Hello all. Firstly, I would like to say an enormous thank you to my two amazing betas, Princess Alyra and Speedy Speck. Both of you have been an incredible help, and absolutely brilliant to work with. So thank you again!
Secondly, a note about the future of this story: it's all planned. I have a very detailed plot all written down and have already written the following 3500 words to this chapter, so know this: I'm not stopping. I have material for the next 3-4 chapters already written just awaiting editing, and two amazing betas who will not let me lose focus. So I make this promise to all you reading now- THIS STORY IS NOT STOPPING HERE.
It's my birthday today, a very special number in our family, so this story is a present to you as much as it is to me. By the love of God, please tell me you like it!
Anyway, that is enough chatter from me. Thanks for clicking, and I hope you love the chapter!
Arthur stared, paralysed by shock. For one blissful moment, he thought he must have been dreaming, but the visions which assaulted him were too impossibly unreal to be a fantasy of the night.
No, this had to be something more; something more horrifying, more terrifying than all of Arthur's nightmares put together.
Arthur had been exiled from Camelot. For his own good. Banished for the past week, a week where nightmares had plagued his every sleeping (and waking) moment. His people, dying. People he knew, his friends- sickening, succumbing to the awful disease. He dreamed of returning to a once great kingdom laying in desolate ruin, to a city inhabited by the dead.
Even from the beginning, the disease that had infiltrated Camelot had been the stuff of nightmares. The entire city had been unable to sleep for days, living in fear of where the sickness would strike next, or wrestling hollow sleepless nights sitting by the bedside while the sick succumbed further and further towards their fate.
The disease had been slow in spreading, yet struck with unnerving accuracy those with political or social power. People who meant something to the running of the city. The obvious load bearing pillars of society; to the invisible, indispensible cogs of the system alike. It had choked each victim with a strangle hold; strong gallant men unable to support their own weight; good women lying with skin ashen as dust, even the children weeping dead blood from their nail pits and eyes.
Among the sick were people Arthur knew: Sir Leon, the head cook, the court scholar (his favourite teacher as a boy); even the self-righteous librarian had been taken ill as well, as well as several key courtiers who personally advised the King. Four of the court's children. He'd heard tell of the sickness in the lower city- the blacksmith who had replaced Gwen's father had also been struck down, as well as the owners of the larger farms and stall sellers.
One day everything had been fine- Merlin had been inexplicably late as usual, having completely disappeared the day before (yet again); and then the lower town had been disrupted by four of the most liked villagers falling ill. It wouldn't have even reached the King if it wasn't for Sir Leon also succumbing to the mysterious weakness at the same time. The next day the upper town was under siege by infirmity. The day after, with fifteen people under Gaius's care and three beyond it, what was left of the Royal Court made the decision to send Crowned Prince Arthur away from Camelot.
And that was the last he knew of the fate of his beloved town. He had argued with his father; yelled, pleaded; demanded, even, but the King would not back down. Arthur had been sent packing, and expected to leave within the hour. Arthur hadn't even had the opportunity to talk to Merlin before he left; the boy had been confined to the newly re-established hospital wing in order to help Gaius. No, Arthur had just slipped quietly under the great city's gates with no one the wiser, riding out to a neighbouring kingdom to plead for help that was impossible to administer.
Arthur had been told not to return to Camelot for at least a month. He had been told to take refuge until the first signs of spring. He had been told it was for the good of the city; that preserving the only heir would ensure Camelot's continued survival- irrespective of what size Camelot may be upon returning. He had been told that it was for the best, that this wasn't something which he could help with; that he didn't have a choice.
Arthur was never very good with following orders he didn't agree with.
The Prince had stopped at the boundary to his kingdom, making camp a full two day's journey from the City. Three days later his resolve failed him, and he rode back towards his home. He was at Camelot's gates by noon the next day, having ridden through the night. No nightmares plagued him during the journey.
Now, the terrors of the night had invaded his waking day.
Riding through the deserted city, Arthur feared that the worst had come to pass. Where was everyone? Surely they couldn't all be... No, there would be evidence if the disease had overtaken the entire town- bodies, lining the roads. Doors left open, food decaying. Signs that Camelot had just... Stopped. Arthur hurriedly comforted himself that there were none of those; and yet, where were all the people? The only time they all gathered in one tight place was for an execution, or statement from the King, yet why would he orchestrate death when the city had been in the clutches of an epidemic?
The sight that greeted him upon entering the citadel courtyard was one he couldn't comprehend.
Arthur felt terror choke his very being, freezing the blood in his veins. Bile flooded his stomach. His throat constricted; his heart beat harder, faster, the heavy percussion berating against his mind, beating against his thoughts, reducing them to nothing but the pure sensory input which stormed his body:
The ice in his veins;
The resonant drumbeat playing the executioner's march in his ear;
The sight of his best friend standing on the raised stage like a coldblooded criminal, surrounded by towering stacks of straw as Arthur's own father damned him to the fires of hell from the balcony above.
Because, there, standing on the small platform before the masses of Camelot, his frail from swathed in an oversized dirty shirt despite the chill in the near-winter air, was Merlin. The frequency with which he got into trouble made the situation practically laughable, however, if it wasn't for the fact that this current situation was so completely terrible, so utterly wrong, Arthur wouldn't have been standing there utterly paralysed by fear. Merlin looked so lost, yet there was an odd stoicism buried deep in his eye, as if he was somehow resigned to his fate. He was shaking and shivering, his face contorted into a mask of sheer pain. His eyes were wild with terror as they danced from face to face, his grey brow glistening with beaded sweat. Merlin's features were darkened by vivid bruises, the dirt covering his skin broken by several wet tracks that seeped silently from his piercing eyes. He swayed between his two captors, each of them gripping his arm with a crushing hand as if his lightness was a precursor to fleeing. Around them, a dull light drizzle wetted the air. In spite of this, the courtyard was crowded, all of the villages looking on with sombre gazes, the knowledge that death by this fire would be a slow and torturous affair.
At the King's command, the two men forced Merlin back, the boy stumbling as they dragged him against his balance back towards the stake. The panic in Arthur's throat renewed, and he started charging forwards, pushing his way through the crowd. Merlin's back and shoulders hit the heavy pole with force and he visibly winced, his whole body twitching in pain. The two men took no notice as they fastened their convict to the stake, the tears now coming thick and fast down the boy's face, yet only small whimpers emitted from his mouth. Arthur continued running forward, now forcing people out of his way as they stood transfixed by what would shortly become Merlin's last moments.
Uther was approaching the climax to his executioners speech. One of the guards had lit a torch in readiness, holding it out for the crowd to see and raising it until it was blazing directly before the condemned boy's eyes. Uther continued preaching.
Merlin's face was now one of agonised terror, his eyes darting from one face to another as if seeking a saviour before glancing up to the sky in search of solace or rescue.
For one moment, his eyes landed on the King. The reaction was instantaneous; Uther's anger distorted into unrestrained rage and he jolted his gaze away, covering his fluster with a sneer of distain before restarting his broken sentence; the words punctuated with even greater vehemence and disgust. Arthur continued moving.
Merlin's desperate gaze finally met Arthur's. The moment that passed between the two pierced the Prince with yet another wave of nausea. Shame. He had seen shame on his servant's face. The look had been a mixture of helplessness and hope springing across his eyes, but also present was shame. Arthur's mouth numbed.
The Prince lunged onto the execution platform with an expert leap, grabbed the determinedly fizzling torch out of the guard's hand and turned to confront his father.
"Stop, this must stop at once! Sire, I do not know what has happened during the past week, but this cannot happen! This just cannot- I mean, what the hell has Merlin done this time to deserve such a punishment?"
"Don't interfere with things you don't understand."
"Silence. You were not here, you cannot possibly understand what has happened. Your servant has been sentenced to death though he deserves far worse for his crimes. I will not argue with you out in public; move out of the way and we can resume this inside."
"After my servant is dead, you mean? Father, I won't let this happen. By all means, we can discuss this in private, but only after I have had a chance to talk to my servant. It is only fair that I get to hear from his own lips what he is being punished for."
"He is being punished for sorcery, of the most despicable kind."
Arthur faltered, regarding Merlin once more with hesitant eyes. "Then that is something which I need to discuss with him. As Crowned Prince, and as his master, it is my right."
And that ends chapter 1. Please, pretty please, it is my birthday, so if you liked it at all, LET ME KNOW! And if you can't think of anything to write, then just copy down your favourite line or bit from the chapter!
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