AN: Jazoriah u/1328721/ made a podfic of this story. You can listen to it at
archive of our own . (ORGanization, only the capital letters) / works/1530563
Thanks, Jazoriah! (Nothing else in the story has changed below this line.)
Merlin looked up from his spot in the corner of the dingy dungeon cell. A tussle of blond hair confirmed the identity. The raven-haired man chose to look at a spot slightly above the opposite man's head.
Arthur. Prince Arthur, in his red shirt and brown leather jacket.
The king's son, retrieving him from the dungeon.
Who had witnessed his sorcery.
In his peripheral vision, Merlin could still see the red uniforms of several guards behind him, the chain mail faintly glittering on their shoulders.
"Merlin," Arthur muttered, lips sealing firmly at the end of the name, face harder than stone itself. He paused before reopening his mouth. "Come."
It was not a time to argue. The warlock stood and solemnly walked to the door, waiting for Arthur to fumble in the correct key. A clink announced his small freedom, if it could be considered that.
The lanky man took one step outside of the cell but was stopped by a firm hand to the chest. Uncertain, Merlin risked a look into the depths of the Pendragon's eyes, which remained as opaque as the castle walls around them. Arthur simply looked back, betraying neither fear nor friendship nor hatred. Merlin's eyebrows creased, and his mouth's corners dipped ever so slightly.
"Sire?" he whispered quietly. While Merlin had stood trial, Arthur had done nothing but defend him. Gaius, the same, though perhaps with different results. Merlin didn't know. The king postponed the verdict for Arthur. Merlin's fate had been decided without him, he supposed. Two-session trials were unheard of.
He didn't know if he was condemned, but Arthur was making the prospect look likely.
To his surprise, Arthur reached out and hesitantly placed his hand on Merlin's shoulder. Both swallowed. Haltingly, the prince's other hand rose and rested on Merlin's other shoulder.
Suddenly, Merlin was aware that there was a guard just outside of the cell, witnessing both their expressions. It was far from private, nevermind the several men behind Arthur.
Arthur surprised him again, and Merlin's dark-eyed gaze zipped back to him. Arthur was untying his neckerchief - it unsettled the wearer.
"Sire? What are you-"
"Silence." Arthur could easily have been mistaken for a painted statue, had his lips not formed the quietly angry, serious word. A second later, the cloth fell away into the Pendragon's two hands. Merlin's eyes flickered between them, unsure of what to do.
For now, he could obey.
Arthur paused and looked Merlin in the eye. They stared at each other, both imagining their own realities, thinking their thoughts. Arthur swallowed - a nervous tick Merlin hadn't noticed before.
Slowly and deliberately, Arthur rolled the ends of the cloth so that it formed a strip of cloth. Cocking his head ever so slightly, Merlin inquired without words as to the movement.
Arthur answered silently. He brought the cloth up around Merlin's head, covering his eyes.
A ha. A blindfold for the warlock. As if it would stop him.
A squeeze around his head announced the blindfold was securely attached. Merlin was barely close enough to hear the prince's faint sigh before he was socked in the gut.
It hurt. Merlin gasped and doubled over instantly, trying to cover his stomach to the best of his ability. It made no difference. Arthur's shoulder ducked into his waist, hoisting the mostly-likely ex-manservant onto a muscular shoulder.
As Merlin felt the bob of the prince's stride, it struck him that the blood-rushing upside-down dizziness was a familiar feeling. Oh yes. He had been carried by this man when he'd been poisoned before, saving Arthur's life.
Why, why had he saved Uther Pendragon with his magic?
Despite having been in the dungeon on numerous escapades, Merlin soon lost track of wherever Arthur and his knights were heading. Merlin could hear the faint clattering of the chains in their armour. No one had spoken a word to him. He knew they'd gone up several flights of stairs. And down several, too.
If he didn't know better, he'd've thought Arthur was trying to make him lose his sense of direction. Surely the other man knew his pitiful tracking skills well enough?
It appeared not.
Without warning, the atmosphere changed. Merlin was aware that the faint musky scent and mugginess of the corridors had gone, replaced by a chillier, drier, more sterile atmosphere. He could no longer hear the late-night activities of the villagers in the lower town.
And unceremoniously, he involuntarily broke the silence.
Merlin let out a gasp as he hit the solid stone flooring, wherever he was. It was wet.
He wanted to ask where he was. The question was resting on the tips of his lips, past his tongue. But he remembered Arthur's solemn word - or was it a warning?
"Sit up." Merlin froze for a split second, holding his breath. Arthur sounded enraged, but he seemed to be trying to hold it in. His demeanour had changed, and was thatfear-
"Sit up, Merlin." This time the peasant bolted upright, crossing his legs. The moisture on the floor crept up his breeches.
The world seemed silent for what felt like forever. It was worse than finding everyone but Morgana asleep in the castle on his and Arthur's return to Camelot. At least there were scattered snores.
A faint rustle of movement behind Merlin alerted him to Arthur's movement. He tensed as two solid hands plopped onto his shoulders from behind.
"Now, Merlin," Arthur murmured almost sarcastically, "listen closely."
Oh gods, had the verdict been to train him? Like a dog?
Merlin opened his mouth to reply, but flinched as the hands slid up his neck and onto his cheeks. It was far from reassuring.
"You have very prominent cheekbones, Merlin." He pinched one, and Merlin let his confusion show. Not that Arthur could see, of course. "Splendid for holding a head steady." Merlin swallowed.
The other hand tapped the blindfold over his eyelid, causing the eye to squint. "The eye is one of the most vital organs," Arthur careless rapped out. "Without it, one becomes blind. Handicapped. As good as useless in our world."
It couldn't be. Merlin let out a muffled shriek between Arthur's fingers. He jerked back into Arthur's chest, which was surprisingly near, and brought his hands up to defend himself.
Arthur was holding a blade against his eyelid.
"No, Merlin," Arthur drawled out, almost as if he was disappointed. "Hands on the ground." Merlin was tugging on both of Arthur's wrists, trying to get his head released from one and get the blade away from the other. He could feel the warmth of his skin being sucked away by the unforgiving sharp device, which contrasted with the slightly warm insulation that the blindfold provided.
"Merlin." It was exasperated this time. Said man paused, uncertain. Surely Arthur wouldn't hurt him.
A whisper floated to his ear, and Merlin knew Arthur was breathing on his ear on purpose. "Merlin," he ordered. Very slowly, Merlin brought his hands to the ground. The cold, damp floor provided no comfort.
"Next is the nose." The metal blade moved over, touching but not cutting. "A misstep here and one can drown in their own blood." Merlin gripped the floor as if it would whisk him away from this strange Arthur. It didn't.
"Especially if-" the hand gripping his cheekbone moved to cover his mouth "-one can only breathe through the nose." Arthur's voice was calm.
Merlin had nothing to fear. Arthur must be demonstrating on him in front of the knights. Yes, that must be it. His hands relaxed.
A sharp pain in his nose made him gasp, the relaxed moment gone. Arthur had cut him. He could feel the stinging opening directly beneath the warmer blindfold. The wide torso behind him was unyielding as he pressed backwards. The funny thought that Arthur must be kneeling slipped into his mind.
Arthur didn't make mistakes like that. And he certainly didn't say that anything was "his mistake". Merlin was scared. What on Earth had possessed his prince?
Merlin was keenly aware of the cold metal blade's trail down his nose and to his now-uncovered mouth, accentuated by the hot syrupy liquid one on the other. His blood.
"The mouth is a very important organ," Arthur continued threateningly. The knife rested against Merlin's. "The lips are delicate and sensitive, rumoured to be the most sensitive part of the body. Excellent for torture."
Ha, more sensitive than you, Merlin mentally retorted. As if Arthur heard him, the warm hand holding his head slid under his jaw and tilted his head up sharply. If Arthur wasn't more careful, he would snap Merlin's neck.
Maybe that's what he wanted.
The same hand's thumb pressed into Merlin's cheekbone, and the rest of it seemed to be trying to drag down his jaw. Getting the message, Merlin opened his mouth.
The cool steel slid into Merlin's mouth. This was not a situation he was comfortable with, even with Arthur holding the blade.
He brought his hands up and almost touched Arthur's arms, but the prince scolded him with his name. Shaking slightly with fear, Merlin obeyed once more, wondering how far his trust extended.
"The loss of one's tongue will hinder the speech for the rest of the life, if they do not choke on the flesh or blood." The blade fished in Merlin's mouth, and he broke out in a cold sweat as it pressed its flat side against his tongue. His own blood was tangy, metallic, and sweet.
What was Arthur trying to accomplish?
The blade slowly retracted, and as Merlin let out a faint sigh, it stopped. "Ah, I almost forgot to mention: if the teeth are carved out, one will almost certainly die of infection." The point was caressing the warlock's gum-line. Then it was gone.
"A-Arthur," Merlin began, head tilted back, "what're-"
"Silence," Arthur hissed into his ear. His voice was hollow. "Don't force me to kill you now."
Merlin swallowed at that. His breath hitched as the blade flowed down his chin and the edge made a fine, bloodless cut.
This was too far. Merlin didn't want it to go any further. His hands shot up and knocked Arthur's aside; the hand on his face and the knife vanished momentarily, and Merlin made to stand. Before he could properly assemble his gangly knees, a bear-hug snapped its vicious bite around him, yanking his slim frame to the ground once more.
"Let go!" Merlin shouted, panicking slightly. "Let go of me!" But the arms were unrelenting, no matter how much Merlin tugged.
"Merlin!" Arthur's voice was loud in his ear. "Merlin!"
As if Arthur wanted Merlin to obey him in this situation! "No!" Merlin cried.
"MERLIN!" Arthur shouted into his ear. The deafening call made Merlin wince. After what felt like an eternity, Merlin submitted.
Merlin's hands were shaking against the stone. He felt cold all over, as if the floor had sucked all life from his body. And Arthur's close proximity only served to chill it further.
"Why?" Merlin was so very quiet, barely whispering. "Why?"
Arthur didn't answer. Instead, he slowly released Merlin's upper body from his grip, as if concerned he'd bolt like a surprised horsefly. Merlin didn't. He remained rigid, and Arthur continued.
Again, a hand pulled the captive's chin up so his head rested against the captor's chest, exposing the neck. A warm finger found Merlin's throat, bobbing with his Adam's apple as he swallowed.
"The throat is where hunters aim, for it contains all sorts of important bodily infrastructure," Arthur murmured into Merlin's ear matter-of-factly. "For instance, this is the throat. One would choke to death on their own blood if cut here."
Merlin mouth dried up rapidly as the knife's tip found his skin once more. It felt as if Arthur had vanished, and all that existed was the knife blade. The freezing pinpoint was all he could concentrate on. It was tracing a tendon - the one that connects the collarbone to the head. And Arthur was talking, of course, but it was so very far away.
An icy trail marked where Merlin felt the knife. It hadn't actually cut his throat yet, but it was awfully close to doing so. It took a sudden turn, though, and Arthur traced his spine with the weapon. "The spine is probably the fastest way to kill anything. Of course, striking too low will not kill; it will only paralyse."
Arthur started explaining the ever-so-important arteries in the neck - why was he speaking out loud? - and the knife tickled Merlin's throat. He didn't dare breathe. Terrified, he didn't move - his life was in Arthur's hands, and he didn't know if it was to be taken.
If his life was to be taken...
"Merlin?" Arthur suddenly asked. He sounded remorseful, regretting what he was about to do. "Merlin, are you listening?"
The requested sorcerer didn't respond. The knife was touching his throat, after all.
"Merlin..." The knife dropped, but Merlin didn't trust himself to speak. He nodded.
"Good." Prince Arthur's voice was softer than Merlin had ever heard it. "I'm so sorry, Merlin." Coming from Arthur, an apology was horrifying. Arthur paused, but continued after a sigh that only Merlin could have felt. "Merlin, how would you like to die?"
How would you like to die?
Merlin let out a wheezing laugh. All that explanation was so that he could choose how he was to die or be bodily injured? That was his reward for saving the king?
He supposed it was better than burning at the stake.
"Merlin, I haven't got all day." Only Arthur would rush a decision like this.
"Wh-" Merlin coughed once, clearing his raspy, dry voice away. "What's the most painless way?" He had to resist or stall his death, or Arthur would die soon without magical protection.
"The spine, most likely." Arthur paused, waiting. "I'll be doing it, so there'll be no mistake."
Despite the gloomy atmosphere that hung between the two, Merlin quirked a small smile. "Of course," he muttered. Only Arthur could be so immodest.
"Spine it is, then?"
Merlin took a deep breath. "No. I want to die of old age."
Arthur was completely silent for a full minute. Merlin thought he'd at least laugh at or confirm the suggestion, but apparently that was not the case. As the minute grew on, he grew angsty, fidgeting until Arthur spoke once more.
"A slight correction is in order. How would you like to be executed, Merlin?"
There had to be a way out of this. "I don't want to be executed."
"That's not the question." Arthur sounded like he was reigning in a lot of emotion.
Merlin thought quickly. He had to survive, if only to save Arthur's royal arse. "Then I want to be executed by natural causes."
Arthur let out an exasperated breath. "If you're not going to choose, then I will."
"I have chosen."
"I'm going to snap your spine." The knife clattered as hit hit the ground. Merlin was extremely aware of the hands that were encircling his neck, one under his chin and the other firm against his nape. With a quick pull in opposite directions, the world would go black.
Merlin couldn't think or speak. All the air seemed to have left his lungs, and he couldn't get enough air. Any bodily heat he had had had vanished. His heart couldn't beat faster, ready to spring from his chest. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow.
He was about to die.
Escape was necessary - but he couldn't hurt Arthur! If only he could think of a solution. Arthur couldn't kill him. Their destinies were entwined. Silently, Merlin cursed Arthur's stupidity, fiercely angry at the blond.
Suddenly, the hands left him, and Arthur's presence behind him vanished. Merlin could hear Arthur's shoes hit the ground as he stood. "See, father?" Arthur proclaimed suddenly. "He may be a sorcerer, but he harbours no hate towards the crown. He would not harm me, even though I appeared to be his enemy."
"Very well," Uther muttered. He'd obviously thought Merlin evil. "Merlin, you are banished from Camelot."
The warlock let out huff, smiling out of shock. He pulled down the blindfold and adjusted the fabric so it hung the same as usual. "I'm sorry?" he asked, disbelievingly.
"Father, that was not our agreement. If you were right, then he would be executed on the spot, but if I was right, - which I was - Merlin was to stay my manservant."
"You will listen to me!" Uther bellowed, veins bulging. "The boy is a sorcerer, Arthur, and he seeks to destroy us. Do you not see? He is using you. He wants to destroy Camelot!"
Merlin was about to deny all of Uther's misgivings, but Arthur beat him to it, stepping in front of Merlin. "How can you say that? Merlin has done no wrong. He saved your life - saved your ungrateful arse!"
"You will not address your father in such a manner!" Uther nearly screamed, making Merlin wince. "Can you not see the evil grasp magic has taken over him?" Uther paused suddenly, eyes widening in horror and rounding on Merlin. "You have enchanted my son! Guards!"
"What? No! I've done no-" Merlin sputtered until the grip on each of his arms startled him into incoherent protest. The guards began to lead him away once more.
"Are you blind!" Arthur roared, not even trying to keep a princely manner. The guards stopped. "I have nearly killed him, and he didn't resist! He saved your life!" Sudden realization struck Arthur hard, and his voice dropped in both volume and pitch. His solemn tone gave away his growing resentment of his father. "Morgause - she told me you killed my mother, asking the sorceress Nimueh for a son. Merlin was the one who denied it."
Merlin looked at him sharply, but didn't speak. He wouldn't lie if Arthur asked him now, but he really didn't want to open that can of worms. Who knew where the annelids would slither to. But it seemed to have some effect on Uther - at least, Merlin thought the closed eyes were a good sign.
"Arthur, I swore upon my life that I had spoken the truth of the matter," Uther muttered, now far quieter and simmering with anger. "I would never lie to you."
"But you already have," Arthur retorted with the same quietly furious tone. "You have told me all my life that all magic users are evil. I see now that magic is as evil as my sword; it is but a tool. A tool that can both give and take life. You will lie to me no longer."
His implications struck deep throughout the court. Quiet murmurs could be heard, but they silenced with Uther's glare. Merlin tried desperately to keep his chin from falling, but Uther's next words seemed to be trying to make him open his mouth in shock. The king's glare had dropped to the stone tiles, which could not have looked greyer than him.
"I... I did ask a sorcerer for assistance."
The voice didn't sound like the king's. It was that of a defeated man, lost, without hope. One who had known the truth his entire life, and had been avoiding the consequences. But like any wizard on the quest for immortality, Uther had learned the inevitable will happen.
The lies were discovered.
And was the king above the law? He had committed treason, after all, consorting with sorcerers. But it was before magic was declared evil, so would the law affect the past? And who would dare to judge the king? Merlin wondered.
Little did Merlin know that these questions would be answered, though not in his lifetime.
"Father, by order of the law, you should be hanged. Morally, you should suffer for the heinous crimes you have committed against magic users. Their slaughter andbloodshed. Your hands are stained."
Arthur was furious, but mature enough to know that attacking his own father in front of the court and guards was not without dire consequences. Merlin realised Arthur was trying to achieve justice in the only way he could. He was judging the king.
"However, there is a way out." Or perhaps justice wasn't on Arthur's mind, though he certainly didn't sound happy about this 'way out'.
Uther chuckled, his laughter mirthless. His voice took on a sarcastic lilt, like that of a child escaping punishment. "And what do you propose?"
Uther was mocking them. Merlin could feel anger fill himself, like a cup of boiling tea - hot, seeping throughout his body, and painfully unneeded. Merlin was not quick to anger, but there are always exceptions.
"Repeal the ban on magic."
Merlin paused in thought, heated with fury. That would let the king off! With magic consultation no longer a crime, the king would have no punishment.
But forgiving was important. Merlin wasn't sure if he was ready to forgive Uther yet.
Uther spoke. "You leave me no choice, do you, Arthur?" He seemed to realize that justice would win.
Arthur didn't answer immediately. He just let the king answer his own question. Without honour, the king would have no loyalty. He could not pardon himself without retribution.
To Merlin's surprise, Arthur added, "And that means Merlin is guilty of no crime." He turned to the court. "And no magic user should ever be executed ever again, so long as they use their magic for good!"
And just like that, the tea drained from Merlin's body, and his breath seemed to leave with it. This was true justice. Not for Uther - he deserved far worse than having his hubris decimated.
But for all the magic users, for those who possess magic... they would no longer be trapped. Their sons and daughters would prosper as they never did.
The children would grow without their parents' fear and sorrow. And what was more just than that - which parent would not wish the very best for their own child? It was reward enough for any parent.
And this was Arthur's ruling.
He would be the greatest king known to mankind.
AN: As I was writing this (a long time ago), it occurred to me that it could never happen in the show because the audience would see the king and court and know it was just a test. (O.o) Oh well.
Oh yeah- the word count is the answer to life, the universe, and everything! But times exactly 100!
Drop a review if you want to.