Sunlight. The golden trickling in the water must be the sunlight. He was floating in the deeps, slowly revolving in the lukewarm water surrounding him and feeling completely at ease. The light got brighter and brighter as he moved towards the surface, and the he suddenly broke the water surface with a gasp for air.
Merlin opened his eyes. He saw a wall painted in soothingly cream white and he was on his stomach, resting on something soft and smooth. Around him, there were light sounds of persons moving about and he heard muffled voices and from a distant the soft summer-like twitter of birds. Drowsily, he turned his head so he rested on his right cheek instead of his left – and immediately sucked in his breath with a start. Only five or six inches from his face there was another face! Blue half-open eyes looked at him and with a genuine smile the blue-eyed and fair-haired young man said:
Merlin´s first instinct was to throw himself out reach for the man but the next moment he recognized Arthur: friend. He relaxed.
Resting on his elbow, Arthur shouted:
"Gaius! He´s awake!"
After that, he sunk back on the bed and continued to look into Merlin´s eyes while he stretched out a hand and gingerly touched the dark hair, the temple, the cheek and last – very lightly – Merlin´s swollen lips. The smile vanished from Arthur´s face and instead his lips hardened and he clenched his jaw.
"Fuck the bastard", he said between gritted teeth, "I wish I could run my sword through him ten times more, that I could rip him open and tear out his worthless guts and burn them!"
Slowly but inevitable, like a great wave moving from sea to shore, it all came back to Merlin: himself on his knees with tied wrists, the switch falling mercilessly on his body, someone breathing heavily against the back of his neck while a penetrating pain rose from his arse into his inners as he was….. penetrated…. by... Aredian.
The memory filled his mind and body until he could hardly breathe. Beaten. Broken. Violated. Soiled. Humiliated. He could not stand Arthur´s gaze upon him anymore, so he screwed up his eyes but could not stop himself from shivering.
Gaius had put up a screen with curtains to shield Merlin´s bed from the rest of the hospital chamber, even though Merlin was the only patient at the moment. The boy´s wounds were not severe but the many cuts and the dried blood on his thighs and between his buttocks, indicated that he had been maltreated in a way that had hurt his soul as well as his body.
To Gaius´ experience, this kind of abuse made the victim feel extraordinarily vulnerably and, more often than not, filled with unjust self-accusations. Gaius had a feeling that the best thing for Merlin right now was a bit of seclusion and privacy, but he had not been able to keep the prince from the boy´s side.
Arthur had simply refused to leave Merlin, and had hold his friend´s head when Gaius poured some herbal drugs in Merlin´s mouth to take away the pain and put him to a deep sleep. When Gaius had washed Merlin and put some healing oils on the whipmarks, Arthur had held the unconscious boy´s hand, and he awkwardly looked away when Gaius very carefully put a greased pipette between Merlin´s buttocks and repeatedly dripped something in his friend´s anus.
Together they had managed to move Merlin from the table where Gaius dressed the wounds to the large bed behind the screen. Without a word Arthur had pulled off his jerkin and his hunting boots, emptied two cups of red wine from Gaius´ decanter, lain down beside Merlin on the bed and grabbed his hand. As Gaius had sighed and closed the curtain, Arthur had drifted into sleep.
Now the old man hurried to the bed, pulled the curtain aside and saw the prince holding his servant´s left hand with a worried expression.
"Merlin! Merlin! Come on, it´s only me. It´s alright, you´re safe now, the bastard is dead, no more hurting, I swear, please Merlin!"
Arthur´s voice had risen to a shrill, childish pleading and he looked more frightened than comforting when he watched Merlin shiver and shake with his eyes screwed up and tightly pursed lips.
"Gaius, what´s happening? What can I do?"
Arthur turned his helpless face to Gaius and looked like he was on the verge to start crying.
"Move, sit up on the edge of the bed but don´t let go of his hand." Gaius did not care about addressing the prince in a courtly manner; here and now Arthur was no more and no less than a friend.
As Arthur swiftly did as told, the physician touched Merlin´s forehead, stroking it very lightly with the tips of his index and long fingers. He slowly spoke with a soft voice:
"Merlin…. Merlin….. come back. Come back to your friends. We are here to take care of you. You are safe. Merlin….. Merlin...".
Gaius repeated the words again and again in his soft tone, like a hypnotic spell. He kept stroking Merlin´s forehead.
Arthur did not know how long they sat like that, but in the end Merlin´s body calmed down and his face relaxed and he even opened his eyes. Gaius smiled and looked into Merlin´s eyes with warmth.
"Thank you, Merlin. You are doing fine. You will heal."
There was silence again. No one moved. The only sound heard was the distant twitter from outside. A soft breeze from an open window made the curtain billow a little. The walls caught the sunlight and embedded the room in a warm brightness. The room was the very symbol of friendliness and peace. Yet it was full to overflowing with sadness.
"I´m thirsty. And hungry."
With a hoarse, almost cracking voice, Merlin broke the silence. Arthur and Gaius both looked as he had given them an expensive, long-wished-for gift.
"Of course, you have slept more than 24 hours without stirring. And before that you didn´t got much to eat or drink, I guess…" Gaius broke off.
He hastily rose from the bed and went for the door.
"I´ll send one the servants to get you both some food, and to tell Lady Morgana and Gwen that you´re awake."
He turned as he just remembered something and continued:
"And oh, Arthur, your father sent four messengers here while you slept. I told them that you had to rest and that neither you nor Merlin will be in any condition to answer questions before tomorrow. The king still wants to see you as soon as possible – he wants some explanation of the circumstances about Aredian´s death, I think."
With these words, Gaius turned his heel and left the room.
"Let him wait!" Arthur snarled. "He seemed in no hurry to get you out from that torture chamber!"
Then he looked at Merlin and his expression softened.
"I don´t think that I´ll ever forgive myself for not taking you with me that morning. But I was just so angry, and then when you cried my name in the forest I woke and…." Arthur´s voice died away in embarrassment and he stared at the linen sheet with a sudden interest.
There was an awkward silence, but Merlin now watched Arthur with a strange glint in his eyes.
"Did you hear me cry out your name – in you dream?" he asked.
"Uh, well, yes, must have been… sort of a dream, I guess." Arthur´s face had taken on a reddish colour.
"I did call for you, Arthur. When …he beat me, I wished for you to save me."
Arthur raised his gaze to meet Merlin´s, but it now contained more fear than embarrassment.
"You... you don´t think it´s sorcery somehow, do you? I mean, that you cried and I could hear it, although we were miles away from each other?"
A shadow went over Merlin´s face and the glint disappeared from his eyes. He just looked weary and sad.
"No, I don´t think it was anything magic. Just some bond between two…. friends."
Arthur looked relieved and he impulsively reached for Merlin´s hand again. Before he could think, he had grabbed the long, smooth hand and kissed it, and his eyes filled with tears. He leaned forward and pressed the backside of Merlin´s hand to his brow and eyes. With a great sob the dam broke and warm tears steamed down Merlin´s hand as his prince cried like his chest was ready to burst.
Merlin´s eyes also spilled over with tears, but they just ran quietly down his cheeks and wetted his pillow.
"How can I tell him about me…. a sorcerer…. what I said to that evil man to please him….. Oh, shit, Aredian destroyed me, he destroyed everything!"
He closed his eyes, could not stand watching the man he so longed for, cry so hard for his sake – he was not worth it. Not anymore.
Arthur´s wild crying calmed down and he let go of Merlin´s wet hand and tried to dry his face from tears, snot and saliva with his shirtsleeve.
"Sorry I lost it. But when I saw you chained and bloody all over on that floor, I mean, it was like my heart broke. I thought you were dying!"
Without opening his eyes, Merlin said:
"Hey, don´t say that!" Arthur sounded so upset that Merlin opened his eyes again, but the prince continued:
"Why, oh, I mean, are you in so much pain? I´m sorry, I forgot you´re thirsty. I´ll get you some water!"
Without waiting for an answer, Arthur jumped up from the bed and then Merlin could hear the unsorted noises of clay cups rolling on a table, something breaking and muffled swearing.
Merlin could not help smiling a bit to himself.
"At least there is one person in Camelot who would be a clumsier servant than me."
"Do you think you could manage to sit up a bit?" Arthur put down a jug and two cups of different sizes on the small table beside the bed. Carefully, Merlin drew himself up on his right elbow and shifted so he rested more on his side than on his belly. As soon as he was moving, his body started to make itself reminded with a dull ache. The effect of the painkilling drug was obviously decreasing. When he moved his legs, a sharper, deeper pain shot from his behind and he groaned. How badly had that beast torn him inside?
Arthur handed him the largest cup with a worried face and then sat down on the bed again. He reached for the other cup and they drank their water in silence.
"Thank you", Merlin said and gave his cup back to Arthur, who put it on the table. Merlin had drawn the sheet up to his armpits since he was completely naked, and now laid down again on his side with a new groan of pain. He folded his right arm under the pillow where he rested his head, and looked at Arthur. They studied each other in silence.
Without letting go of his gaze, Arthur laid down on his left side beside Merlin. He then softly took Merlin´s left hand in his right and they locked fingers. They simply rested there, no one moving, no one saying anything. But something happened, something changed between them there and then. They lost track of time.
Merlin felt like his heart had been chilled to ice and now slowly started to warm again.
Arthur opened his mouth and began:
"Merlin…... do you think you could –"
Suddenly there was a clamour outside the chamber, and the next moment the door swung open and Morgana and Gwen rushed inside, followed by a horde of servants carrying trays with covered plates and a big tureen, jugs filled with water and carafes with both red and white wine, a bowl of fresh fruit, a large basin filled with hot water, soap and towels.
Last man in was Gaius, with an expression between annoyance and amusement on his face.
Arthur had hastily stood up and received hugs from Morgana and even Gwen. When they saw Merlin´s bruised face and wrists, Morgana´s eyes filled with tears and Gwen audibly sucked in her breath.
"Oh Merlin, I am so sorry! Gaius and I tried to persuade Uther to let you go from the witch finder, but – but I ruined it all! I´m so very sorry…"
Morgana sat on the bedside and took Merlin´s hand. He smiled faintly and said:
"Could you all do me a favour? Please stop apologizing."
The king leaned back in his armchair, closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed his forehead. His son had let him – his father, his king! – wait five days before he had appeared in Uther´s private chambers, and on top of that Arthur had just raging accused him of that young Merlin´s sad fate. Of course it was very unfortunate that the boy had been abused by Aredian, but on the other hand, the man was now dead and had died by the prince´s hand.
"Arthur!" he said sharply and his son at last stopped pacing around and shut up.
"Arthur", Uther continued, "I regret that your servant –"
"His name is Merlin, and he is more than a servant!" Arthur snapped.
Uther sighed with demonstrative patience.
"- Merlin, was maltreated during Aredian´s interrogation. It was certainly not my intention; don´t you dare accusing me of allowing my subjects to be tortured. But as you know, witchcraft and sorcery are crimes that must be dealt with very seriously – if we treat them mildly we will soon have them infesting the whole country."
"And don´t forget that Aredian apparently found something which woken his suspicions. But since the boy is alive and Aredian is not, I want to know what happened that morning."
"It´s very simple, Sire." Arthur said haughtily, "When I entered the witch finder´s chamber, it was empty, but the things in there and….. the blood spots, made it clear what kind of ´interrogation´ that had taken place, and I called for Merlin."
"So when I saw a faint light from the keyhole of a door obviously leading to the next chamber, I took no risks, but had drawn my sword when I opened the door. And it proved to be the right thing, because first I saw Merlin on the floor, naked, chained and covered with blood, and the next moment a tall man attacked me with a dagger."
Arthur had now forgot his arrogant manner and instead sounded genuinely upset.
"I ran him through before I could think, it was pure instinct. It was him or me. But I can´t say that I´m sorry I killed him."
Uther looked at his son for a while without saying anything. Arthur did not look away.
"Well," the king said eventually and walked up to Arthur and put a hand on his shoulder, "since Aredian attacked the crown prince, he had forfeited his life anyway. I am very glad that you have a well-trained sword arm. And you have my permission to give your serv- to give Merlin what you think fit to pour some balm into his wounds, so to speak."
Uther patted his son a bit awkwardly on the back and at the same time mildly pushed him a bit towards the door.
"Well, now I hope that we´ve heard the end of this dreary business. Send my regards to Morgana and Gaius" the king concluded as he turned to his papers on the table. Arthur bowed stiffly and marched out without a word.
As Arthur walked down the corridors, he had to stop now and then and bang his fist into the wooden panels, into the tapestries, anything to let out some of his frustration from talking to his father.
"…´you have my permission´…" he muttered and gritted his teeth. "…´this dreary business´…"
"Yeah, right, Merlin gets whipped and frightened and beaten half to death and it´s all just a dreary business!"
Arthur slammed the door to his chambers and threw himself on his bed like an angry five year old. He breathed heavily against his pillows and pressed his face against them to let out a muffled scream. When he rolled on his back again panting, with a red sweaty face and tousled hair, he even looked a bit like five-year-old angry Arthur.
He stared up in the canopy as his breathing went back to normal. Why was he suddenly reduced to a screaming child this time? – it was not only his father´s behaviour, he was unhappily used to that. But something about what had happened to Merlin those long hours in Aredian´s hands, made him feel so utterly powerless and frustrated and filled with rage that he wished he could kill Aredian ten times over.
And then a memory hit him: the instant before Arthur thrust his sword through Aredian, the man had stopped in his attack, almost like something had struck him. That instant had given Arthur the time he needed to focus and to kill. What had happened? Had the man suffered from some heart failure or some sudden internal haemorrhage? Arthur thought of the pink foam coming from Aredian´s mouth – that had been very strange.
Then he shook his head, trying to shake off the image.
Anyway, Aredian had got less than he deserved, he thought. It was Merlin that was his concern now.
The feeling that something had changed between them that moment alone in the hospital chamber lingered. Arthur did not care anymore what Uther, the other knights - or anyone for that matter – would think or say. Merlin somehow belonged to him. He belonged to Merlin. It was right. He just wanted to mend what was broken in Merlin, to hold him.
The small room was in semi-darkness, the only candle making a soft glow, and Merlin lied in his bed curled on his side. Gaius came in with two mugs and sat in the cushioned chair he had put beside Merlin´s bed. Earlier, he had given Merlin some herbal decoction for easing the pain; he had carefully examined the boy´s rectal area and given him an ointment.
"You will heal, you know", Gaius said as he sat down in his chair and handed Merlin a mug of hot tea. He took a sip from his own mug and looked at Merlin.
Merlin nodded indifferently and sipped his tea in silence.
"I don´t know what that villain said to you – I´m sadly aware of what he did physically to you – but what ever it was, it was a pile of crap!"
At the last word Merlin looked up and raised his eyebrows; it was surprising to hear Gaius use such language. Then he shook his head.
"I know that in my mind, but in my heart there´s still doubt…. He.. he got me saying things I never thought would come from my mouth… I was so terrified, it hurt and I felt completely alone. I couldn´t even use my magic – until….. " He fell silent.
"But you found the strength in the last moment, didn´t you?" said Gaius quietly.
"I only half remember now what spell and force passed through me. It was something about lightning…. and blood."
"Well, well, that explains a thing or two." Gaius said dryly. "Before they threw Aredian´s body in an unmarked grave, I shortly inspected it. It looked like the man´s blood had started to boil in his veins before Arthur cut him down. No wonder he looked so horrified."
Merlin stared at Gaius who drank his tea with a neutral expression on his face.
"You mean – I – I cooked him?" he spurted out at last.
With a hard glint in his eyes that Merlin had never seen before in his mentor, Gaius replied:
"Perhaps that was the most suitable ending of his life, bearing in mind all victims he sent to the stake."
There seemed to be nothing more to say, so when they had finished their tea Gaius stood up and took their mugs, ready to leave. Before he left, he softly stroke Merlin´s hair.
"My boy, I am sorrier than I can say. Remember that the witch finder knew all about torture, including the torture of man´s mind. He tried to break you in every way, but you were stronger and more goodhearted than him. You have nothing to be ashamed of. The shame is all his."
With these words he left the room; the candle was still lit and the door ajar. With a sigh Merlin pulled the blanket to his chin and closed his eyes.
The summer progressed in heat and occasional thunder storms, and one particularly rainy night, Arthur sat alone in his chambers with too much wine for one man to drink and not make a fool of himself.
As Arthur had taken Uther by his words, Merlin had been released from the servant´s duties and Arthur and Merlin had spent a good deal of time together the past weeks, enjoying fishing, a bit of swords training (that is, Arthur trained and Merlin watched) or just idling about. Occasionally they talked to and had a laugh with Morgana and Gwen. But they had not returned to that tender moment in the hospital room. Neither had they touched the subject of the witch finder and his interrogation methods.
Arthur felt dreary at the moment. He filled another cup with the red, full-bodied wine and muttered to himself staring gloomily into the fire.
"I´m a total coward. An idiot. He´s right, I am a prat."
"So you´ve realised that at last! You know, it´s a sign of maturity."
Merlin´s sudden voice made Arthur´s heart to skip a beat. He turned his head and saw his friend lean against the doorpost with his arms folded and a friendly mockery face.
"Yeah, like you would know! Come in and do your duty and help me drink the wine!"
"Yes sir!" In an instant Merlin had closed the door behind him and thrown himself down in the chair next to Arthur, who poured him a full cup.
"To a dear prat I know!" Merlin raised his cup in a toast.
"To a lovely cheeky sod I happen to know! Arthur raised his cup too. They both grinned and drank.
They managed to keep their cheerful bickering as they emptied the first carafe of wine. But when they started on the second carafe, the pauses between the words became longer and longer and were not entirely due to increasing drunkenness. At last, Merlin locked eyes with Arthur and said:
"Why did you call yourself a total coward? You´re one of the most courageous men I know."
Arthur suddenly winced and managed to put down his cup before he spilled it´s content. He looked away.
"I... I didn´t think of you that day, that you could be in danger, before it was too late. I was an idiot to leave on a hunt like that. I could only think of myself and my anger."
"And weeks ago I started to do something I wanted to do, but then I felt ashamed and could not fulfil what I…. started. And all this time I haven´t had enough courage to ask you, so yes, I am a coward. A complete idiot."
"What did you want to do? Or ask me?" Merlin said cautiously.
Silence. Arthur still did not look at him.
"Did you want to know what he did to me? In detail? Perhaps you want to know if I really liked it? " Merlin was suddenly in a rage. He rose a bit unsteadily and stared at Arthur.
"Come on, admit it! Do you want to hear how he got a hard-on from beating me and how he pushed his prick inside me till I screamed with pain? Want to hear that I begged him to let me suck him, so he wouldn´t hurt me more! How he told me I was a whore and then was right? How he made me into NOTHING!"
The last word rang against the walls together with the clank of the thrown cup. Merlin let out some angry sobs and furiously tried to rub away his tears. Arthur had first stared horrified at him but now stood up and very lightly put his hands on Merlin´s shoulders.
"No", Arthur said, "he didn´t succeed. You are everything valuable. You are my most loved friend, very brave and very proud."
"And I don´t want to know anything that you don´t want to tell me. He was a torturer and rapist by profession and he used all his skill to try to break you. It had nothing to do with who you really are, your true self!" Arthur was almost overwhelmed by his need to comfort Merlin, to make him see clearly again.
Merlin still cried, but calmer now and when he looked into Arthur´s face, he saw only honesty and - love. Merlin took a small step into his friend´s arms and leaned his head against Arthur´s shoulder. Hesitantly at first and then very carefully like Merlin was a bird who could be scared away by any sudden movement, Arthur put his arms around him. They stood embracing like that for a long time while Merlin´s crying slowly died out. Then the only sounds heard in the room were the fire´s crackling and the rain against the windows.
Merlin raised his head but kept his arms around Arthur´s waist. Their faces were very close and both men felt the other´s wine breath.
Arthur hardly dared to breathe as Merlin put his lips to his. Very lightly they pressed their lips together, then a little harder and then it was a real kiss.
Arthur opened his mouth a little and just let the slightest tip of his tongue touch the other boy´s lips, and Merlin responded by parting his own lips a bit. The kiss became a very long one.
"This is was I wanted to do!" Arthur said when they stopped kissing for a second, and then they continued.
Neither of them was aware of how they had gotten to Arthur´s bed, but there they were and Merlin pulled off Arthur´s shirt. Then he started to pull off his own but froze with the hem at his nipples.
Arthur stretched out on his bed and said quietly:
"It´ s alright, do as you please. We´ll take this very, very slowly. We´ll do what you want."
When Merlin hesitated, and seemed stuck without pulling the shirt either way, Arthur added:
"I know you must have scars, I saw the wounds. I don´t care, you know that I have scars too. They are alright."
"Yes, but you got yours in battle. I was just….. abused."
Merlin nonetheless took off his shirt and looked questing at Arthur, like he searched for any sign of distaste or disdain in his face. But Arthur just shook his head and held out his arms for Merlin. As they nuzzled in the warm bed, just feeling the pressure of the other´s warm skin against the breast, Arthur mumbled in Merlin´s ear:
"The wise man doesn´t show off his scars with pride but doesn´t hide them in shame either, because all people get scars in life. I got mine in one kind of battle; you got yours in another kind of battle. Who is to say which one is more glorious? It´s easy enough to defy an enemy with a sword in your hand, but you stood up to your enemy alone and unarmed. That´s courage."
"Not exactly unarmed." Merlin thought. "But how can I tell him that?"
With closed eyes but not sleeping, he and Arthur lay quiet waiting for the dawn.