look so pleased. He just can't follow me down here, that's all."
"Uh-huh," Merlin said. He looked unconvinced, much to Arthur's chagrin. "Sure, your highness."
"You know, you have a talent for making my titles sound like insults," Arthur commented irritably, shooting Merlin a look.
"Just doing the kingdom a favor," Merlin replied cheekily. Arthur suddenly wished he had something to throw at the warlock.
"Whatever," the prince grumbled, climbing to his feet. "I have better things to do."
As he opened the door, Merlin seemed to decide he still had one last thing to say.
"Yes?" The prince asked, looking over his shoulder at the smaller man.
"You're gonna come back, right?" Merlin asked quickly, looking both embarrassed and hopeful at once. Arthur suddenly pictured ten year old Merlin, chained and beaten, with no company or hope.
"Yeah, Merlin. I'll be back."
"Father," Arthur asked suddenly, setting down his goblet. "Can I ask you something?" Father and son were dining in the throne room privately before the following day's feast. Uther set down his own goblet and motioned for his son to continue.
"How did you defeat the Saxovs?" Arthur managed, eyes trained on his father carefully.
"The Saxovs?" Uther echoed after a moment's pause, brows furrowed in confusion. "Why do you bring them up? That was years ago."
"It's just… I've heard some rumors," Arthur said, opting for honesty. "And I wanted to hear the truth from you."
"Arthur, you're crown prince. You, of all people, should know how flakey rumors can be," Uther said mildly, raising one eyebrow. "After all, you've been at the blunt of them before yourself."
"Of course, Father," Arthur nodded. "But it did make me curious. I never heard what actually happened."
At Arthur's persistence, Uther paused again, studying his son. "What's done is done," he said finally. "What matters is that our kingdom is safe."
"Yes, Father," Arthur relented. It did not escape his notice that Uther had never answered his question.
That night, Arthur did not sleep well. His father's reluctance to talk about the past and Merlin's unsettling testimonies kept him up past midnight, tossing and turning in bed.
He had decided he liked Merlin, in an odd way. But he has magic.
Your father used magic indirectly. Does that make him evil?
All magic is evil.
Merlin doesn't seem evil.
He couldn't get his thoughts to come to a consensus. Instead they travelled in circles, solving no problems and giving the prince a headache. He felt like his upbringing and instincts were at war with each other, and his sanity was the casualty.
At the end of the day, there were really only two possible solutions, Arthur decided:
One, his father was right and magic was evil. Which meant he'd been disobeying his father and risking all he'd worked for (not to mention that this logic made Merlin the villain).
Two, his father was wrong and Merlin was innocent. Of course, this meant the man had spent a good portion of his life in jail for nothing and put the blame on his father. That was to say nothing of the hundreds upon hundreds with magic who'd then been persecuted for decades.
Merlin or Uther.
Friend or Father.
If he'd faced such a question a few months back, the answer would have come without hesitation. A condemned man or the man who'd raised him? It should have been easy.
Except Merlin's stories made sense. Except Uther acted like he had something to hide, and the sorcerer did not.
Too bad he hadn't been tutored on this as a child. A little history on magic might have helped, but he'd only studied his own lineage. It'd never bothered him before, but now he felt like he only knew one side of a very complicated story.
But maybe I did learn how to solve this… he thought suddenly, his memory flying to a teaching he'd been forced to write over and over as a kid:
Whenever, therefore, people are deceived and form opinions wide of the truth, it is clear that the error has slid into their minds through the medium of certain resemblances to that truth.*
He hadn't understood it as a child, but he thought he understood it now. Whoever was lying, regardless of who it was, would reveal themselves. After all, didn't actions speak louder than words?
With a plan of action established (or lack of, he supposed), Arthur finally drifted off to sleep.
Over the next few weeks, Arthur found himself going to the dungeons more and more. Thankfully, Uther was busy enough that he didn't seem to notice his son's frequent absences. Merlin, on his part, found himself looking forward to the prince's visits.
He enjoyed listening to the royal gripe about his duties and hearing stories about life outside of his cell. He learned about Gwen, a maid who worked for the Lady Morgana (it wasn't hard for Merlin to see Arthur's fondness for the peasant. It only reinforced Merlin's growing belief that his first impression had been wrong, and Arthur was nothing like his sire.) He learned about life as a member of the court, and heard about nobles and kings whose names he couldn't even pronounce. He learned about Arthur's knights and listened as the prince slowly opened up about his plans for Camelot.
For the first time in seven years, Merlin found himself feeling almost… happy. It was like he had a friend. He should've known it was too good to last.
"Tell me." The two words were sharp and harsh and accompanied by a kick to the rips. Merlin started awake, blinking up at the face of the king. It had been weeks since he'd seen that face- immediately, Merlin felt his heart freeze and turn to lead. This could not be good.
"Tell me about the Druids," Uther hissed. He looked mad, unraveled; a man who'd reached the end of his rope and lost his patience.
Merlin just looked up at him, trying to swallow his fear. How could he possibly make the prejudiced king understand that he really didn't know anything? What had happened that had made Uther so suddenly desperate?
"Answer me carefully, monster," Uther growled. Behind him, the door opened and the Captain of the Guard walked in, an all-too-familiar whip in his hands. "The Druids have repeated their demands and I have no patience for your insolence."
"Sire, I swear I don't know," Merlin forced out, feeling numb with fear. He knew what was coming next. Oh gods spare me, please spare me…
Uther's eyes darkened in rage. "Fine," he spat coldly. "You've made up your mind not to cooperate with the crown. Captain." Uther motioned for the guard to come forward.
Merlin forced himself to meet the man's eyes, but couldn't stop his hands from shaking. He knew he would get no mercy. Memories of red and flashes of pain passed through his mind, and his breath came in short gasps. Why wasn't there more air in the room?
The Captain's eyes held no sympathy, no humanity. The king turned and left the room.
Merlin saw red again; this time it was not from a memory.
Arthur was in good spirits. The feasts and treaty signings were almost at a close- soon things would be back to normal. It was a huge relief to the young Pendragon, and he thought nothing could put a damper on his mood.
Then he ran into Gaius.
"Sire," Gaius bowed, and then made to continue on his way. In one hand he held a basket of bandages, serums, and assorted medicines.
"What happened?" Arthur asked, surprised. Imminently he fell into step with Gaius.
"I don't believe it's for me to say," the physician relied tightly. Arthur had the feeling Gaius held his tongue more out of worry of what he might say in his apparent anger than out of a sense of duty.
"Gaius, tell me," Arthur ordered. "Was someone hurt?"
"A prisoner. Again," Gaius said, disapproval etched into every line of his worn face. "I do not approve of your father's barbaric methods, Arthur, and you can tell him I said so." Arthur barely heard him; indeed, he only registered Gaius' first few words.
"A prisoner?" He echoed, dread coursing through him. "Which one?"
"A man named Emrys," Gaius answered gruffly, frowning deeply. "I've had to tend to that boy far too many times over the years."
Once again, Arthur barely heard him. He followed Gaius, as if in a daze, a buzzing in his ears and stunned, blind denial in his mind. No no no no….
He descended into the dungeons behind Gaius, still dazed. He barely registered that the prisoners no longer seemed dangerous, but desperate. Scared instead of scary. How many had stories like Merlin's? How many actually deserved the cells they called home?
It wasn't until he saw Merlin, stretched out on a cot back up and covered in dried blood and bruises, that the reality of the matter hit him.
Anger replaced the numb disbelief, and soon Arthur found himself shaking, walking, jogging, sprinting to the throne room because how dare he-
He threw open the doors to the room and the talk fell silent. He knew he was going to make a scene in front of the nobles, but right then he didn't care.
"Why?" He demanded, stalking across the room to face his father.
"Why what?" Uther echoed, motioning the guards back.
"You whipped him. And he did nothing," Arthur seethed, fury clear and fists clenched. Uther's whole expression changed then.
"Leave us," the king demanded to their audience. As they reluctantly obeyed, Uther turned his attention back to his son. "You've been visiting him," Uther said softly, coldly.
"Tell me, Father," Arthur spat. "What exactly did the Druids threaten?" The question seemed to surprise Uther.
"They wanted to speak to you about an alliance. They dared to imply you were the ruler they needed to deal with, and worse yet, that I would be dumb enough to allow you to speak with free magic users," Uther answered, as if that cleared everything up.
Arthur's eyes darkened. "You were willing to go to war because your pride was wounded," he growled. "He was right. They are peaceful. I can't believe I doubted him," the prince hissed.
"You've allowed him to enchant you," Uther retorted, disgust on his face. "I knew you were too young for this. That's where you've been, isn't it? I should've known."
"Don't act like I'm to blame!" Arthur snapped, fists shaking with anger. "I know everything!"
"You've betrayed me!" Uther yelled. "And you betray me still by taking his side!"
"I'm a traitor?" Arthur cried. "You're a hypocrite! Magic is only banned when it's convenient for you! You're perfectly fine torturing innocents as long as it all works out for you!"
"Innocent?" Uther roared. "They are not innocent! This proves it- you're enchanted! GUARDS!"
Immediately three guards rushed into the room, grabbing Arthur's arms.
"AGH!" Arthur screamed, lunging at his father. It took all three of the guards to hold him back. "You're a LIAR! All of my life, you've lied to me!"
"Get him out of my sight!" Uther ordered, a wild look in his eyes. "NOW!"
He stood alone in the throne room as Arthur's enraged screams faded away.
Uther paced his room, running his hands through his thinning hair as he did so. It had been three days. Three days, and Arthur still was under lock and key as he hadn't wavered in his new… opinions. Uther was reaching the end of his rope.
He'd tried to force the sorcerer to undo his trickery, but the boy was still in no state to answer properly. When he'd tried, he'd only stared at the king with wide, frightened eyes, not quite sure what was going on but knowing it couldn't be good for him. Gaius had intervened before the king could try to force repentance from the urchin.
"Sire, you will solve nothing by killing him!" The physician had cried, rushing the king out of the cell.
Uther turned and stood in front of his mirror, staring himself in the eyes. He didn't know how Arthur had found out so much, but he blamed the sorcerer. That cursed sorcerer had ruined everything. The whole kingdom was alive with rumors, most likely spread by those wretched nobles.
Did you hear? The king had a criminal whipped and now Arthur's been arrested-
I hear it was one of Arthur's friends, and Arthur attacked the king!
-war with the Druids-
-magic weapon in the dungeons-
"ARG!" The king yelled suddenly, hitting the mirror violently. Why had he allowed Arthur to ever visit the dungeons? The glass broke on impact, a web of cracks fragmenting the mirror and turning the king's reflection into his own monster.
Blood dripped from his knuckles, but he ignored it. The pain in his hand was nothing to the pain of his son's betrayal.
No, he amended quickly. Arthur is not in his right mind. Magic has stolen him from me, just like it stole Igraine. Anger bubbled deep inside of him, fueled by the pain. His eyes smarted dangerously, but he ignored it, telling himself it was caused by his bloody knuckles. Pain had a way of changing people.
Arthur was changing now, and Uther did not like it one bit.
"Magic will not take my son from me," the king swore aloud. "I will save Arthur." His reflection looked feral, mad. His bloodshot eyes were too wide and unfocused, and his hair was mused from worrying it. Blood still streamed in tiny rivets from his split knuckles.
Killing him will solve nothing, Gaius had said. But maybe he was wrong. With no sorcerer, there was no spell. Arthur could still be returned to him.
Emrys had overstayed his welcome, anyway.
Arthur paced his cell, deep in thought. His anger had not left him, but it had subsided. Though his actions had landed him in the dungeons (the irony of the situation was not lost on him), he couldn't summon any regret.
He'd been right; one of them had shown their true colors. He just wished it hadn't been at such an expense to Merlin.
"Sire," said a guard from the other side of the dungeon door. Arthur froze immediately- what was Uther doing there?
"Move aside," Uther's voice snapped. Arthur felt dread spread through him. His father definitely was not here to release him, and Arthur couldn't imagine any other positive outcome.
Sure enough, a moment later Uther appeared at the base of the stairs.
"Father-" Arthur started, worried, but Uther flew past him without a second's glance his way. He was accompanied by four of his own knights, none of whom Arthur knew by name. The group disappeared down the second stairwell.
Oh, gods. Arthur's dread was replaced with horror. His father was going to take out his anger on Merlin. No, no that's not fair-
A moment later, Uther reappeared. Being dragged by the knights was Merlin. The man's angular face was blank with fear, although Arthur could see blood beginning to seep into his shirt from where his lashes had been re-opened.
"Father, NO! I beg of you, please-"
This time, Uther looked over at his son. His eyes looked pained for a second, then hardened.
"This is for your own good, Arthur," Uther said sternly. He turned away and left, Merlin dragged in his wake.
"Father! FATHER!" Arthur screamed, shaking the bars of his cell. By the door, the guards backed away uncertainly.
"You there-" Arthur said suddenly, pointing to one of the guards. "Let me out now."
"The king said-" the guard began, before Arthur cut him off with a curse.
"I will be your king someday," he argued. "And I order you to let me out!"
"You're not king yet," the second guard said firmly. "You're staying right where you are."
"No, he's not," said a new voice from the doorway. All three spun to see Leon, looking pale as death but determined.
"Leon, thank gods!" Arthur said in relief. There was still hope after all.
"You would betray the king to free the prince," the second guard snarled, drawing his sword.
"My loyalty is not with the king," Leon retorted, drawing his own weapon. His voice wavered slightly at the words, but his hand was steady. "And if he's started keeping his heir in the dungeons and ordering random executions, then Camelot needs him." His eyes flickered over to Arthur, who'd turned pale himself at the word 'execution'.
"We won't let you," the guard insisted, waving his sword. "You'll have to fight us."
Leon didn't bother to retort. Advancing forward, he took on both guards without trouble.
It may have been two to one, but two guards of average talent still didn't stand a change next to a skilled knight. Leon knocked both of them out within a matter of minutes. Grabbing the keys, he unlocked Arthur's cell quickly.
"Thank you," Arthur said, grabbing one of the guard's swords. "I'll make sure you aren't punished."
He was out of the dungeons before he could hear Leon's reply.
Merlin was halfway across the courtyard before he realized what was going on. There was normally a crowd for executions, but this time it was clear Uther had planned to keep it a secret. The pyre looked huge to the warlock and fear lodged itself in his throat.
He opened his mouth as if to cry for help or beg for mercy, but no words came out. His magic stirred, desperate to defend him, but he was too weak and out of practice. The knowledge that he really was defenseless awoke a new panic in the warlock, and he began to struggle, desperately trying to pull away from his captors.
His back burned with the movement, and he felt his tunic stick to the bandages, slick with blood. Only adrenaline and fear kept him on his feet.
To his healthy captors, his struggles were insignificant. Uther didn't even look back at him until they'd reached the base of the pyre.
For a moment, Merlin's mind flew to Arthur- surely the prince didn't plan to let him burn? - but then he remembered seeing a fleeting glance of Arthur locked away. Why, he didn't know, but he did know that help wasn't coming any time soon.
"Monster, you are guilty of practicing magic and enchanting my son," Uther said vehemently as Merlin was hauled to the top of the pyre. The warlock barely heard him, unable to breath with panic.
"For your crimes, you will burn," Uther continued, eyes locking briefly with Merlin's as he was tied to the stake. Finally the warlock found his voice:
"Please," his voice broke, and then he continued, "please don't do this. I wish no ill will on Camelot; I'll swear it on anything-"
"Light the pyre," Uther interrupted coolly.
"No! No, please-" Merlin begged as the nearest knight bent a torch to meet the dry wood. Fear once again stole his voice as the fire caught, red and orange consuming the wood and licking around the base of the pyre. His throat tightened in panic, and his vision became obscured by gray.
He thought he faintly heard yelling and a flash of blonde hair through the smoke, but couldn't be certain. The heat was getting closer and making it hard the think straight.
It was getting even harder to breath and Merlin realized this time it was from the smoke, not panic. It was like a heavy blanket had settled in his lungs, choking the life from him even as the fire climbed closer.
Red, orange, and gray colored his vision, and heat burned at his arms and legs. Sweat dripped into his eyes and down his back, making his cuts sting in pain and further blurring his vision.
Then suddenly he saw a flash of silver, cutting away at the restrains. He felt someone grab him- but there could be no one in the fire. Maybe death just felt like insanity.
He definitely heard yelling now, and it sounded like it came from Uther.
"PUT OUT THE FIRE! PUT OUT THE FIRE!"
Put out the fire? Why would the king put out the fire? His senses felt like they were overloaded- his lungs screamed for clean air, his skin stung from heat and sweat. Someone was dragging him, he was sure of it now. Embers clung to the hem of his tunic and wood scraped against the bottoms of his feet.
Suddenly he saw the sky, and felt fresh air force itself through the suffocation. He saw Arthur, who kept asking him… something, Merlin couldn't tell what. His ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton, muffling the world around him. Arthur had his sword in one hand, and was waving it at any guards or knights who got too close. Then he was screaming at Uther, and the world went black.
Arthur sat in Gaius' room, staring into the fireplace quietly. There was no fire behind the gate, but Arthur doubted he'd ever look into one without seeing flames ever again. His sword was clasped loosely in his hand, the blade lowered so the tip brushed the floor.
Merlin lay on the cot a few feet away, face down. Fresh bandages covered his back, and smaller ones dotted his arms and legs where he'd sustained minor burns. Identical bandages were wrapped around Arthur's hands where the metal shaft of the sword had grown too hot in the fire.
They barely stung now- Gaius did his job well- but they would scar. Likewise, Merlin's burns were likely the scar, but he was alive. As the burns were small and could be easily covered anyway, both Arthur and Gaius had agreed it was a small price to pay for the warlock's life.
"Art'ur," said a hoarse voice slowly. Arthur jumped, startled, before realizing Merlin had woken up.
"Hey, idiot," he said, relaxing again. "How are you feeling?"
"Never bet'r," the warlock winced.
"Try not to move," Arthur advised. "Gaius had to re-stitch some of the cuts on your back."
"Probably from the smoke," the prince replied guiltily. "I didn't get there fast enough."
"'M alive. Pretty fast," Merlin said, eyes slipping shut again although he remained conscious. Now that he'd established he was no longer in danger, he looked exhausted. "T'ank you."
"Don't mention it," Arthur answered, watching his friend carefully. "You're free now, you know." Merlin's eyes snapped open again.
"No 'm not. Uther," Merlin protested weakly.
"My father has decided that there are some things he would rather not lose just to make your life miserable," Arthur interjected firmly.
"Let's just say I reminded him what was at stake," Arthur explained vaguely, before handing Merlin a cup of water.
The warlock took the water and drank it (somewhat sloppily, considering his position) with relief.
"Thanks," he said again, his voice a little clearer. "But I still can't be free."
"And why now?" Arthur asked, raising both eyebrows. Trust Merlin to object to his own freedom.
"You don't want someone like me free, Arthur," Merlin said, looking uncomfortable. "I'm dangerous. I could hurt people."
Merlin's words from an earlier conversation came back to Arthur with a sudden clarity:
"No, you don't understand. I can't leave. I have to stay here."
"I'm such an idiot," Arthur mumbled, before pointing an accusing finger at Merlin. "But you're one, too."
"What?" Merlin asked uncertainly. Whatever reaction he'd been expecting, this obviously wasn't it.
Arthur, for his part, couldn't believe he hadn't figured it out before. Merlin's apparent death wish, his claim he couldn't leave the dungeons. How had he never considered that after growing up under Uther's wrath, Merlin might have started to believe he really was a monster?
"You're not a danger to Camelot. Anyone who can grow up in prison and still worry that he might hurt the people who put him there isn't a monster," Arthur argued.
"But I'm different," Merlin stressed, as if Arthur just didn't get it.
"You know why you're different?" Arthur challenged. "Because you don't want to be. Because you're so terrified you'll hurt someone, you'd rather live your life behind bars. You're so powerful because only people who don't want power should ever get it."
Merlin got very quiet after that, but he still didn't look quite convinced. Then:
"Whether you're right or not, it doesn't change the fact that people look at me and see the worst. They always will."
"I don't," Arthur snapped, before sighing and leaning forward so his elbows rested on his knees. "Merlin, do you remember the first time we met?"
"Of course I do. You came to the dungeons to question me about the Druids," the warlock responded automatically. "But what does that have to do with-"
"You'll see," Arthur promised. "Why do you think I came back?"
"I'd only met you once. I'd been raised to view you the way you view yourself- but I came back. Why do you think I did that?"
"I don't know," Merlin said uncertainly.
"Neither did I, at first," Arthur admitted. "But I've figured it out. Do you think I'm a monster?"
"Of course not!"
"Then you're not a monster," Arthur replied.
"Arthur, you and I are very different," Merlin said slowly, looking at the prince like he'd lost his mind.
"No, we're not," Arthur shook his head. "And that's why I came back. Think about it, Merlin. I'm crown prince, right?" Merlin nodded in the affirmative. "I grew up surrounded by people who didn't always care about me. I had few friends. I was born with power I didn't ask for, and I can hurt people if I want to. We play the same role, just not in the same ways. If I'm not a monster, then you're not one, either."
Merlin opened his mouth as if to say something, and then shut it quickly. He gave a short nod of his head, and Arthur realized (with no small amount of horror, mind) that Merlin was trying not to cry.
"Never mind, I found a difference," Arthur grumbled, standing up. "You're much more of a girl."
That earned him a watery, unsteady laugh and a 'prat' in return, which Arthur graciously decided to forgive.
"Get some sleep, Merlin," Arthur said, starting for the door. "Before you turn into a fountain on me."
"Yes, sire," Merlin said. Arthur couldn't help but think that this time, the title hadn't sounded like an insult at all.
*This is something Socrates taught. I thought it fit in well with the story- it's also where I got the title from.