"Life´s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
When the guards had closed the door to Aredian´s sparsely lit chamber, the witch finder took his time and slowly paced around the room where the boy could not see him. A cat could not have looked more pleased to have cornered a mouse, than Aredian did now. Merlin played the mouse part excellent at this moment; he stood absolutely still, as if he would have invited an attack with his slightest movement.
He fixed his eyes on a dark spot on Aredian´s desk. "It must be ink, mustn´t it? It could not, must not, be blood….. do not think, do not move, concentrate, just concentrate on controlling your fear and your magic. Do. Not. Do. Anything. Stupid."
This time he was not invited to sit down. In fact, there was no chair at all but Aredian´s own behind the dark oak desk. So Merlin just stood in front of the desk, trying to breathe very calmly but he could not help clenching his fists by his side. It kept his hands from trembling. Strange, that he had encountered the Dragon, evil magic beasts and even soldiers with swords in their hands, but this single man made him shiver to the bones more than any other threat.
"So! My little sorcerer…" Merlin could not help to start from Aredian´s sudden voice right behind his back. The witch finder walked unnervingly close by him to the other side of the desk.
"I am not a sorcerer!" Merlin said fiercely and raised his gaze to Aredian´s. The sudden anger gave him a steady voice and even made him take a step towards the desk. The witch finder just glanced through some papers, apparently not having heard the young boy´s answer.
Merlin´s anger vanished as rapidly as it had surfaced. What was this horrifying man up to? What rules had this interrogation game?
Aredian looked up from his papers and it was the hint of a smile on his face, which sent a chill through Merlin.
"He enjoys this", he thought, "and there are no rules but those he makes up and changes for his benefit. I cannot win this. Oh Gaius, what shall I do?"
But Gaius was not there to help him.
"Well, it´s only afternoon. We have the whole long evening before us, you and I, and then we have the dark night and after that a fresh new day begins….. the sooner you confess, the shorter our time together will be. And somehow, I have a feeling that you won´t enjoy the hours with me. Confess now and you will save yourself considerable discomfort."
After this little speech, Aredian leaned backwards in his chair and fixed his pale cold eyes on Merlin´s face. Merlin shifted uncomfortably, wetted his lips and tried to find his voice again.
"You wouldn´t call to be burnt at the stake a ´considerable discomfort´?" he asked as flatly as he could.
"You don´t understand, do you boy?" Aredian kept his piercing gaze on Merlin.
"I know you are a filthy sorcerer, I just need your confession for the king so he can pass the rightful sentence upon you. But you will die, be sure of that. The only question is whether it will be slowly in this chamber or rather quickly in the court yard. And of course, how many of your friends who will die together with you."
"What?" Merlin stared at him.
"You can´t save yourself, but you have a chance to save that untrustworthy Gaius… or perhaps the suspect little lady Morgana. If I look into the matter, I´m sure I´ll find even more witch weed in Camelot to root out."
Merlin´s heart raced, his stomach knotted and he felt bile rise in his throat. His thoughts twirled around in his head – oh dear Gods, what kind of a devilish trap was this? He tried to show nothing – especially not the panic he felt - on his face while his mind rushed febrile.
"Can I really bargain my life for my friends? What stops him from going after them when I confessed… the more confessions he extracts, the more gold he gets. But perhaps he is content with my confession…Arthur will surely speak up for Morgana…"
And then he almost stopped breathing.
What would Arthur say, what would he think if he heard Merlin confess that he was a sorcerer? In an instant, the only thing Merlin could see before him was the look in Arthur´s eyes when he learned that his trusted manservant, his friend, his….. had lied all this time. That Merlin was all that Camelot hated, that he was the very weed they seeked to root out.
No, he could not do that. He could not bring himself to say anything that would hurt Arthur. And the longer he could hold out, the longer time for Gaius, Morgana, Gwen, Arthur to plead with Uther, to think of a plan, to save them selves.
The only question was how much time he would be able to buy. How much of what Aredian had in mind for Merlin could he take? There was only one way to find out.
Merlin looked firmly at Aredian, took a deep breath and said:
"I am sorry, but it must have been some mistake. I am not a sorcerer. I have nothing at all to confess. Oh well, maybe that I have eaten some leftover cherry pie from the Prince´s plate occasionally. Sorry – my mistake". He added the last with a sparkling smile and a defiant look in his eyes.
Aredian rose from his chair with a viper´s swiftness. His expression was a terrifying mix of anger and triumph – as if he behind his anger also was delighted that his victim had not succumbed by the pressure so easily. Before Merlin could see what was coming, Aredian had backhanded him so forcefully that he staggered and almost fell to the side.
"You filthy little whore witch, I´ll teach you manners. Stand up!"
Merlin dizzily straightened himself, with his head ringing (please stop) and gingerly touched his mouth. His lower lip was split and he tried in vain to wipe off the blood that trickled down his chin. Oh Gods, it hurt! The man certainly had a hard hand.
He had barely steadied himself before he got the next hard slap in the face – this time on his right side of his mouth instead of his left. This broke his lip in a new place and when he stood up, his eyes stung with tears and his lips were as blood red as if he had painted them.
It was too humiliating to cry before this cruel man who seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in hurting him. But Merlin could not stop some tears to run down his face and as he tried to wipe them off, they mixed with his blood and soon the lower part of his face was smeared with salty, stinging red. It did not matter what he said or did. Aredian would certainly slowly beat him to death. Merlin´s only hope was to prolong the process so… Arthur could save him? "Arthur! Please come! Save me! Forgive me."
Gaius almost bumped into Morgana when he hurried around a corner in one of the castle´s many corridors. She gasped and started backwards just in time for them to avoid the collision.
"Gaius! What´s the matter?" Morgana asked as she regained her breath.
"Aredian – the bloody witch finder – has taken Merlin! I must talk to Uther, he must stop this nonsense. Aredian will do anything to squeeze out a confession from Merlin. And I don´t know how to save the foolish boy." Gaius was uncharacteristically beside himself with agitation.
Morgana felt an ice cold hand gripping her heart. The terror of the interrogation came back to her. The witch finder. Cold eyes watching her with interest, almost amusement, as if she was an animal of some sort, to be dissected and reveal her secrets. No, not Merlin in this man´s hands!
"I´ll come with you to Uther", she said. "But I don´t know what we can say to persuade him that Merlin is innocent and must be released."
"Where is Arthur? Perhaps he can talk to his father."
"He is out on some hunting party again. I think that he just wouldn´t be bothered with this whole witch finder thing. I don´t know when he will be back." Morgana looked at Gaius and suddenly they both were filled with the same feeling of despair. Why did it feel like they were inside a big hour glass in which the sand would soon cover them and suffocate them?
Aredian walked slowly around the skinny dark haired boy. Arthur´s young manservant stood with his head lowered a little and his shoulder tense, like as if he expected to be hit again anytime. He was right. Suddenly Aredian reached out, grabbed Merlin´s shirt and pulled him close.
"I will break you. I will make you beg me to stop. You will be screaming confessions before I let the executioner have you." Aredian said in a low voice, his breath hot and sour on Merlin´s left cheek. His eyes met Merlin´s. The boy´s eyes seemed to glimmer with gold for an instant, and Aredian felt a bit queasy – but surely it must have been one of the torches reflecting in the boy´s eyes? And Aredian had not have any dinner yet, so it was understandable that his stomach reminded him of it´s existence.
"No, no, no! Control, I must control myself. No magic, not now, he mustn´t know, no one must know, control, control, do nothing to provoke him anymore. He can do anything, I must inure myself." Merlin closed his eyes and tried to breathe calmly, tried to imagine himself under a big willow near the river, relaxing in the green grass….. it all shattered when Aredian shook him violently and throw him to the ground.
"On your feet!" Aredian shouted, "Get on you feet NOW! And don´t try any tricks on me, don´t try to be clever or I´ll smack that smart little slut mouth of yours again!"
He went to the chamber´s door, opened it and spoke quietly with the guards outside. Merlin staggered to his feet as quickly as he could. He did not dare to look at the door or Aredian who went back to the chair behind the desk.
"So", Aredian said and took up a quill and started to write on a new paper, "where did you get this magic bracelet from?" He stopped and looked at Merlin.
"I – I don´t know anything about it. Sir." Merlin tried to be as meek as possible in his voice and stance.
"Who gave it to you?"
"No one gave it to me, sir. I have never seen it before."
"So Gaius put it in the jar?"
"N-no sir, he is no sorcerer either!"
"So where did you get it from?"
"I have never seen it before, sir. As I said."
Aredian sighed and got up from his chair. Too late Merlin realised that his last reply was seen as insolence. The hard punch he got in the stomach made him bend over and then Aredian´s fist hit him in the face. When he fell to the ground he heard the witch finder´s voice:
"My dinner will be served soon. Don´t make me loose my appetite with your lies or with your snivelling."
When Aredian passed Merlin´s crouched body, he kicked him careless in the belly and walked to a washing stand where he started to wash his hands.
On the floor, Merlin tried to stop a whimper and to get his breath back – not an easy task.
"This will be a long evening. Maybe I should wish for my body to give in before my mind does."