Title: This Dark Road Will Lead Us Where We Want to Be
Summary: When a visiting noble attacks Arthur with the intent to kill, Merlin is forced to openly use magic to save his life. With execution less than twenty-four hours away, a desperate Arthur tricks Merlin into binding their souls in order to prevent his death as a sorcerer. But the soul-bond has some unexpected consequences, and when Uther demands that Arthur unbind his soul so he can carry on with the execution, the two set out on a journey to find answers. Along the way they deal with the ramifications of Merlin's deception, discover some truths about their growing feelings for one another, and are forced to make some huge decisions that could have an impact on their lives forever.
Spoilers/Warnings: Everything up to and including 2x13
Word Count: 7,300
Disclaimer: This is 100% fictional. I do not own them, much as I might like to.
Authors' Note: This is my submission for this year's Merlin Big Bang (paperlegends LJ community). A huge thank-you to my most fantastic betas: adelagia, lemniciate, and awakencordy for their support, encouragement and helpful advice/suggestions. I also need to thank my awesome artist itzcoatl (I will link back to her artwork when it's relevant in the fic).
Just so you know, this story is 100% complete, but due to the length (over 90,000 words), I've decided to post it in sections. I'll probably post the next chapter every 2-3 days. I hope you enjoy, and concrit is always welcome!
This Dark Road Will Lead Us Where We Want to Be
He waited, perched in a tree, covered by the shadow of a slowly fading night. The cold chilled his bones, but he neither felt nor cared about that minor detail. He had more important things on his mind, namely keeping an eye on the trail, eagerly anticipating the travellers he knew were on their way. There was only so much time left before everything would finally fall into place.
He'd been patient for so long; the thrill of the impending hunt coursing through his veins like the steady beat of a drum pounding against his skull. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure - the knowledge that years' worth of planning and waiting were about to culminate into a few very short moments, while the satisfaction of a job well done would last for the rest of his life.
It was simple. Painfully simple, almost. And the best part was knowing that there would be no one to stop him.
Cracking his knuckles with purposeful calculation, he sat back and turned his eyes to the road once more.
It would not be long now.
Light streamed through the small slit in the curtains when Arthur Pendragon climbed out of bed that morning. It was still early, he knew, but he'd been having a hard time sleeping after waking from a series of bad dreams. He wouldn't go so far as to call them nightmares, but they were bothersome enough that Arthur wasn't able to get back to sleep following the most recent one. Instead he'd lain awake, staring up at the ceiling, until finally giving up on the hope of sleeping again.
He eventually sat up, tossing aside the covers and stretching his tired muscles. A moment later, Arthur slid off the edge of the bed, feet hitting the cold stone floor with a light slap. Padding his way over to the windows, he began to draw back the curtains, allowing the first of the morning's rays to filter into the room.
Merlin wouldn't be arriving soon, Arthur knew, even if he somehow decided to show up on time for once. So that left Arthur to his own devices. He considered going out for an early morning training session, which usually helped on nights when he wasn't able to sleep. But he would then require a bath afterwards, and Merlin was slow enough in the morning with his breakfast as it was, never mind giving him the added pressure of preparing a bath.
Instead, he dressed, tidied up his chambers (someone had to do it, after all), and decided to read a book. It'd been sitting on his shelf for months, or possibly even years, and he'd always wanted to read it, but just never found the time. Contrary to what some people thought, Arthur was not entirely boorish and did, in fact, enjoy reading a good story on occasion. And seeing as he was pointedly trying not to dwell too much on the previous night's dreams, this seemed like the perfect temporary distraction.
The minutes passed by quickly, and soon Arthur found his stomach was beginning to growl.
Much to Arthur's great surprise, Merlin actually arrived in his chambers on time, and with a freshly prepared breakfast, which was an added bonus. Arthur was impressed. Then he reminded himself that this was what normal servants did on a regular basis, and tried to quell the small surge of appreciation that'd suddenly welled up within him.
However, it was quickly apparent as his manservant entered the room that in spite of his timely arrival, not all was well with him. In a nutshell, Merlin truly looked a sorry sight: rumpled clothes, hair sticking up in every which direction, and bags under his eyes.
Merlin eyed him with mild curiosity, smiling nonetheless. "Since when do you read?"
But Arthur had other thoughts on his mind. "What the hell happened to you?" he asked, with his usual air of sensitivity as he placed the book down on the table beside him.
Merlin shot him a glare as he shut the door with the kick of a foot. "Good morning to you too, sire," he said, voice laced with sarcasm. "You're looking well. How did you sleep last night?"
Arthur tried not to roll his eyes at Merlin's insolence, reaching for the pair of boots he planned to wear today instead, forgotten previously. "Not well," he answered, even though the question had been asked in jest. "But better than you, it would appear."
Merlin stared at him disbelievingly, frozen in place on the floor as he balanced Arthur's breakfast tray on one hand. "I didn't realise you cared."
"I don't," Arthur said, waving a hand dismissively, as if it were a preposterous idea. But then, just to entirely disprove his point, added, "So, what happened?"
Merlin shrugged half-heartedly and started laying out Arthur's breakfast for him. "Nothing really. I just couldn't sleep."
"Looks like more than just not sleeping to me," Arthur remarked, because he certainly didn't care one way or the other.
"Well, it was a combination of not sleeping and having terrible nightmares when I did manage to fall asleep." Merlin shrugged again. "It wasn't the greatest night, but I've had worse."
Arthur finished slipping on his boots and turned his attention back to Merlin. Pointing at Merlin's chest and then hair he raised a single brow in question. "That still doesn't explain why you look like you just came back from dallying around with a tornado."
A large plate filled with fruit and cheese and bread was set down in front of Arthur, and Merlin's lips quirked slightly in response. "Well, I finally managed to fall asleep a couple of hours ago and when I woke up, I panicked, because I thought I was late. So I sort of jumped out of bed, raced to the kitchens, and now I'm here."
"And you sleep in your clothes...?"
Merlin expelled a longsuffering sigh, as if explaining the madness of his mind was such a tedious chore. "Of course not. I dressed several hours ago when I thought I wasn't going to be able to fall back asleep. It just so happened that I did manage to sleep again and I wasn't about to change just for that."
Well, it made sense if one was well schooled in Merlin-logic, which Arthur happened to be. With a shrug of his own, Arthur reached out and plucked a piece of cheese off the platter in front of him, gesturing for Merlin to take a seat across the table. Merlin sat obediently, never one to refuse free food, though Arthur technically hadn't offered yet. "I suppose I can accept that, even if your reasoning is inherently flawed."
Merlin scoffed, but he smiled fondly at Arthur anyway. "So, what about you?"
"What about me?"
Merlin's eyes narrowed into a glare. "You said you didn't sleep well either. How come?"
"Oh. I also had nightmares last night. Nothing too bad, though," he said, purposely downplaying their impact so as to not unnecessarily worry Merlin. He had a penchant for overreacting to things.
"So, you had nightmares last night, and I had nightmares last night," Merlin muttered, scrunching up his face thoughtfully.
Arthur stared at him. "And you say it like that because...?"
"No reason." He paused, and then, "But do you think it means anything?"
Arthur considered this for a moment. It was possible, he supposed, though far more likely that it was nothing more than a coincidence. It wasn't as if it was uncommon for people to have bad dreams. "No. Only that we probably spend too much time together," Arthur decided, shooting a smirk in Merlin's direction.
Merlin looked over at him, affecting a false air of seriousness. "Yes, well, we'll have to do something about that then, won't we?"
Arthur tapped his chin thoughtfully, as though in a state of deep contemplation. "There are a large number of far more interesting people in this castle than you, Merlin. I'm certain I will have no difficulties finding someone else to spend my time with."
Now Merlin was grinning. "And there are so many people around that are far less of an arse than you-"
"Hey, watch it!" Arthur scolded, but had to bite back the smile all the same.
"So I shouldn't have any difficulties either," Merlin finished, without missing a beat.
"Who'd want to spend time with a simpleton like you?" Arthur said, reaching for an apple and taking a bite.
"Gaius, Gwen, Marion, Berta and Sarah from the kitchen-" Arthur ignored the uneasy feeling that settled over him at Merlin's list of friends, "- William from the stables, and you, apparently."
The feeling faded away. "Mmm, well you know what I always say," Arthur said, swallowing the bite of apple and taking another one. "There are loads of servants who can serve, but so few who are capable of making a complete prat of themselves."
Merlin didn't even bother to pretend as though he wasn't rolling his eyes. "You never fail to honour me, sire," he joked, and Arthur laughed openly.
Pushing his plate of fruits and cheese he nodded in Merlin's direction. "I can't eat all of this. They always send too much. Have some. Goodness knows you could afford to eat a bit more. Wouldn't want anyone to think I'm starving my manservant."
They'd had this conversation many times before, with Merlin always insisting that he did, in fact, eat. Quite a lot, even. It still didn't stop Arthur from feeding him every chance he got anyway. Nor had it stopped him from requesting that they send extra food up to his room most mornings and on the days when he planned on dining with Merlin.
"Thanks," Merlin said, grateful, as he snatched a handful of grapes from the tray.
And for a while, as they sat and ate, Arthur completely forgot about the dreams, enjoying simply being in Merlin's company.
"So, who are they?"
Arthur continued to walk in silence, ignoring the nattering voice following behind him as he and Merlin made their way to the courtyard to greet their arriving guests. In the morning kerfuffle, Arthur'd completely forgotten that they were expecting important visitors that afternoon until summoned by his father with the strict reminder to be available just past noon.
"It's none of your concern who they are, Merlin," Arthur informed him, tossing a quick glance in Merlin's direction as they stepped outside into the warm heat of a mid-summer afternoon's sun. "The only thing that need concern you is at least pretending to have some consideration for your station in this castle, and attempting to behave like a half-decent excuse for a manservant."
That effectively shut him up, though Arthur knew it would not last long. They wound their way down the steps to stand a few feet back from his father as they awaited the arrival of their guests. Several horses pulling various-sized carts, loaded to the brim with all sorts of lavish supplies and gifts, trotted to the centre of the court before the riders called them to a halt. As anticipated, Merlin managed to keep his mouth shut for approximately two minutes before Arthur could practically feel the boundless energy radiating from the man standing immediately behind his right shoulder.
"They look important, whoever they are," Merlin whispered against his ear, a warm puff of breath tickling the back of Arthur's neck.
Arthur refrained from rolling his eyes as his gaze fell on the carriage that housed their guest. King Terrant, from Southumbria, had travelled many miles in order to personally arrange an alliance with Camelot. The country was smaller than Camelot, but had grown leaps and bounds in the past decade, flourishing in every way possible, including the development and training of a fortitudinous army that only rivalled that of Arthur's own knights.
Southumbria was a land rich in both resources and military might, one that could one day prove to be a legitimate ally or rival for Camelot, depending on the circumstances. Uther wisely chose to ensure that the former came to fruition, having long since begun the preparations for negotiating an alliance with the land to the south of Camelot's borders. The solitary hesitation in making such an alliance rested in the significant fact that magic was not outlawed in Southumbria as it was in Camelot. It was a factor that'd weighed heavily on the king's mind for several years. But in the end, Uther decided that the risk of one day engaging the country in war was too great to be hampered by their overly lax laws in regards to the use of magic, and as long as they did not interfere with how Uther chose to reign, neither would he interfere with King Terrant's decisions, lest it cause potential harm to Camelot.
So, with a quiet reluctance he pushed forward with the negotiations in spite of this fact. At this point, the alliance had already been forged in every way that counted, save for the documents and official exchange to be made in person. That this gathering was little more than hammering out the final details made it no less significant for Camelot, and Arthur intended to demonstrate only the best his people had to offer. Which reminded him of the tall, gangly, inquisitive man still standing just behind Arthur, waiting for a response to his usual pointless comment.
"They are important," Arthur told him in a hushed voice, using a tone that typically implied shush, now is not the time to be prattling on about rubbish. To his great delight and immense shock, Merlin actually did shut up, and Arthur thought it was possible that miracles really did happen after all.
The king stepped out of his carriage, dark blue robes flowing down to his feet, swaying in the breeze as he made his way towards Uther and Arthur. Arthur had never actually met the king before, but it was apparent to him, even as the man neared them, that this was not King Terrant. According to Uther, the king was tall and sturdy, with broad shoulders and dark hair flecked with grey. The man advancing towards Uther was short and of a slightly bigger build. His face was rounded, a short trimmed beard outlining his chin, and hair long and red that hung limply when he removed the hood of his robe. Uther's smile faltered, eyes narrowing in suspicion, and with the tiniest of movements his posture shifted from one of welcome to one on the defence. The other man continued to march purposefully in his direction, seemingly aware but clearly unaffected by the king's reaction.
"Allow me to introduce myself, your highness," he said as he neared, bowing reverently before Uther, chin pressed down to his chest and eyes cast towards the ground. "My name is Lord Eyrbrich, and I am here on behalf of King Terrant of Southumbria."
Arthur watched his father, expression remaining equally suspicious. Uther nodded his head almost imperceptibly and folded his arms across his chest. "I apologise, but I was expecting King Terrant," Uther told him, sounding anything but apologetic.
Lord Eyrbrich took it all in stride, raising his eyes to quickly make contact with the king's and smiling broadly. "He as well, my lord. Unfortunately there was a crisis that he absolutely had to attend to personally. Not wanting to postpone the final negotiations for our alliance with Camelot, he chose to send me as a representative, your highness. A rider was sent ahead of our party to warn you of the changes, but I suppose something must have prevented him from arriving." The man frowned, scratching at his beard, a deeply thoughtful expression plastered onto his face for a moment. And then, as quickly as it'd arrived, the frown melted into a charming smile once more. "Regardless, I apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused you, but I hope you will consider rendering the final negotiations without meeting King Terrant face to face, my lord." He snapped his fingers then, and a second later, a young blond boy appeared obediently at his side, placing several documents into his awaiting hands.
"I have all the necessary documents ready for your perusal, should you require assurance of the legitimacy of these arrangements." Lord Eyrbrich held out the papers, passing them off to Uther for inspection. Uther accepted them with a measure of trepidation but his gaze still fell to the documents, scanning the first couple of pages. Lord Eyrbrich watched with interest, a confident smile quirking on his lips as he waited patiently.
Uther nodded after a minute, his face breaking out into a wide smile for the first time that afternoon. "Welcome to Camelot. We are honoured to have you here as our guests," Uther announced. He swept his hand out in a grand flourish, leading Lord Eyrbrich and the rest of his cavalry into the castle.
They spent the afternoon dining in the Great Hall, sharing an early dinner together before the plates were cleared from the table and the negotiations began. It seemed that Lord Eyrbrich was particularly eager to get the ball rolling, rushing through dinner distractedly and then making vague inquiries into when they were to begin their discussions. Most of the other servants had been dismissed from the hall, but Arthur purposely ordered Merlin to stay back and serve wine throughout the negotiation meeting.
As it turned out, the simple meeting they'd all anticipated became far lengthier and more extravagant than seemed strictly necessary. Uther, Arthur and several members of the king's council sat behind one table at the far end of the hall, while Lord Eyrbrich occupied a table directly across from them. It was not the standard fare for a gathering such as this, but upon request from Lord Eyrbrich, the seating arrangements were altered. Arthur wasn't quite sure what it was, but he found he was having a particularly difficult time paying attention today. Fortunately, Arthur was quite adept at masking his boredom and inattention from everyone else in the room. Everyone, save for Merlin, that was. Arthur didn't have the slightest clue as to how Merlin managed to figure him out so easily, when many others had tried and failed in the past. It would've been unnerving, except for the fact that sometimes Arthur secretly enjoyed knowing that he didn't always need to use words to tell Merlin things; he just knew them.
This, however, was not one of those times when Arthur appreciated Merlin being able to see through his act. "Enjoying the meeting, I see?" Merlin's whispered breath brushed the skin behind his ear as he poured more water into Arthur's goblet. Arthur jerked slightly, barely suppressing the snort threatening to burst through, and if they weren't in a public place under the watchful eyes of the entire council, Arthur might have elbowed him in reply. Hard.
Instead he plastered on a dissembling smile and gritted out, "Not as much as the 'meeting' you'll be enjoying after this one ends if you don't shut your trap."
Merlin bumped purposefully into Arthur as he moved from the table, shoulder knocking his lightly as he grinned in response, eyes dancing impishly, and Arthur really couldn't find it in himself to be annoyed, much as he knew he should. Sometimes Merlin was the only thing that made these horribly dull meetings tolerable. Not that he'd ever admit that out loud, of course.
More talk of borders and land disputes and grain exchanges continued, and just when Arthur thought it couldn't possibly get any duller, somehow it did. He knew that one day this would all be his responsibility, and Arthur took great pride in learning everything he would need to know in order to effectively run a kingdom. However, this was without a doubt one of the most ridiculously platitudinous kingdom ally meetings he'd ever had the displeasure of attending, and there was only so much he could do to keep himself awake, never mind actually focusing on the task at hand.
"Before we can finalise this deal, your highness, there is one final matter we must discuss," Lord Eyrbrich announced several tedious minutes later, folding his spindly fingers and placing them on top of the table. His smile twisted, the corners of his mouth pulling up ever so slightly, and there was something decidedly off-putting about the way he stared at Arthur before directing his focus once again towards the king.
"Of course," Uther said with a nod, gesturing for him to continue speaking.
Lord Eybrich cast a furtive glance in his advisor's direction before addressing the court once more. "We are aware of Camelot's stance on magic; however, King Terrant does not share the same sentiments." Lord Eyrbrich held up a hand before Uther could protest, indicating he had more to say on the matter; surprisingly, Uther remained silent. Arthur caught Merlin's eye for a moment, noting the anxious expression which had settled upon his features, but he shook it off as simply Merlin being Merlin.
"As a sign of good faith, we would merely request that you allow one or two of our sorcerers to make their homes within the borders of Camelot," Lord Eyrbrich carried on, sweeping a hand out in front of him.
Arthur's head darted to the side to take in his father's reaction to this request. As anticipated, Uther's eyes blazed dangerously. Still, when he spoke, it was with the refined coolness of someone who had been hardened by many years of difficult decisions, fury barely detectable in his tone. "Surely you recognise how absurd that request is. Magic is outlawed in Camelot," Uther explained, overly patient, as though this were the very first time he was sharing this well-known knowledge with anyone. "To allow sorcerers to reside within our borders would shatter the delicate balance I've managed to establish in the kingdom. There would be public fear and outrage; everything I've built would come crashing down. Your king must be aware of this fact. Why he would request such a thing is beyond my understanding."
Lord Eyrbrich smiled then, just the quick flicker of amusement passing over his face before it was the vision of perfect neutrality once more, but it was enough of a response to warrant question. It appeared almost as though he'd been expecting that response, and was pleased upon receiving it.
"You would prevent a merger with our country, simply because you hate magic?" he asked, the hint of a challenge in his words.
"This was not a term King Terrant and I agreed upon in all of our preliminary discussions," Uther responded, shifting in his seat, and stared hard at the man opposing him, eyes dark and angry. "He knows our stance on magic, and we agreed to leave that element out of the equation entirely. Why would he suddenly now go back on his word?"
Lord Eyrbrich laughed, a humourless pitch to his voice. He folded his arms defiantly across his chest and leaned forward in his seat. "Tell me, King Uther, do you hate all magic users as much as you hate magic itself?"
"You're out of line, Lord Eyrbrich," Uther cried, body poised to stand, though he remained rooted to the spot, fury etched into every angle of his face.
"You're right," Lord Erybrich agreed, pushing his chair back and rising to his feet in one fluid motion. "I am out of line." He stepped away from the table, sauntered casually around it, fingers trailing against the rough wood as he did so.
The air in the room was dank, suffocating, all of a sudden, and Arthur felt a chill creep unexpectedly up his spine. Something was not right here; not right at all. A foreboding sense of danger washed over Arthur as he watched Lord Eyrbrich take a step forward. At the same time that Uther stood from his seat, Lord Eyrbrich raised a single hand high above his head and started to chant words that were foreign to their ears as he advanced upon Arthur. He tried to push his chair back from the table, but found that he could do little more than stare helplessly at the man who carefully stalked towards him. Arthur's limbs felt heavy, as though someone had replaced his bones with concrete blocks, though he wasn't sure if his immobility was due entirely to magic, or if a pit of fear also weighed him down.
Guards rushed forward, attempting to seize hold of Lord Erybrich, but they seemed to run into an invisible wall as they neared the man, rendering any intervention useless. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin rushing forward from across the room, frantic and terrified, and he wanted to scream at him to get away from here, don't get yourself killed, you idiot, but found he was still unable to move a muscle.
Arthur knew in that instant that this was the end of his life; he would be murdered on the spot by a sorcerer with a grudge against his father, with no opportunity to even defend himself, as he sat in the Great Hall of his own home. He'd heard stories of people who'd come close to death, only to be saved at the last moment, how their lives had flashed before their eyes as they mentally prepared for their end. He'd heard the tales and yet, even though he'd been here before, he still had yet to have a similar experience. There were no chronological flashes of memories, or wondering 'what if?' He simply saw the faces of those who held a special place in his heart, as always. Arthur did not wish for his father or Merlin to watch him die, did not want to watch them witnessing his death. But at the same time, he was not a coward, and Arthur would not grant Lord Erybrich the satisfaction of turning away from him now, cowering behind hands or closed eyes, no matter what was about to happen.
Arthur expelled a breath - his final one, he believed - and was struck with the odd thought that he'd been here before, perhaps in a dream or a nightmare, and wondered if there might have been something he could have done different today to prevent this from happening. A moment passed, and then another, every muscle in his body tensing simultaneously, as he feebly braced himself for impact. Arthur heard a crackling sound, like thunder, and then a blinding white light burned his eyes, and he ducked his head, screwing his eyes shut lest he lose his vision all together. In those few moments following the flash, he heard several frantic screams, some more unidentified noises, and then nothing, as a warm wave of air seemed to encircle him. It took him another few seconds to register that he was still breathing, had not been attacked like he'd anticipated, was still alive and seemingly well.
When Arthur's eyes fluttered open again he saw two things immediately. The first was the body of Lord Eyrbrich, lying in a heap on the ground at his feet. Arthur didn't need to look twice to know that he was dead. The second thing he noticed was Merlin standing a few feet back, one arm pointed in Arthur's direction, wrist bent back and fingers splayed, looking perhaps even more terrified than he had earlier. Arthur caught his eye momentarily, and the haunted fear that radiated back at Arthur made his stomach clench as he struggled to put the pieces together.
"Guards! Arrest him for the crime of sorcery," Uther's booming voice tore through his thought process. Uther was pointing vaguely in the direction of his manservant, but Arthur knew there had to be some mistake. "He shall be executed at noon tomorrow as per the laws of Camelot."
But then Merlin dropped his hand, body slumped forward, looking utterly defeated as two guards roughly grabbed his shoulders and started to lead him away, and Arthur knew that this was, indeed, no mistake. Having finally managed to regain the use of his limbs, Arthur stood and shoved his chair back violently, vaulting over the table that separated him from Merlin.
"Have you lost your mind?" Arthur demanded, torn between rushing towards Merlin or his father.
The expression on Uther's face showed little more than pure and unadulterated disdain. "He has committed the crime of sorcery in this court, in front of all these witnesses."
Arthur stared, dumbfounded, mouth gaping and shoulders hunched forward as every muscle in his body constricted at once. "What?"
Uther's frown grew, familiar lines etched into the creases of his mouth. He gestured to the room, and then specifically at the body still resting on the floor near Arthur's feet. "Who do you think did all of this?" he asked, challenging.
Suddenly Arthur was hit with a barrage of recent memories working to make themselves comprehensible - lights, words permeating the space all around them, the crackle of the air as a bolt of electricity shot towards him, another voice warm and familiar, a warm glow suddenly surrounding his body, the anguished cry - it all smacked Arthur like a wave, the weight of the realisation throwing him both physically and mentally off-balance, and he had to lean over, grasp the table with white-knuckled hands to prevent himself from toppling over. Lord Eyrbrich had tried to kill him, and Merlin - Merlin, his clumsy, barely competent, and good-hearted servant - had saved his life. Using magic. He had protected Arthur and killed the Lord and he was now being arrested and sentenced to death.
"Take him away," Uther ordered with a flick of his wrist, gaze resting firmly on his son as Merlin was willingly dragged out of the room.
"But he saved my life," Arthur protested, voice sounding weak even to his own ears, and he took a step in Merlin's direction.
"He broke the law," was Uther's only reply, void of any sympathy, and the deep heaviness resting in the pit of Arthur's stomach grew tenfold.
Arthur couldn't think, couldn't understand what was happening or how things had gone so wrong so very quickly. The only thing he knew for certain was that he couldn't remain in that room any longer. Arthur tore off out the doors to the calls of his father, without the faintest idea of where he was going, only knowing he needed to get out of there right now. Two guards followed him down one of the halls, but eventually abandoned the cause, for reasons unknown to Arthur. But as he ran, only one thought hammered in a steady thrum through his veins: Merlin is a sorcerer, Merlin is a sorcerer, Merlin is a sorcerer...
Arthur had no idea where he was going, allowing his legs to lead the way while his brain lagged significantly behind. A million different emotions raced through his body, pumping through his veins like blood, threatening to overwhelm him. Merlin was a bloody sorcerer - the same man who broke as many dishes in one month as most servants did in a year, who couldn't hold his wine to save his life, who'd fallen asleep in Arthur's bed on occasion and instead of being repentant for it, had the gall to blame him instead. It didn't make any sense at all, and Arthur felt his head begin to ache with even the thought. Merlin had lied to him all this time. He'd deceived him and made Arthur look like a fool. The betrayal stung like the deepest of wounds, matched only by the anger he felt at having been lied to for the past two years. Yet when he stopped to think about it - and he did have to literally stop mid-pace to think in this state, as walking and higher order thought processes did not go with one another at the moment - the small, barely rational part of Arthur's brain asked him if all that much really had changed with this revelation, but he found he couldn't answer the question.
In the span of five minutes, Arthur's thoughts and emotions engaged in a violent war with one another, each fighting to take control of his mind. But in the end, the one that won out was fear - specifically the fear of Merlin being executed. No matter what he'd done, Arthur was still certain of two things: Merlin had saved his life at the expense of his own safety, and he could not fathom watching his father kill Merlin, traitor to the kingdom or not. He could figure out the rest of the details later. For now, though, all he knew was that in spite of his anger and in spite of the betrayal, Arthur was not willing to allow Merlin to die. With this decision hastily made, Arthur turned abruptly on his heel and headed in another direction, quickly finding himself standing at the threshold of Gaius' chambers.
In the short few minutes it took for Arthur to walk the familiar path, he managed to tame his mind, pushing down every counterproductive thought and forcing himself to focus not on what had happened (Merlin was a sorcerer; Merlin lied to me; Merlin's going to die), but on what to do now. There were only three options, as far as Arthur had been able to work out, though none of them were overly appealing. The first was that he broke Merlin out of jail and got him out of Camelot somehow. It would likely be next to impossible, but there was at least a small chance of success, and if he was doomed to die anyway... Arthur shook his head, perishing the thought. The second possibility was that Arthur issued a challenge to Uther for the throne. It was a completely mad idea, one that didn't even make sense to contemplate, so he tossed it out as well. The final possibility was that Arthur did nothing and simply allowed Merlin to die. Naturally, this was not an acceptable option for him, so the only reasonable choice was number one.
It was logical to assume that Merlin must've had some sort of magical items or spell book or something in his chambers, and Arthur decided that it was imperative that he gain possession of any and all of those items - both to protect Merlin and to see if there might be anything amongst his belongings that might help him escape out of Camelot. It was with that thought in mind that Arthur barrelled into the physician's chambers wordlessly, determined, focused, restless energy radiating from every pore of his body as he strode purposefully towards Merlin's room, ignoring Gaius's presence entirely.
"Sire?" Gaius' voice trailed after him, confusion and the first hints of concern evident in his tone, but Arthur paid him no heed as he burst into the back room, not knowing what he was looking for, specifically, but knowing that Merlin had to have some sort of magic trinkets, or something, somewhere here. His father would come looking for them, he knew. It would be another nail in his coffin, and Arthur had to find whatever it was Merlin owned before his father's guards did.
"Where does he keep it?" Arthur barked, possibly to himself or possibly to Gaius - he wasn't quite sure - immediately making his way towards Merlin's cabinet, which still seemed to house practically everything except for his clothing.
"Keep what, sire?" Gaius asked, brows jumping up his forehead in confusion, staring at Arthur as he stood in the doorway, expression so utterly baffled that Arthur might have laughed, if the situation weren't so bloody catastrophic.
Arthur tossed a laboured glance in Gaius' direction before burrowing himself halfway inside the closet. "His magic books, or things. He must have something. Merlin's too dimwitted to actually hide them in a safe place, so they must be here somewhere."
There was a barely contained gasp from the doorway, followed by a few raspy coughs which attempted to cover up the initial reaction, but somehow Arthur knew that Gaius had always known about Merlin's magical abilities. "I have no idea what you're talking about, sire," Gaius said, stepping into the bedroom but making no actual attempt to elaborate further. Which, in reality, was probably preferable. Arthur didn't have time to listen to Gaius exposit some story to cover up Merlin's magic, when every second they wasted brought them that much closer to Merlin's death. His stomach clenched at the mere thought, and Arthur buried the sentiment, shoving it back into the inner recesses of his mind where it belonged. If he got emotional, he wouldn't be able to think clearly, and losing even the smallest shred of his mental capacity right now would surely result in Merlin's untimely end. It was not even an option.
Arthur extricated himself from the closet, pushing the doors shut, and turned to face the physician. "Gaius, I'm sorry to have to share this information with you under these circumstances, but Merlin's been arrested." A beat passed. "For the practice of sorcery." The words tasted foreign and out of place on his tongue.
Gaius' eyes widened like saucers, and Arthur could already observe the protest forming on his lips. He hated that this was how the news was being passed along to the man who was like a father to Merlin, but there simply wasn't any other way around it. "Surely whoever is accusing him of sorcery must be mistaken-"
But Arthur raised a single hand, effectively silencing the older man. "My father saw him perform magic in front of his very eyes. I did too. Well, partially." Arthur swallowed tightly. "He was saving my life and now his is in jeopardy."
Gaius' expression fell, and he released a frustrated groan, grasping at the wall for support. "Oh, Merlin, you've really done it now," he ground out dejectedly, and for the briefest of moments, Arthur worried that he might topple over as he swayed on his feet.
"I'm sorry, but we don't have much time here, Gaius," Arthur said, and dropped to his knees at the end of Merlin's bed. "He must have some sort of magic spells on parchment or a book or something here. I need to find those things and get them out of here as soon as possible. Guards will be on their way to search his room any minute now; they may even already be on their way. And if the guards find whatever it is Merlin has hidden here before we do, then it's all over." It was all over anyway, but at least they had a chance, slim though it may have been, to save Merlin's life. With that, he all but dove under the bed, shoving aside boots and clothes and other random trinkets in search of something he only assumed existed.
He heard Gaius' feet padding towards the bed, boots scuffing restlessly over the rough wooden planks as he did. "I don't know for certain, but I think he hid his book under one of the floorboards around his bed."
Arthur emerged from under Merlin's mattress, eyes seeking Gaius' imploringly. "Well, then let's find it."
He shuffled backwards, then crawled a couple of feet to the left, tapping at each section of board that lay across the ground, seeking the one loose plank he knew was there somewhere. All of Arthur's attention and energy suddenly narrowed in on this singular task and he felt consumed with the knowledge that he absolutely had to find this book before Camelot's guards did. His hands roamed across the dusty floor, pushing books and boots and clothing roughly out of the way as he struggled to find the loose board. Arthur nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw feet next to his face on the floor, eyes darting up in surprise as Gaius joined him in his search. He shot Gaius a grateful smile and continued on with the search.
Thankfully, their goal was accomplished a couple of minutes later, when Arthur finally located the detached floorboard. He lifted the board from its resting place to reveal a rather large book standing upright in the small space. Unless Merlin had a hidden stash of inappropriate pictures, there was little else the book could be.
"I assume this is it." Arthur looked to Gaius for confirmation.
"Yes, it would appear so," Gaius agreed, appearing rather uncomfortable kneeling on the floor.
The sound of a heavy knock brought both Arthur and Gaius back to reality, and Arthur allowed the board to slip from his fingers back into place. He vaulted up off the floor and turned to Gaius. "Go and stand on top of the floorboard and don't move under any circumstances," Arthur instructed, voice barely above a whisper as he rushed out of the door to Merlin's room.
"Sire?" Sir Leon asked, raising a brow in question as he made his way into Gaius' workshop, followed by two other knights, intentions clearly obvious in their expressions.
"Good, you're here," Arthur said, speaking in tones just slightly louder than entirely necessary. "I just started the search of Merlin's room and could use a couple of extra hands."
If any of the guards were sceptical, no one indicated as such, and for that, Arthur was thankful. He led them towards the back, silently praying that Gaius had been given enough time to get into place, and that he would stay put.
The four of them searched the room from top to bottom, Gaius frowning and protesting and demanding to know what was going on - for which Arthur couldn't have been more grateful - as they overturned tables and emptied his cupboards. Arthur made a big production of crawling around on the floor, ensuring that he appeared as though he were searching everything thoroughly, without getting too close to Gaius' legs. Five minutes later, when they were satisfied that the room had been torn apart, and that there was nothing of interest there, Arthur led Leon and the other guards to the main entrance of the workshop, informing them that he was going to stick around to speak with Gaius for a few minutes.
Leon nodded, solemn. "That sounds like a good plan, sire," he said, and stared at Arthur for just a moment longer than necessary before turning and leading the others out of the room. Arthur's eyes narrowed as he watched their retreating backs, but he didn't have time to analyse the situation right now. Gaius and, more importantly, Merlin's book of magic spells, were waiting for him.
"That was a close call," Arthur breathed out as he entered Merlin's room once more to find Gaius still standing in the exact place he'd left him, and the physician could do little more than nod his affirmation, eyes weary and worried.
He made his way across the room to the physician. "Well, we can't leave this thing here," he declared authoritatively. "It's too dangerous."
"What do you suggest we do with it, sire?"
"I'll take it back to my chambers," Arthur said. "It'll be safer there. I can look through it without fear of being caught."
Gaius' brows furrowed. "Why do you want to look through Merlin's book?"
"I'm hoping there's something in it that might help him escape. I'm not allowing Merlin to die," he added upon seeing the physician's puzzled and anxious face.
Once they were completely positive that it was safe, he and Gaius set about figuring out a way to hide the magic book on Arthur's person so he could take it back to his chambers.