Author's Note: This idea is not new. This idea has probably been done a thousand times in the Merlin fandom, in amazing and heartbreaking and heartwarming ways. But…well, here's one more. I hope it's at least halfway as good as some of the amazing reveal fics out there I cherish and love.
In a Heartbeat
Written for the Tumblr blog – Merlin Memory Month 2018.
Path II - Farewell(s)
Path III - Emotion/Mood: Forgiving
Writing Path – Magic Reveal
"It's the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it."
― Frank Warren
"Merlin!" Arthur groused, climbing up the three short steps to his servant's miniscule room and pushing the door open without knocking. He knew Merlin would be there – he hadn't been anywhere else for the past fortnight as he struggled to recover from the illness that very nearly took his life. "Where in the blazes have you stashed my blue jerkin? George can't find it and I need it for –"
He broke off suddenly as he actually looked around the closet Merlin slept in and saw his servant.
Merlin was standing on legs that wobbled more than a newborn colt, pale and shaking, as he doggedly stuffed clothing into his pack.
"What on earth are you doing?" the king demanded.
"Packing," Merlin rasped quietly in a voice so raw it was painful to listen to.
"Packing?" Arthur repeated incredulously as he stopped, arms crossed. "For what? A move to Gaius's sickbed downstairs?"
"To go with you on the goodwill visit," Merlin answered with an eye-roll.
"To go with me," Arthur repeated. "On the goodwill visit. That will last a week and a half. On horseback, through the countryside. When you nearly died last week and can still barely stand."
"I can stand just fine," the younger man whispered, then proceeded to almost pitch forward on his face, losing his balance as he reached for the blanket to add to the pack.
Arthur simply raised an eyebrow. He felt that conveyed all that needed to be said.
With a sigh, Merlin sank onto the edge of the bed, looking even paler and more exhausted. "You can't leave me here, Arthur. I'm supposed to be by your side."
"You're supposed to be in bed, and Gaius will have your hide if he comes here and finds you out of it," Arthur said, shaking his head as he stepped into the little bedroom and tugged the pack out of his servant's weak grip. "Besides, you're always moaning about how I work you too hard and never give you time off. I would have thought you'd be happy to have a break."
It was a mark of how ill Merlin still felt that he didn't fire back with some sarcastic quip, but spoke with bare honesty. "You know I'm happy to be your servant, Arthur. I said it before and I still mean it."
The words hit Arthur unexpectedly hard and he paused. "I know," he replied with equal honesty to his servant…no his friend. He set the pack on the chair under the window and then turned around, facing Merlin. "But you'll do me no good as a dead servant, which is what you'll be if you come on this trip with me."
Merlin had nearly died.
Gaius said it was a miracle that he hadn't.
Arthur shivered involuntarily, remembering the outbreak of Scarlett Fever that had ravaged the lower town and outer villages, picking off his subjects, and was only now starting to subside. Merlin, young and healthy, was determined to help save lives, especially the children. He had worked himself to exhaustion, day and night, forcing Gaius to rest but never allowing himself the same luxury, until the inevitable had happened and he was stricken with the disease. For a full week, Arthur had prepared himself for what seemed certain – the fact that he would be burying his only real friend. But stubborn, too-annoying-to-die Merlin had fought and struggled and clawed his way back to be among the living.
Arthur had never been more relieved.
So there was no way he was letting said servant risk it all just to go on a stupid goodwill visit. He could endure George for a week and a half if it meant Merlin fully recovered.
"Bed. Back in bed," Arthur ordered, making shooing motions with his hands and finding it amusing to note that while his servant had been packing to go questing, he'd actually forgotten to put on his own socks and boots.
Energy sapped, Merlin obeyed. "Please be careful," he rasped as he sank down onto the lumpy pillow.
"It's a goodwill mission, Merlin, not a battle march."
Merlin just eyed him pointedly until Arthur threw his hands up in the air. "I'm always careful, you idiot. And I'm the king. So stop giving me orders."
"Prat," his friend breathed with a small smile as his eyes slipped closed.
Arthur tugged the blanket that was slipping off the side of the bed straight – Merlin's eyes were closed, so Arthur's reputation was safe – then quietly left the room. It wasn't until he was three hallways away that he realized he still didn't know where his blue jerkin was.
Two hours later, Arthur stood in the courtyard giving last minute instructions to his uncle as the traveling party made ready to leave.
"Thank you, Uncle," he said, clasping the man's forearm. "It's a comfort to know my kingdom is in such competent hands while I take this trip."
"The annual goodwill journey is a long-standing tradition. It's my pleasure to help you continue it."
"Just, don't let the Potter's Guild talk you into any rash decisions while I'm gone. They've been trying every year since I can remember" Arthur said with a small laugh and a shake of his head.
Agravaine responded in kind, chuckling warmly. "I promise not to bring ruin upon your kingdom in nine days, Arthur, Potter's Guild included."
"Thank you," Arthur said again, feeling comforted. The aching hole that was still left in his heart from his father's passing was always somewhat eased by the knowledge that he still had Agravaine, still had an uncle, a blood relation that cared for him.
"Sire," George suddenly interrupted, speaking and bowing at the same time in a way that Arthur wouldn't have believed was humanly possible if he hadn't witnessed it with his own eyes. "Everything is ready, my lord."
"Right then," the king said, happily clapping his uncle on the shoulder. "I leave Camelot in your hands until I return." Then he turned and followed the servant – wishing for the millionth time it was a different jacket-clad young man – to his horse, mounted, and led the group out of the courtyard.
"Gwen, what are you doing?" Merlin asked as his friend led him to an upturned barrel and lowered him onto it. Ahead of them Gaius stopped walking to talk to pair of elderly ladies who also appeared to be out enjoying the first nice day of spring.
"Giving you a break," the serving girl said firmly.
"We haven't even left the courtyard yet!" Merlin whined. "I'm not made of glass and I'm not going to break. I feel fine, and you were the one who suggested a walk would do me good."
"So, you weren't leaning on me and your arms aren't shaking then?" Gwen shot back, hands migrating to her hips.
Merlin blushed and ducked his head. He could protest, but he knew he would never win against Gwen in mother-hen mode.
"Stay here. I'll be back with a drink of water. Then we will sit in the sunshine for a while before I take you back home."
Merlin laughed a little and waved her off.
He had to admit, the sunshine did feel wonderful, and being outside of his stale, cold little bedroom was incredibly nice. Arthur had been gone for two days now and Merlin was feeling stupendously bored without the king coming by every couple of hours to "make sure he was still breathing."
Merlin watched Gwen walk over to the well, chatting happily with several other servants as she went. At the cistern, she pulled a cup from her apron and filled it with water. She was just pausing to talk with Gaius, probably listening as he reminded her once again not to let Merlin be outside for too long, when the peace of the morning was shattered.
A boulder, as big as a cart, appeared out of nowhere in the sky and began hurtling toward the earth, Gwen and Gaius directly in its path.
And Merlin – despite his teasing with Gwen just moments earlier – was tired. His brain was still muddled by weeks of fever and sickness, and his magic was dulled and drained from fighting it, from keeping him alive when a normal person surely would have perished. All in all, he wasn't at his best or thinking very clearly. So, when he saw his dear friends in mortal peril, only two thoughts flashed through his mind – that he couldn't lose them, and that Arthur couldn't lose two more of the only family he had left to magic.
He simply reacted.
With a cry of horror and rage, he leapt to his feet, eyes flashing and fingers spread – and the boulder changed directions at just the last second, smashing onto the empty flagstone with a sickening crash.
Before he could sag with relief, another massive stone was flying through the air, and he was stopping that one, too.
People were screaming now, panic and chaos soaring as citizens scrambled for cover and safety while knights and guards rushed toward the scene. In the back of his mind, Merlin heard Agravaine yelling, noted that might be a concern, but he couldn't stop to deal with it. Not if he wanted to keep these magical boulders from hurting anyone.
Straining, he stopped two at once and used the momentary peace to look around.
There, off to the side, a lone man stood. A hood covered his face, but by the way his hands were extended, Merlin knew he was the source of this attack.
The next rock that burst into existence aimed straight toward Agravaine with a staggering amount of force. Merlin didn't hesitate to stop it, but it drove him to his knees and he knew he was only moments from being temporarily sucked dry – magically speaking. So instead of letting it crash to the ground in a clear space, he pushed everything he had toward it and turned it backward on its course. The unknown sorcerer only made it five steps before he was crushed by his own creation.
Merlin sagged, hands braced on his legs, breath ragged as sweat poured down his face.
He was too exhausted to really process what had just happened, what he'd just done, until a shout shattered the frozen calm around him.
"You! A sorcerer!" Agravaine's cold, cruel voice rang across the ruined courtyard. "Hiding like a viper in the heart of the royal household, waiting to strike!"
No… That's not right… Merlin wanted to reply, but his strength was gone. It took everything he had just to drag his eyes up to look across the square, shaking his head in denial.
"GUARDS! ARREST HIM!"
Terror tried to spike inside of him at those words, but it couldn't fight through the exhaustion, and all he could do was hang his head as the guards were forced to bodily pick him up and cart him away.
They took his boots and socks, his jacket and scarf and tunic. The guards – men he'd known for years but who now looked at him with fear – worked him over with their fists and their feet – ordered to make sure he was in no shape to resist, as if he had been in the first place. Then they left him alone for hours, strung up by chains to a pole in the deepest depths of the dungeons with a blindfold around his eyes – the superstitious guards were convinced this would somehow inhibit his ability to use magic.
Not that they need have bothered. His magic had already been taxed to the limit from weeks of illness before he'd pushed it beyond the breaking point to fight the sorcerer in the courtyard. Now it had retreated inside of him, whimpering and wounded, and he couldn't even reach it.
Once the shock of what he'd done had worn off and he was left there shivering from cold, fever, and pain, he found the tears coming, soaking through the cloth tied too tightly around his face.
He'd revealed his magic, at the worst possible time, and Arthur wasn't even around to witness it. No, he'd been discovered by Agravaine, and now he would die, of that he was sure. Probably before his king even returned to the city.
He would have no chance to explain. No chance to apologize. Not even a chance to say goodbye.
He would burn and he was frightened. Frightened of how much he knew it was going to hurt. Frightened of failing his destiny. Frightened of the fact that all Arthur would ever know was the lies Agravaine would spin for him.
Eventually, he heard footsteps which came to a stop right behind him.
"You're going to die, you know," Agravaine's voice spoke without preamble. "Two days hence, on the pyre. "But before that, you're going to tell me everything you know about the sorcerer named Emrys – who he is, where he stays, how long you've been working for him."
A sharp sound cracked through the air and Merlin jerk instinctively, his body trying to get away even though there was no where he could go.
A whip. Agravaine was going to whip him – torture him for information.
"Your death is inevitable," the evil man said again, but then he leaned in and whispered right in the servant's ear, making him flinch, "but the amount of pain you must spend your last days in is entirely up to you, Merlin. So, we will begin."
As Agravaine snapped a question that Merlin had no intention of answering even if his raw throat had been able to, the young warlock leaned his head against the rough pole and wished for Arthur.
Arthur was dreaming.
At least he was fairly certain he was. He remembered going to sleep, remembered the normal jumble of images that usually filled his nighttime hours – some pleasant, some not. He didn't remember waking.
But the dark, sleepy lake he found himself standing next to, while unfamiliar, was so very real. He could see the stars reflected in the smooth surface of the water, hear the insects and night owls, smell the moist vegetation.
And distinctly hear someone calling his name.
"Who's there?" he called out, turning around to face the woods instead of the lake. "What do you want?"
He whirled in surprise, reaching for a sword that wasn't strapped at his side. A woman, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, stood before him. Her skin was pale and smooth, brown hair falling gently to her shoulders, and her dress rippled and flowed in a breeze that didn't actually exist.
She was beautiful and ethereal and just a little frightening.
"Who are you?" he whispered, trying not to give into the urge to take a step back. "What do you want?"
"I am the Lady of the Lake, and I have come to warn you."
"Warn me?" he echoed, skeptically.
"Your servant's life is in grave danger. If you do not return to Camelot at once, he will die."
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, a shiver of fear slinking down his spine. "But he was getting better. Gaius said he would be fine."
"I cannot tell you more than this. Just that he is in peril and that it is imperative that you return home."
"Is this a dream? Or are you some sort of witch, digging into my brain?"
The young woman glared at him, a glare that had a very non-magical and down to earth quality to it. "Heed my words, Arthur Pendragon, for Merlin's life hangs in the balance and only you can save him."
A stick suddenly snapped in the woods just behind Arthur and he jerked around. Nothing was there, but when he turned to face the woman again, he found himself all alone. Before he could process that and everything she'd said, he felt a pull around his middle and then he was falling and falling…
Arthur woke with a start, sitting straight up. Percival, who was on watch, eyed him curiously but thankfully said nothing.
Heart racing, the king tried to sort out his jumbled thoughts as he sat in the darkness that was still hours from dawn.
He'd dreamed…something. He couldn't really recall what, but it seemed odd and important and it left him entirely unsettled. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong – back in Camelot – something to do with Merlin.
But why would he dream that? Merlin might be the closest he had to a best friend, but he was still his servant. Kings shouldn't be dreaming about their servants. Besides, Gaius had assured him that Merlin was on the mend and would now be fine.
No, it had to be the fatigue of travel messing with his slumber.
Two hours later, though, when he'd been unable to fall asleep once more, the feeling persisting and even growing in intensity, he gave in. Waking his knights, he issued new orders. Leon, as second-in-command, would take Gwaine and Elyan and lead the rest of the party on the goodwill mission, while Arthur would return to Camelot with Percival. When Leon raised an eyebrow in a questioning look, Arthur just growled and said he had a funny feeling.
And as he and Percival raced out of camp on the road back to Camelot accompanied by the not even barely contained smiles and snickers of his best knights, Arthur was grateful he'd chosen the silent giant as his traveling companion. At least the big knight had simply agreed without a word.
Besides, Arthur had left George with the others. A few more days on the road and they wouldn't be laughing quite so hard.
From his dazed stupor on the floor of his cell, Merlin gradually became aware that a familiar voice was calling his name. Out of habit, he tried to open his eyes before he remembered the cloth bound tightly against them. He settled for tilting his aching head slightly, hoping his visitor would realize he was listening.
"Oh, my boy… What have they done to you?" Gaius's voice broke.
A better question would be what hadn't they done? He knew he must look awful, though thankfully his guardian wouldn't be able to see the worst of it given the poor lighting and the fact he now at least wore the dirty white shift of the condemned. But Merlin didn't want to waste what would probably be his last moments with the man who was like a father to him cataloging his injuries. If Gaius had been allowed and sent to treat him, he would have already been beside him within the cell, so that meant the old physician had sneaked down to visit, at great personal risk.
He shifted around, chains clanking as he attempted not to groan in pain, trying to make it so he was at least facing the direction Gaius's voice was coming from. He would have sat up, but with his hands still cuffed behind him and his lacerated back on fire, he just couldn't find the strength to do it.
"Gaius," he rasped, his throat burning.
"Merlin, you have to leave. Escape. Use your magic and leave this place. Gwen and I have tried reasoning with Agravaine, but he refuses to listen. He won't even be persuaded to postpone your execution until Arthur's return."
Merlin was shaking his head slowly before Gaius even finished his quiet urgings.
"Please, Merlin!" the old man pleaded, and Merlin heard the great depth of love and sorrow in his voice as he shuffled outside the bars. "You cannot die like this! I know you don't wish to betray Arthur or leave his side, but this death at Agravaine's hand will end everything!"
"Can't…" Merlin whispered truthfully. "Tried. Magic is fighting…fever, injuries. Can't use it…" His last words were a little too close to a sob, but he was scared and it was Gaius and he just couldn't hide it.
There was silence for a while after that and Merlin felt the blindfold once more grow moist with his tears.
"Can you slide forward, my boy?" Gaius finally asked, his voice thick and shaky. "You're only about two feet from the bars."
Merlin nodded, and then slowly maneuvered his chained and aching body closer to his mentor. After a bit of agony, he felt Gaius's fingers on his head and he stopped – exhausted.
They sat in silence after that, the precious few minutes they had left together trickling away. Merlin wanted to tell Gaius thank you for everything, that he loved him, not to be sad. Wanted to beg him to go to Arthur and explain what Merlin himself would not be able to, but the words were stuck in his heart and hindered by his abused throat. So instead, he just lay there and let his guardian run gentle, trembling fingers through his hair, knowing Gaius would never speak of his tears since he was sharing them.
The moment Arthur entered the gates of Camelot after a day and a half of hard riding, he could tell something was wrong. A glance toward Percival and he knew the other man felt it as well, so they spurred their tired mounts on one last time, making for the main courtyard that led to the castle.
The destruction that met them there was shocking. Rubble and huge boulders were being cleared away while men labored at repairing flagstones and other masonry. Most alarmingly, a pyre was under construction beneath the royal balcony.
He frowned. That Agravaine would order an execution – a burning – and carry it out before he even returned…
"What has happened?" Arthur muttered flinging himself off his weary horse as he gazed around, lips pursed in anger and worry.
Percival didn't answer as he also dismounted, but then Arthur hadn't expected him to.
The king was just about to flag down a citizen and ask for an update when he heard someone wailing his name. Surprised, he jerked around to find Guinevere racing toward him from the direction of Gaius's tower.
"Arthur! Oh, Arthur!" she was sobbing, pulling her skirts up as she ran with tears streaming down her face.
He caught her and held her close, stroking her hair for a moment before speaking.
"What is it, Guinevere? What's happened here? Are you all right?"
With a sniff, she nodded and then pulled herself away from his chest. "Yes, thanks to Merlin. But Arthur, it's horrible! He saved Gaius and me, and then everyone else, but Agravaine won't listen. He's still going to have him killed!"
"What?" he uttered, confused. Merlin? Killed? Why on earth would his uncle order the execution of his manservant for apparently saving the lives of his people? "Where is Merlin? With Gaius?" The feeling of urgency, of danger, of Merlin needing him that had gone with him as they sped across the countryside quadrupled.
Guinevere shook her head, eyes filling once more. "He's in the dungeons, Arthur. Agravaine ordered him straight there, and no amount of begging or pleading on mine or Gaius's part will change his mind."
Trusting Percival to see to the horses, Arthur started to march angrily toward the castle, Guinevere stepping quickly to keep up with him.
He'd come home to a mess of insanity and he needed to find his uncle and figure out what exactly was going on!
"And what has my uncle accused my idiot manservant of now, to warrant his execution!" he seethed. "Did he trip and spill wine on the blasted man's favorite cloak?"
"No," Guinevere said, suddenly pulling Arthur to a stop and forcing him to face her. Tears crested her eyes again as she spoke in a quiet but clear voice. "Sorcery, Arthur. Merlin has magic."
"AGRAVAINE!" Arthur roared, storming through the corridors toward his chambers.
"YOU!" he shouted at the first guard he passed. "Find Lord Agravaine and tell him to report to my chambers!"
"And you!" the king snapped at the next guard he encountered. "Have my manservant brought from the dungeons to my chambers IMMEDIATELY!"
Arthur didn't wait to see if either man followed his orders – he was the king and he was angry; they would obey or feel his wrath.
He took the stairs at a sprint, his face dark and his emotions a whirling mass of…he had no idea. He was hurt, he was terrified, he was lost…and he was so very furious – at his uncle, at Merlin, and at himself for being a bloody fool.
The door of his rooms crashed into the wall under his assault, springing back and almost hitting him on the return, but he ignored it and stomped to his table. He went to remove his gloves but stopped, grabbing his hair and letting out a shout of frustration before swiping his arm at the bowl of fruit sitting calmly in the center of the table, sending it and the last of the previous year's harvest of apples flying.
"Arthur!" A surprised and slightly worried Agravaine suddenly rushed into his quarters. "You have returned early! I did not expect you for at least another week!"
"Obviously!" Arthur spat, too angry to play nice.
"Is this about…the boy? Your servant?" The older man sputtered. "I know you must be deeply shocked and betrayed! All this time, right at your side! But I've stopped him – thwarted this great disaster! I only wish I could have had the issue done and dealt with before you returned."
Something broke loose in Arthur at those words and he turned to his uncle in a cold fury. "Yes, this is about Merlin! Merlin – who is my servant! Merlin, who after five years of loyal service at least deserves the dignity of a trial, no matter what crime he is accused of! Merlin, who is the servant of the KING! Or have you forgotten that is what I am? YOUR KING!"
Agravaine took a step backwards, but Arthur wasn't finished yet.
"How dare you order the execution of one of my subjects while I was away? HOW DARE you order the execution of one of my friends while I was away! And how dare you deign to pass judgement in my place!"
Anger flashed through his uncle's eyes and he clenched his jaw, finally finding his courage. "Arthur, have you forgotten that this boy is a sorcerer? All of Camelot saw him use his vile magic! What need is there for a trial after that?"
Arthur opened his mouth to continue his tirade but he was interrupted by the arrival of two of the prison guards and…Merlin.
Merlin was dressed in nothing more than the white shift given to all condemned prisoners and his ruined trousers. He moved slowly – painfully – his bare, shackled feet shuffling across the floor as the guards supported most of his weight. His hands were cuffed tightly behind his bloody, ruined back and his eyes were bound. As the two men pushed the trembling figure to his knees in the center of Arthur's room, the king's emotions imploded.
"Get out!" he hissed – to his uncle, to the guards – to everyone who wasn't Merlin.
The guards wisely fled, but his uncle was not as smart.
"Arthur, I don't think you should be alone with the prisoner. You know sorcerers are tricky and –"
"Was it you?" Arthur interrupted in a low and dangerous voice, having walked closer to his kneeling servant, gained a better view of the horrible damage done. "Was it you that ordered him tortured? After he reportedly saved your own life?"
"For the good of Camelot!" Agravaine cried quickly. "The secrets he must hold…"
Arthur slammed his gloved fist down onto his table; his uncle jumped.
"I am the king, Uncle, and you have tried my patience long enough this day! If you value your life, you will leave these chambers at once!"
Agravaine snapped his mouth shut. He gave a small, forced bow, then stepped backward and left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
Silence – horrible and world-changing – filled the room. Unable to yet face Merlin, Arthur peeled off his gloves and his cloak. He threw them on the table then unbuckled his sword and laid it beside them. For a moment he just stared at the weapon, carding his fingers through his hair until he worked up the courage to turn around.
The image before him branded itself into his mind – Merlin bound in chains and kneeling silently on the floor, head bowed as he trembled from pain and illness. The anger and betrayal that had been wrapped up in Arthur's swarming bundle of emotions dripped away.
"Merlin," he said softly, crouching before the servant and carefully removing the blindfold, throwing it away in disgust though the young man didn't raise his head.
"You saved Guinevere?" he asked gently.
Tears started to fall from bruised and swollen eyes as Merlin slowly nodded.
"And Gaius?" Arthur prodded.
The servant gave another desperate nod.
This time a sob escaped as Merlin nodded for the third time.
Arthur put a careful finger under his friend's chin and drew his face upward, forcing him to make eye contact. "Why?" he simply asked.
For the first time Merlin spoke, and Arthur winced at the rawness of his voice that was barely a whisper.
"Because they're my friends and I love them. Because I didn't want you to lose one more person to magic."
With another sigh, Arthur pulled Merlin's head to his shoulder, cupping it and resting his chin on the boy's hair, feeling the fever that once more burned through his body. "And what do I do now, Merlin? How do I keep from losing you?" His voice cracked as he desperately held his trembling friend.
Merlin didn't answer, just leaned against him crying freely as he sought the comfort of kindness and a familiar touch. Arthur let him, imagining everything his servant must have been through while the king was away, and how frightened he had to have been, and probably still was. Eventually, however, he remembered that Merlin was seriously injured and once more ill with a sickness that had almost taken his life mere weeks before so Arthur pulled away. Reluctantly, he rose and stepped back to his door.
The two guards that he'd evicted had possessed the presence of mind to at least remain on duty in the hall, waiting to collect their prisoner again.
Merlin – a prisoner. Arthur's prisoner.
The king sighed wearily. Never had he felt more trapped by the constraints and obligations of sovereignty than at that moment.
"You have the keys to his restraints?" he asked the two men tiredly. They appeared fearful and uncomfortable, but finally one answered.
"Yes, sire," the man said, removing a small key from his belt.
"Thank you," Arthur responded. "Now one of you will fetch the court physician to my chambers immediately, while the other arranges for warm water and fresh clothing. Am I understood?"
They wanted to argue – he could tell – but thought better of it and simply bowed. Arthur watched them leave before reentering his chambers and returning to his friend's side.
Gently, he unlocked the cuffs that held Merlin's hands so tightly behind his back, easing the cramped limbs from their painful position, before quickly releasing the shackles on his ankles. Though his anger flared again at the sight of blood on the dull metal, he forced it down and just left the chains in a heap on the floor. Then, supporting most of his weight, Arthur drew his servant up and led him to the bed, sitting him down on the edge before sitting beside him.
"How long, Merlin?" he finally asked quietly, knowing instinctively Merlin would understand what he meant.
"My whole life," the young man said, not looking up from his fingers.
Arthur found he had nothing to say to that. Merlin's confession hurt, realizing the secrets he had been keeping and the lies he had been telling, but the king also found that it didn't hurt nearly as much as seeing his friend in his current state or picturing him tied to that pyre being constructed outside.
Thank goodness he'd heeded his "funny feeling" and returned to Camelot when he did. If he had ignored it, waiting even just one more day…
Speaking of funny feelings, though…
"Did you call me back?" he suddenly asked, turning to Merlin who was just sitting there, silent and subdued. "To Camelot? Did you somehow tell me to return with…with magic?" The word still hesitated to roll off his tongue but no longer felt quite so vile.
Merlin finally raised his head slightly, looking at him with eyes that once more swam with tears. "No," he rasped. "I couldn't. Too…too weak."
"Then who –"
A quiet knock sounded at the door before he could finish his sentence, a frantic and yet hopeful Gaius entering without waiting to be called.
"Sire," the physician acknowledged for the briefest of moments before rushing to his ward's side. "Merlin…" he breathed gathering the boy into his arms.
Something inside of Merlin finally broke and he wrapped his shaking arms around his guardian, all-out sobs ripping from him. Feeling like an intruder, Arthur stood and stepped away, letting them have a moment and a small bit of space.
It was then that the king noticed Agravaine, who had apparently followed Gaius once more into the room. He glared at his uncle, but the man squared his shoulders and walked to him determinedly.
"Arthur, I must protest," he said quietly. "He is a sorcerer! His execution is set! What message are you sending by allowing this..."
"Mercy?" Arthur cut in when Agravaine seemed to falter over his words for just a moment.
"Weakness and leniency," the man snapped pointedly. "He is highly dangerous and you should not be alone with him, nor should he be unrestrained!"
Arthur suddenly laughed. It was sad and ironic and more than a little bit threatening. "You think Merlin a danger to me?"
"He has magic!" Agravaine hissed again, throwing a dark look of hatred toward where Gaius was coaxing Merlin gently out of his prison shift.
"I'm aware of that!" Arthur snapped, tired of being treated like an oblivious little boy instead of a competent man and king. "He confessed to it himself, to having it since birth! So why, after the five years he has served me apparently having magic the entire time, would you think him suddenly a danger to me now? Look at him! You've tortured him to the point he can't even walk!"
"And does that honestly matter?" Agravaine asked coldly. "Considering he burns tomorrow anyway?"
Suddenly, Arthur was grateful he'd had the foresight to remove his sword as he gazed at his uncle with incredulity. "There will be no execution tomorrow, Uncle," he said through clenched teeth. "You should tell the workers to cease."
Agravaine's expression hardened as he stood there, unmoving.
"That wasn't a suggestion, Lord Agravaine," Arthur said, eyeing the man he was suddenly seeing in a new, rather unfavorable light. Finally, his uncle turned and left, without even a bow this time. He swept past an incoming Guinevere – arms full of linens and clothes – who stepped hastily back to avoid being trampled. The look she sent him as he left was murderous – not at all like the sweet girl Arthur was used to – but she held her tongue and went straight to aid Gaius.
"Hot water is on the way. Cook is sending it up," she told the healer.
"Thank you, my dear," he answered absently, still fussing over a slumped Merlin. "Sire, we should make arrangements to have –"
"Arthur." Merlin's quiet voice suddenly cut through his mentor's words. Everyone paused.
"Yes, Merlin?" the king answered, moving in front of him.
"What are you going to do?" the younger man asked, raising his head with great effort and gazing at Arthur with eyes that were equal parts fear and weariness. "With me?"
What was Arthur going to do with Merlin? Who had magic, had confessed and used it publicly. But who was also his loyal servant and friend.
"I don't know," the king answered honestly, crouching before the younger man once more, forcing himself not to look away from the bruises, cuts, and burns that marred his pale skin. "I…" he started and then stopped, words twisting up in his mouth as he fought to express himself. "I have been taught that magic is the greatest evil, and I've seen magic do horrible things. The laws of this kingdom were made to protect against that. But…I've now found out that my best friend – the kindest, most loyal, most peaceful man I've ever known – also has magic, has used that magic to save many lives. So, if you can have magic and still be you, it's enough for me to understand I'll need to reevaluate my thoughts and my kingdom's laws."
He saw some of the fear in Merlin's eyes be replaced by something almost like hope, but he also knew he hadn't quite answered his servant's question.
"I want you by my side, Merlin, as my servant and my friend, and the magic doesn't change that. It just…complicates it for a while. Can you accept that answer for now?"
His friend nodded, a small smile fighting through his pained expression.
"Sire," Gaius broke in. "Will Merlin be returning to the cells?" The old man's voice shook slightly on the question though Arthur could tell he tried to ask it without casting any judgement. "I need to know how best to care for him."
Arthur stared at him aghast, then looked back at the fragile, abused servant who was rapidly nearing the point of collapse. "Absolutely not!" he said, acting spontaneously on a plan forming in his mind without even pausing to think. "Can you treat him from here?"
"Well, yes, but, Arthur…you're the king. These are your chambers… And Merlin is…is a prisoner."
"And what better place is there for me to keep an eye on him?" he asked, grinning. "Guinevere, can you make up the bed in the antechamber?"
She nodded, instantly moving to fetch the needed sheets and blankets while Arthur turned back to the young man who was almost unconscious from pain, fever, and the release of days of terror. "What do you say, Merlin? Can you handle house arrest in the Royal Chambers?"
The boy just looked at him for a long while, as though searching the king's very soul. Finally, he pushed a few words past his broken throat. "Do I still have to clean them?"
For the first time since he'd ridden into the destroyed courtyard what felt like hours before, Arthur laughed.
The sound of the main chamber's door opening pulled Merlin instantly from his sleep. For just a moment, his heart raced into his throat before he was able to orient himself and calm down.
He was safe.
He wasn't in the cells.
He wasn't going to burn.
Arthur had promised.
Arthur had promised and he trusted his master, king, and friend.
But that didn't stop the irrational part of him – the part that existed in dreams and moments half-way between sleeping and awareness – from cringing in fear, from waiting for guards to appear and drag him off to fire and pain.
Merlin wondered how long it would take before he felt truly safe again.
A person moved around in the prince's chambers, opening doors and shuffling papers, and from the sounds alone Merlin could tell it was Arthur. He hadn't seen much of his master for the last few days that he had been healing in the antechamber, confined to bed on the orders of everyone from Gaius to the cook to the king himself. Not that they need have worried – just using the chamber pot was exhausting. Still, Gaius came by three times a day, Gwen sometimes more, and there were men just outside the door, supposedly guarding him, but Merlin was fully aware they were under strict instructions to come running if he so much as sighed too loudly.
It helped – helped dispel the lingering terror. But the fear he had almost lived, just barely escaped, had been his nightmare for so long he knew it would take time to shove it back into the mental trunk where it belong.
Footsteps approached the small chamber and Merlin turned his head just as Arthur came into the room.
"Oh good. You're awake," the king said, a parchment rolled loosely in one hand. He grabbed a chair and moved it over by Merlin's bed. "How are you feeling today, idiot?"
Merlin tried to think of a witty response, a quick jab to playfully throw at his friend and make them both smile, but his thoughts weren't quite past the slightly muddled stage, so he opted for the truth instead.
"Better," he said, and meant it. The bruises and burns were healing, as were the lacerations on his back. They were painful, but a few more days and they would no longer be debilitating. It was really just the return of the fever that had sapped him so completely. Gaius had grumbled and glared, telling him he had no right to taunt death twice with the same blasted disease, and if he ever did it again, he'd write his mother.
"That's good, because my chambers are a right mess. If you don't get better soon, I might just have to replace you."
"Where's George?" Merlin whispered. His throat was also healing, but he wasn't ready to push it yet.
"I sent him with the others. I'm sure he and Gwaine have bonded nicely by now."
Merlin stared at him aghast, which caused Arthur to laugh. "Have to find a new servant anyway," Merlin finally said, shaking away the image of Gwaine and George trying to kill each other. "Once I'm better. Once I'm…sentenced." He ducked his head, not wanting to see the pain that would undoubtably cross his friend's face.
Arthur leaned forward on the chair, elbows on his knees and expression suddenly serious. "Do you know why I've been gone so much for the last few days, Merlin?"
Merlin shook his head, giving his voice a rest.
"I have interviewed every single person in the courtyard that day, when the attack came, from the nobles down to the littlest messenger boy. And do you know what they've all told me – with the exception of my uncle whom we won't speak of right now?"
The servant's fingers clenched at the soft fabric of the covers as he shook his head once more.
"That if it weren't for you, most of them would be dead. That if it weren't for you, Camelot might have fallen to one man. That you saved their lives."
Tears sprang to Merlin's eyes again, but unlike the ones he'd let slip so often in the last week, these were tears of hope.
"Laws are tricky things. They require thought and care and understanding. And they take time. If I'm to be a good and worthy king, I can't trifle with and change them on a whim. But neither should good and innocent people suffer for the slowness of a kingdom. So, here, Merlin, this is for you."
Arthur thrust the parchment at him, an almost childlike happiness returning to light his face. Merlin took it, hands still slightly shaky, and unrolled it. The lettering was formal and neat, the first letter even enlarged and colored after the manor of an official document, but with his watery eyes and trembling hands, Merlin found he couldn't focus to actually read it.
"So…" Arthur prodded expectantly after a minute of silence. "I hand you that and you don't have anything to say at all?"
"What…what is it?" Merlin finally croaked.
"It's a King's Pardon, you dolt!" the king cried, snatching the document back and rolling his eyes as he wacked Merlin gently over the head with it. "I've been waiting all day to give this to you!"
"Oh," Merlin said a little dazed, but then his brain caught up and he really heard what Arthur had just said. "OH!" he whispered again with more meaning.
"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, sitting back in the chair and gazing at him with fondness. "In light of the circumstances and the dozens of lives you saved, you have been pardoned for the use of magic, even though it is against Camelot's laws. You are no long a prisoner of the crown, no longer under threat of death, and are once more free to move about and do as you wish…provided you can actually get out of this bed and Gaius doesn't catch you."
Carefully, Arthur rerolled the parchment and then handed it back to him. Merlin took it, holding it close, all his emotions threatening to spill over.
"You're safe, Merlin, I promise," Arthur whispered, leaning over to squeeze his shoulder before rising to his feet. "Now, get better, because I really meant what I said about the state of my chambers. How am I supposed to get anything done in there while my lazy servant spends all his time in bed? Besides, I've got new laws to write, and someone with magical experience will have to read over them and make them presentable."
"Fix your spelling, you mean," Merlin said, the jab slipping out naturally along with an actual, real smile.
"Shut up, Merlin. I don't want to have to fire you two minutes after I just rehired you!" the king said, rolling his eyes as he left the room.
"Arthur?" Merlin suddenly called, and was happy to see the prince step back, leaning his head once more into the small chamber.
"Thank you," Merlin breathed. "Just…thank you."
"No, Merlin," Arthur replied, suddenly serious and kingly, "thank you."
Arthur disappeared back into his own rooms while Merlin – with the document clutched to his heart – drifted off to sleep once more, his dreams finally peaceful.
And in the world all around, for the first time in a quarter century, magic smiled.