Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, their characters, places, or events, or the song "God Help the Outcasts;" all rights belong to their respective owners/creators. This disclaimer applies to all subsequent chapters of this work.
Set somewhere after Arthur is king and has recently gotten the throne back from Morgana and Agravaine, about a year, year and a half after the season four finale. This fic covers the fallout of Merlin's magic being revealed, particularly the legal ramifications and the effects on the relationship between Merlin and Arthur; the reveal itself is posted separately, as a one-shot title Of All People.
Cover art by the awesomely talented Phoebe594.
Edited chapter uploaded 8/4/18.
"I don't know if you can hear me, or if you're even there.
I don't know if you would listen to a Gypsy's prayer.
Yes, I know I'm just an outcast; I shouldn't speak to you.
Still, I see your face and wonder: Were you once an outcast too?
"God help the outcasts, hungry from birth,
Show them the mercy they don't find on earth.
God help my people; they look to you still.
God help the outcasts or nobody will."
"I ask for nothing—I can get by,
But I know so many less lucky than I.
Please help my people, the poor and downtrod;
I thought we all were the children of God."
-"God Help the Outcasts," from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
When footsteps sounded down the passage, Merlin easily recognized them as Arthur's, yet even when those achingly familiar footsteps had stopped in front of his cell, he still didn't look up from the manacles around his wrists. Arthur had made his thoughts on Merlin's magic—Merlin's betrayal—perfectly clear when he had found out and the former servant couldn't bring himself to look and see the hurt and betrayal and anger and fear again, not even as every other instinct in him cried out for him to check that Arthur was alright. So instead he used his hearing, which told him that Arthur's gait was natural, no limps, not favoring one side or the other, not moving slowly to accommodate a torso injury; that Arthur's breathing was natural, a bit quick in that deliberate, controlled way that meant he was suppressing something, granted, but that could have easily been a measure to prevent his anger from exploding in a public place such as the heavily-guarded dungeons; that all was (relatively) well with his King. He idly wondered, if the smell of the dungeons weren't so pungent, if he would be able to smell that odd mixture of sweat and fresh air that meant Arthur had been training, and if that would account for his breathing.
When he heard the guards leaving, presumably at Arthur's command, followed by the jingle of keys and the shrieking of the cell door, he finally raised his head just a bit, observing the King as much as he dared, while still avoiding his face.
As the boots Merlin had cleaned so many times came steadily closer and drew to a stop just in front of his own, his eyes lowered again until he found himself staring at them, hard, noting that they were in need of a cleaning and wishing he had the courage to look this intently at Arthur's face.
"What do you want, Merlin?" The tone was detached, flat, and Merlin couldn't follow his King's mood as he usually could, but it was the first thing Arthur had said directly to him since he had found out and he couldn't help the thrill of hope that surged through him alongside the confusion as he finally lifted his head completely to regard the face of the man standing over him.
The face and body language were equally unreadable as Merlin studied them intently, and confusion became the dominant emotion as he struggled to understand what Arthur meant. What he wanted from Merlin.
"What?" As he rasped out the single word, he told himself his throat was dry because he was thirsty, not because he was afraid. He wasn't afraid of this conversation. He wasn't afraid that the relationship that had meant the most to him over the past several years might be irrevocably broken and that it was entirely his fault. Just thirsty.
"What do you want?" Arthur repeated, his tone unchanged. At Merlin's apparently obvious confusion and lack of an intelligible answer, Arthur explained, "Sorcerers always want something and they usually say what it is once they've revealed themselves. Usually revenge." Merlin watched as the king visibly swallowed and heard his tone change, anger leaking in, a little frustration and confusion; there were traces of the tone he'd had when he'd discovered Agravaine's treachery and didn't that just make it a little harder for Merlin to breathe. "Is that what you want, Merlin? Revenge? What did I ever do to you?" With the last sentence, Arthur's composure broke completely and raw emotion flooded the words: anger and hurt and desperate confusion, and Merlin's heart broke just as completely.
"I don't want anything, Arthur," he began quietly, trying as always to soothe away the pain in those blue eyes, to help, but Arthur cut him off with a growl and a sharp gesture.
"Sorcerers always want something! It's why they seek magic!" At his own words, a realization seemed to dawn on his face. "Because they want power. You said to me once that people betray me because they want my throne. Is that it? You want my throne?"
"Arthur, I've never— "
"Which is it, Merlin?" Arthur was nearly shouting now, every part of him radiating fury. In a sudden burst of motion that the startled warlock didn't see coming, Arthur grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him halfway up in a sharp rattle of chains; their faces were inches apart now, Merlin dangling wide-eyed from Arthur's clenched fists as the latter loomed over him and continued shouting. "Revenge or power? Both?" He shook his prisoner for emphasis as he finished, "What do you want from me?"
There was a beat of silence. Merlin's gaze was calm, and when he answered, so was his voice. "Nothing." As the enraged king made to throw him back to the ground in disgust, the warlock's bound hands shot out and grabbed the king's own shoulders to counteract the motion, steadying himself as he got his feet under him and rose. He met the king's eyes steadily and squeezed the broad shoulders. "No, Arthur, listen."
Arthur slapped his hands away and shoved him back into the wall; Merlin stayed back, but straightened away from the wall slightly, determination showing in every line of his body, in the gleam of his eyes, and in the measured tones of his voice. "You've been asking questions, Arthur. Will you let me answer?"
The king drew in a deep breath and released it in a huff, taking a step back and crossing his arms, which Merlin took as permission to continue.
"I don't want revenge, Arthur. I never have, and I don't think I ever will; I don't think there's anything you could do that would ever make me want to actually hurt you. Even now, whatever punishment you decide, I will accept without anger." He could hear traces of fear in his own voice, though, and hurriedly moved on. "Even if that were the kind of person I was, I could never do that to you, do you understand? I could never intentionally cause you harm. I would give anything to keep you from harm." He searched Arthur's face to see if he was following; his features were stone again, but he gave a nod of acknowledgement.
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Merlin forged ahead with Arthur's other concern. "I don't want your throne, either. I told you once that I am happy to be your servant until the day I die and that hasn't changed. As far as I'm concerned, it never will.
"Arthur, some men are born to be kings and others are born to serve. You were born to be king. I was born to serve you. My loyalty always has been and always will be to you, Arthur, even above myself; not only because you are a great king, but because you are my King. I wouldn't see anyone else on the throne of Camelot while you live."
"Why then?" Arthur asked. "Why would a sorcerer who desired neither revenge nor the throne come to Camelot? Why would you get close to the heir to the throne? Why would you stay at all?"
Merlin couldn't help but huff a small laugh. "Ironically enough, I came because of my magic and I got close to you by accident, because that is just the kind of twist fate has always put into my life." Arthur made a motion for him to explain, and he took a moment to gather his thoughts. "I was born with magic, but it was just raw power without any real control; I'd just think of something and my magic would do it, whether I actually wanted it to or not sometimes. It was . . . scary. For me and my mother. Not necessarily that it was happening, but that someone could find out, which Will eventually did. Do you remember Will from Ealdor?" Arthur nodded his recognition. "Once my mother knew he'd discovered my magic, she decided the risk in Ealdor had become too great; that I needed to get out and that I needed to learn how to control it better. She knew Gaius, knew that he'd studied magic once and was very knowledgeable, so she sent me to Camelot so that he could teach me.
"I wasn't supposed to get close to you; I was supposed to avoid notice, actually, but of course I picked a fight with the Crown Prince the very first day. And then another. And then, once your father made me your manservant, it would have drawn more attention if I tried to get out of it, so I just went with it at first. And then . . ." Merlin shrugged. "I liked you, I guess; I couldn't just leave you."
"You were made my manservant because you saved my life," Arthur remembered. "Why? You had every reason not to."
Merlin shrugged. "I couldn't just let you die."
"Why not, Merlin?" Arthur pressed. "You were supposed to be avoiding attention and I was the second most prominent figure in the kingdom. You had to have known I would have killed you in a heartbeat if I knew you had magic. And I'd already humiliated you in public and sent you to the stocks. Twice. Why would you risk your life for someone you had every reason to hate?"
"I don't know," Merlin admitted. "I panicked about it a lot afterward, but in the moment, there wasn't time to think about stuff like that. I saw that the sorceress had put everyone to sleep and knew that she couldn't be up to any good, so I just dropped the chandelier on her. And then she threw the knife and I just reacted again and pulled you out of the way. It wasn't planned or anything, it just happened. It—I guess it didn't really matter who you were."
And wasn't that typical of Merlin, Arthur thought. It had never really mattered who he was the same way it had to everyone else; where everyone else saw the prince or the king, Merlin just saw a man named Arthur who happened to be prince or king. Like now, Merlin was visibly showing frustration at Arthur's repeated questioning on the same topic, even as he sat in a jail cell condemned for a capital crime; but he was also being his usual earnest self, and he had saved Arthur's life a few times. Arthur decided to be gracious and demonstrate his understanding of the matter. "So you just saw somebody in danger and helped them, regardless of who it was."
Merlin nodded again, looking wary.
"In front of the entire court of Camelot."
Merlin frowned sharply, but nodded again.
"You idiot. Have you no sense of self-preservation?"
Merlin grinned and gave a half shrug. "Not really." The grin slipped away. "You live your whole life under a death sentence just for being born and it kinda doesn't really matter anymore." Arthur was taken aback at how accepting Merlin's tone was, how there was even an edge of wry humor to it.
They eyed each other for a moment, both serious, and Arthur noticed that Merlin's fingers had begun to twist together, making the length of chain between them clink and save them from complete silence.
Merlin swallowed nervously and decided now was as good a time as any to get this over with. "Listen, Arthur," he began hesitantly. "You asked me what I want." He sensed Arthur's body tensing and risked a glance up; Arthur's features were still, blank, empty and he almost couldn't go on through the pressure in his chest. He swallowed again, ducked his head, and began to speak to Arthur's boots, fidgeting restlessly, but determined to get through this, to make Arthur listen, even if it were the last time.
"I know that I broke the law, and that I lied to you, and that you are rightfully angry at me; I know you don't have any reason to, but I'm asking that you at least hear me. I—I know that you have been hurt by magic. A lot. But I am begging you, by all the mercy I know you hold in your heart, by your sense of justice, and by any friendship we ever had to listen to a sorcerer just this once." He looked up at Arthur's face again, this time holding eye contact as he went still. "You have fought against any injustice you have seen in this world just as I have. You have always fought for the little people who may not have had a voice for themselves and I am asking you now to hear my voice on their behalf.
"Arthur, not everyone who possesses magic is evil. Magic is neither good or bad, it just is. It's a tool, just as a sword is, and it can be used only as desired by those who command it; just as having a sword doesn't make one evil, neither does having magic. And unlike swords, some people are born with magic, Arthur.
"What I am asking is that you show mercy to magic-users; that you consider whether they have committed any crime other than the possession of magic before you condemn them to the pyre. Because some of them haven't, Arthur, and I know you've seen that. Some of them are just normal people, loyal citizens even, who use magic to help. You have shown yourself to be a better king than your predecessors, Arthur, more fair, more willing to listen, and many of us with magic have long hoped that you would someday free us. We still do. And I hope that we are right—that I am right—because if I'm not . . . I firmly believe that there will never be another king as great as you, Arthur, and if you don't change the laws on magic, nobody will.
"I'm not asking anything for myself. I said I would accept your punishment, and I meant it. I have had a better life than I ever imagined would be possible for me. I've had my mother and Gaius, and so many friends. I found a purpose for my magic: I've been able to help people and I've had the privilege and honor of not only watching you become the king you are today, but of standing alongside you and serving you as you did it. I am grateful beyond measure for the years I've spent in Camelot, and for my friendship with you, Arthur, never think otherwise.
"But I also lived everyday with the terrible certainty that if anybody ever found out, I would be killed, brutally, simply because of how I was born. I have lived with the at-times-nearly-overwhelming fear that somebody would find out, and there are so many others who live under that same cloud. Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and husbands and wives and friends who are terrified of losing their loved ones to the pyre, or of being condemned alongside them just because of their relationship. And so many others still who have faced the reality of execution. My father was chased from his home, chased again from his new home in Ealdor, and lived in a cave for 20 years because he had an ability that your father deemed 'too close to magic' for his comfort. Fr—a friend of mine was beaten and caged and dragged to Camelot for money because of her magic. Gwen almost died because your father thought she used magic to heal her father, and her father did die because one of his customers turned out to be a sorcerer. And the Druids, persecuted and hunted their entire lives, whether or not they actually have magic, just because they believe that it should be free." He held up a hand to forestall Arthur's building argument, his own tone softening from where it had begun to rise. "I know you have stopped the persecution of Druids, but you haven't made any progress in the other direction, either, even for them.
"Arthur, you've always said you wanted justice for all your people. Magic-users are your people too. And just like the rest of your people, some of them will turn to crime and need to be stopped. But also like the rest of your people, many of them love you and are happy to serve you as their king. We just want peace. We're asking for the same justice as the rest of your people. Because we are all the same, Arthur; all just people, whether we have magic or not. And those of us in Camelot, we are all your people."
There was a moment of silence in which neither of them moved, Merlin studying Arthur to gauge his reaction and Arthur studying Merlin in turn, contemplating his response.
The first time they'd met, Arthur had had Merlin arrested. Ironic, considering where their long and tumultuous relationship had now taken them.
The second time, he could have had Merlin arrested, but refrained. He knew his father would have had him arrested without a moment's hesitation and would have forgotten him a moment later, but Arthur hadn't been able to, had instead intervened when the guards had arrived and had him released, and he hadn't entirely been sure why. At the time, he'd told Merlin that there was just something about him that he couldn't put his finger on.
He thought he might have figured it out now.
All his life, Arthur had been surrounded by people who called themselves his friends and all his life all of those people had always sought to use him for something. They wanted money or lands or other rewards for being a "friend to the Crown." Or they wanted political favor. Or they wanted the opportunities that came to knights who were friends of the Crown Prince to go on glorious quests and make a name for themselves. Or they wanted him to marry their daughters or sisters or cousins. Or perhaps they hadn't wanted anything specific, just whatever benefits would eventually come their way through their association with him.
But Merlin had never shown any sign of wanting anything like that. He'd never even seemed to realize that he could potentially gain something from an association with Arthur other than Arthur himself. He hadn't even wanted the "honor" of being his manservant at first, which was the closest to the other favors that a peasant could usually get. In consequence, he'd never been the bootlicker the others had been, and Arthur thought that might have been what had initially drawn his attention.
But that was not the only "something" about Merlin, he recognized. Merlin was unfailingly loyal. Merlin was annoyingly cheerful. Merlin was sacrificially selfless. Merlin was wise and compassionate and brave. Merlin was a challenge and a riddle, but could always be counted on to know the right thing to do and to do it without hesitation. Merlin was the only sorcerer to ever reveal himself and, instead of demanding or claiming something for himself, passionately plead for Arthur to save others.
Merlin was an example of what sorcerers could be, proof of his own claims about the nature of magic, and if such a sorcerer could exist, then maybe putting all magic-users to death wasn't justice after all. Maybe magic-users deserved to be treated the same as any other citizen of Camelot. Maybe he'd have to consider making some changes.
"God help the outcasts, children of God."
So this is what happens when you've been obsessing over Merlin and hear "God Help the Outcasts." Reviews and critiques would be much appreciated as I am always trying to improve. Thanks for reading!
Have a fantastic day!