So, I wasn't planning on continuing this, but after reading some comments, I came up with some more plot. Here's a short chapter while I work on the rest of it. I have at least one more in my head.
Uther is SUCH a fun character to write. Everything he does is so unpredictable, it's easy to stay in character. :)
Thanks for all of the lovely reviews! Keep them coming, everyone!
Arthur sat beside the window, chin resting in the palm of his hand. He peered into the street far below. The day's bustle was winding down as the sun set over Camelot's walls. He hadn't moved in quite some time. He couldn't help but worry that Merlin hadn't made it out. Perhaps he hadn't found the loose stone. It had been his suggestion that Arthur lock it behind him, to give the illusion that Merlin had magicked himself out. He would have been stuck, with nowhere to turn. The guards could have found him...
Arthur shook himself. It was pointless to worry. Either Merlin got out or he didn't. If he had, there was a spot in the forest Arthur knew he would head to first. If he got the chance, Arthur planned to sneak out late that night to reassure himself of their plan's success. He sat back and rubbed his temples, forcing himself to relax. There was nothing to do but wait.
There was a knock on the door.
"Yes?" said Arthur.
A page stepped in and bowed. "His Royal Highness, the king, to see you, sir."
Arthur tried not to groan. His father was the last person he wanted to see right now. He nodded—a mere formality, as Uther would certainly have entered whether Arthur gave permission or not.
The page bowed out, and in came the king. Arthur watched him apprehensively. He didn't look anywhere near as furious as he had at their last meeting. Uther met his son's eyes for a moment, then looked quickly away. He walked to the fireplace, placed a hand on the mantle, paused, walked across the room, folded his arms, heaved a sigh, and crossed the room again. Finally, he stopped, turned around, and made eye contact with the curtain three feet to Arthur's left.
"I have been thinking about our earlier discussion," he said. "I rather lost my temper, and I'm afraid I may have overreacted."
It was the closest Uther would come to an apology, and Arthur knew it. "I was out of line," he said automatically, but there was no feeling behind the words, nothing to suggest that he in any way regretted the things he had said.
Uther cleared his throat. He started to speak, stopped, then started again. "This warlock of yours, this… Merlin… He saved your life."
"There would have been no need to do so if you had only obeyed my orders in the first place," said Uther, and his voice took on a sharp edge. "The creature Sir Algernon reported is nothing compared with what you might have run into had you plunged any deeper into the Northern Caves."
Arthur had to conceal a sneer. Sir Algernon, the captain of the guard, was the one who had found Arthur that afternoon, pinned to the ground by an enormous, four-legged reptile. He had seen Merlin chant a spell and blast the creature away, and he had been the one to report the deed to the king, despite Arthur's insistence that he forget what he saw.
"For your disobedience," said Uther, "You are confined to this room until further notice. A servant will be up with supper in an hour's time."
Arthur glowered at the floor, but it wasn't worth arguing. He held his tongue.
"Now," said Uther, and he exhaled with a slow whoosh of breath. "What to do about the prisoner?"
Arthur raised his eyes. He hadn't expected this.
"If he truly did save your life…" Uther hesitated, and Arthur could see him struggle with himself. He didn't speak for a moment.
"A life for a life," offered Arthur in a low voice.
Uther paused and looked at his son. There was a zealous look in Arthur's eyes, an expression of such fierce determination. The king heaved a sigh. "Here is what I am going to do," he said.
He was interrupted by an urgent knock at the door.
"Enter," said Uther, turning his head.
A guard slid into the room and bowed quickly. "Your Highness," said the guard. "The boy we were sent to release. The warlock."
"Yes?" said Uther, concern clouding his eyes. "What of him?"
"He isn't there, Your Highness," said the guard.
Uther stiffened. "What do you mean he isn't there?" he hissed.
"He's gone," said the guard. "Vanished. Escaped, probably—but the lock is still secured and hasn't been damaged. We think he must have... magicked himself out."
Uther glanced over his shoulder at Arthur, who hoped he didn't look as guilty as he felt. Then, in a flurry of robes and curses, the king was gone.
Arthur was alone. What had he done? He had helped Merlin escape, thinking there was no hope for him. Fool! His father had been this close—this close to letting him go free.
After a moment's panic, Arthur leapt to his feet and chased Uther down the corridor. Down four flights of stairs and through a dimly lit passage, he finally caught up to him before the very same dungeon cell he'd visited hours earlier.
Uther and a few guards stood studying the scene. The cell door was locked tight, and, as the guard said, had clearly not been tampered with in any way. Arthur felt like an imbecile. Why couldn't they have left the door open? Arthur would have taken the blame for releasing him, but it was a small price to pay to save his friend's life.
"It had to be magic?" Uther was saying.
"It is possible that he managed to obtain the key by conventional means," said one of the guards, "and locked the cell behind him when he left."
"That's absurd. Why would anyone do that?" said Uther.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Father."
The king spun around, surprised. He hadn't heard Arthur approach. "I thought I told you—!"
"It was me. I released him."
"You've been in your chambers all evening." He narrowed his eyes. "And you'll return this instant, if you know what's good for you."
Arthur looked around, but the guard shift had changed since that afternoon. Anyone who might have witnessed him was gone.
"I came down here, first."
"Not now, Arthur." Uther put a hand to his head. "I know you want to protect him, but he is a criminal. This is the second time he has been known to use magic, and I cannot allow it to go unpunished."
"The first time was to save my life, and the second was to save his own!"
"A sacrifice on behalf of another may justify his crime," said Uther. "But to use illegal means to achieve his own ends only proves him to be cowardly and untrustworthy."
"But you were about to let him go!"
"And then he broke out of prison."
"Because he was going to die!"
Uther turned away. "Captain!"
Sir Algernon stepped forward.
"I want two of your men sent to the house of the boy's mother," said Uther. "See Gaius the physician for her whereabouts. Be sure they conduct a thorough investigation. If he has gone to her, she will surely attempt to hide him. Meanwhile, I want you to organize a local search party. He may not have gotten far."
Arthur stepped in. "I'll go," he said.
"You most certainly will not."
Arthur took a deep breath. "I know where he might be."
Uther turned fully around, eyes wide with anticipation. "You do? Where?"
"Let me go."
Uther's brow furrowed. "If you have information—"
"I'll talk to him," said Arthur. "Convince him to come back."
"You will do no such thing!" said Uther. "Tell me where to find him, and I will send guards to—"
"He will only evade your guards," said Arthur. "Easily. Father, he'll listen to me. He trusts me."
Uther paused, and his eyes flickered back and forth across Arthur's face. He was thinking it over. Then he lifted a solid finger and pointed at Arthur's nose. "If you find him," he said in a sharp voice, "you will place him immediately under arrest and transport him back to the castle as your prisoner. He will be sentenced upon arrival and, likely as not, put to death the following morning. Is that perfectly clear?"
Arthur swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes, sir."
"If I find out you have defied me again…"
Uther's gaze was hard. "Captain," he said, eyes still riveted on his son.
"Yes, my lord?"
"Go with him."
Arthur's heart sank. "Father, no."
"For insurance," said Uther. "If you want my trust, Arthur, you're going to have to earn it back. Besides, Sir Algernon may prove useful if the warlock turns violent."
The thought of Merlin turning violent would have been laughable had the situation not been so dire. Arthur could only nod his reluctant assent. "We depart tonight," he told Algernon, "with enough provisions for three days. We should reach the spot by tomorrow afternoon."
"Tomorrow?" said Uther. "Is it so far away?"
"He believes it to be safe from any discovery," said Arthur. In a weaker voice, he added, "I am his sole confidant."
Uther seemed to approve. "Very well," he said. "Depart tonight."
"Have horses and provisions ready for us in one hour," Arthur said to the captain. "If we make good time, we may even reach the spot before he does."
Algernon bowed. "It shall be done, Your Highness."
Bonus fun stuff! A mini-outline tacked onto the end of this document before I finished writing the whole thing. I must have jotted it down in the middle of the night so I wouldn't forget, but I don't really remember writing it, and then there it was, floating at the end of the page. Anyway.
UTHER SAYS BLAH WE WILL KILL HIM CAPTAIN GO FETCH HIM
ARTHUR SAYS NOOO WHAT ABOUT OUR AGREEMENT
HE HAS USED MAGIC TO BREAK THE LAW FOR THE SECOND TIME
WELL THEN LET ME GO GET HIM
NO FRIGGIN WAY
I WILL BRING HIM BACK HE WILL LISTEN TO ME HE WILL ONLY EVADE YOUR GUARDS WITH HIS MAGIC
HMMM WELL OKAY BUT CAPTAIN SO N SO IS GOING WITH YOU
DAMN I HATE CAPTAIN SO N SO