A/N:First, massive apologies on how long it took me to update this. I rather hit a wall on this chapter and it took me until yesterday to break through it. Now that I have, I can happily say I know where this is going, right up until the end so it should NOT be another 3 months until my next update!
Second (and more importantly) I want to thank everyone who's reviewed or messaged me about this fic. I appreciate all the positive input. A Huge thank you to my friend Jissai for providing me with the idea that eventually provided the break through I needed.
Third, it's been so long since I wrote in this particular AU that I hope it still flows. Consistency is very hard to maintain over months of inactivity. Do share your thoughts on the subject. Thanks for reading!
Last, this chapter is quite dialogue heavy. As such, in this format it may be a bit hard to read. Might I suggest viewing it in 3/4 or even 1/2 mode? (Those are formatting options available in the upper right hand corner of your screen.)
Facing the Music
Chapter 7 - Of Family and Conspiracy
As the fire of his anger died back to embers, Arthur's mind turned from his father back to Merlin. He couldn't help returning to what had passed between them just before that kiss...that kiss, Merlin had kissed him back! Merlin had kissed him back moments after telling him that he'd seduced his father. Merlin had done the seducing, not Uther. Uther hadn't stolen him away, Merlin had gone to the King. Well, sort of.
"I started this!"
"I didn't want to end up in the stocks again. I...I just wanted to distract him a little, just enough to let me out of here without winding up in the damn stocks again."
"I didn't actually think it would work."
Arthur snorted weakly. He still found it astounding that Merlin didn't think it would work. Had the boy ever looked in a mirror? It didn't change things, though. Merlin had been the instigator in his relationship with the King. Could Arthur really blame Uther for taking what Merlin offered? Jealousy knifed through his guts, twisting hot and ugly. He never offered it to me...he's never so much as flirted with me...
Somehow he'd never actually entertained the idea that Merlin may have chosen to become involved with Uther. Then again, had he really?
"I didn't actually think it would work."
Merlin had said he'd rather be Arthur's servant, he didn't say he'd rather be Arthur's lover. Upon reflection, his biggest complaint seemed to be Uther's possessiveness, his confinement to the King's chambers. He certainly never said he didn't want Uther. But...he kissed me back! Surely that had to mean something...didn't it?
He curled up in the straw and desperately tried to banish images of Merlin wantonly seducing his father, writhing beneath him on fine sheets, engulfing him with those luscious lips...
He groaned loudly and felt sick . Had there been anything in his stomach, he'd have lost it in the straw. He didn't want to feel like this , didn't want to hurt like this but still, the images remained to taunt him.
I started this.
Much to his surprise, when Merlin requested to be allowed to resume assisting Gaius, Uther had acquiesced. Several days had passed since the incident with Arthur and Gaius had visited the King's chambers no less than 5 times in the interim. Each brief session had brought home to the young mage just how much he missed the old man's company and counsel. Willhem had been the one to suggest to Merlin that he ask Uther for the boon.
Of course there were stipulations. Three mornings a week to begin with and Merlin mustn't leave the environs of the upper town. He was not to accompany Gaius into any of the rougher areas of Camelot. Public gathering places, aside from the market were also off-limits. No visits to anyone suffering from contagion and there had even been a list of nobles who were to be avoided as well. That list was a mystery to Merlin who couldn't know that it consisted entirely of men and women that had displayed a visible interest in the young manservant in the past.
Naturally the dungeons were entirely out-of-bounds. Uther would not have Merlin anywhere near his son. He'd been tempted to forbid the young man any interaction with Arthur's knights as well but in the end, he only included a few of them on the list of nobles his young paramour was not to engage. Those few were either very close to Arthur or they had foolishly eyed the youth with hungry stares during the long months before the King was able to make Merlin his own. The elder Pendragon had a long and pitilessly clear memory.
Uther had also come very close to including Morgana in the ban but had silently conceded that such a move would be pushing things a bit too far. First, she clearly had no romantic designs on the boy and such an order would have been pointless anyway. She would not have obeyed the decree under any circumstances. She was extremely fond of Merlin and unlike the rest of the Kingdom, she didn't truly fear Uther's wrath. In fact, now that Arthur was out of the picture, he had resumed inviting Morgana to dine with him several nights a week and he'd allowed Merlin to serve at these suppers.
If he occasionally pulled the young man into the seat beside him and fed him from his own plate, it was never mentioned. Though Morgana gave the two many a speculative glance, she wisely refrained from commentary or indeed from any sort of overt reaction at all. She'd simply carry on conversing with them both as if it was an entirely normal occurrence to observe the King surreptitiously caress his manservant while the boy poured wine and arranged platters. Even when Merlin decorously stood behind the King, she addressed him as if he was seated at table with them. After a few of these awkward meals, Uther simply tugged Merlin into that seat by his side and kept him there. From that moment on, the young man joined them at table as if he'd always been there.
Though she remained equanimous on the surface, Morgana was secretly stunned to observe Uther's tender and indulgent behavior toward Merlin. She'd never seen him treat anyone with such affection before. That it was a mop-haired, sweet-faced young servant that should be so favoured was doubly astonishing. Though in retrospect, it really shouldn't be. Merlin was so far removed from the average servant it was almost an absurdity. There wasn't a subservient bone in the lad's lanky body. However, there was much more than cheeky impudence to the indomitably sunny boy. He'd somehow managed to humanize Arthur to such an extent that the Prince was almost likable these days. That was not a feat to be taken lightly. That he also seemed to bring out Uther's hitherto unseen soft side shouldn't really be any more surprising. For the first time Morgana began to wonder if perhaps the unlikely relationship was after all, a good thing.
It all depended on what Merlin thought of it.
She was finally able to corral the young man himself a few weeks into Arthur's detainment. She'd seen him on multiple occasions of course but there had been no opportunity for a private chat. When he turned up at her room with a supply of her usual sleeping draught from Gaius, she seized the chance to yank him into her chamber and shut the door on the world.
Finally, she could interrogate him alone!
"Merlin! Finally! Come, sit. I've been dying to speak with you for months."
"But you've spoken with me at least five times this week, milady."
"Morgana. You certainly have no need to address me as 'milady' these days. And I've been able to exchange pleasantries with you certainly but we've not been able to talk since you took up with Uther."
Merlin blushed a deep rose and the young noblewoman smiled at him. He really was adorably unaffected. How did he manage that while shtuping the King?
"Tell me something, Merlin. How do you feel about him?"
"Ah, um...well, he, I mean...he's...been extremely kind to me?"
"You don't sound sure of that. Has he been unkind...in any way?"
"No, No! Not at all, I mean he is extremely kind to me."
"Do you love him?"
Wide eyes, blue as the sea itself gazed at her rather haplessly. He didn't seem to know how to answer the question.
"I ask because...well, I can see he loves you but I think perhaps there is someone who means a bit more to you than Uther does. Am I mistaken?"
His rose dusted cheeks were suddenly washed a painful scarlet and it was enough to give her the answer she sought.
"You know he feels the same way about you, don't you?"
"He said...has...has he...said that?"
Pursing her lips, Morgana forced herself to be truthful with her friend.
"No, not as such, at least, not in so many words anyway. However, I've been with him since you went missing and I know it's the truth. He's been beside himself. Not eating, not sleeping properly, skipping training sessions as often as he attends, spending all his time lurking outside the Kings chambers."
That wide gaze was centered on her's again, wondering.
"Seriously? He's been missing training? He never does that!"
"Exactly. Don't think no one's noticed. Uther seems to be doing very well lately but Arthur...well frankly, Arthur's been a mess."
"He looked so...ill...he looked so tired when I saw him. I thought he must have been fevered, was shocked he was out of bed looking like that."
"I rather doubt weeks in the dungeon have seen any improvement there."
"Gods, Morgana! How long do you think Uther's going to keep him there?"
"I wish I knew. I've never known Arthur to defy him like that, except the time he rode off to get that flower when you drank poison for him. He only left him down there a week for that incident but Uther wasn't so invested at the time. I've no precedent to compare this to. There's no telling what Uther will do now. Maybe you could talk him round? He'll not listen to me."
"I tried Morgana, honestly, I've tried again and again. He's adamant that Arthur apologize before he'll release him."
She somehow managed to snort elegantly.
"Not bloody likely, the mood he's in!"
"I know, they are both so stubborn!"
They fell quiet for several long moments then Merlin began speaking hesitantly.
"I...I want to see him but the King has forbidden me to go anywhere near the dungeon. I miss him, Morgana. I miss him so badly. We didn't have much time to talk the last time and...we wound up arguing. He was so angry with me. I think he must hate me now."
"I doubt that Merlin. It's Uther he'll be hating right now."
"After what I told him, I think it must be me."
"What was that?"
The blush was back again, the miserable red splotching his face and neck. He took a deep breath.
"I told him it was me who seduced the King, not the other way round."
Another feat for Merlin, he'd managed to shock Morgana into silence.
He nodded and wouldn't meet her eyes.
"It's the truth. He...well...I...um, I mean, I...touched him...first."
"Oh Merlin! What were you thinking?"
"I wasn't! I mean, I didn't think he'd want me, I was just trying to distract him."
"What on earth from?"
And so Merlin spilled what he could of the sorry tale, beginning with that fateful fumbling of Uther's "draught" and ending with Arthur's aborted kiss in the King's bedchamber. Prudently, he kept the magic to himself. He wasn't crying when he was done but his eyes were heavily distressed as he finished his story.
"I don't know what to do, Morgana." He whispered the words.
For the first time in a long time, the King's feisty ward had nothing to offer, no advice to give. Merlin had managed to tangle himself in an impossible knot. She could see its beginning but not its end. Was there a way to even start to unravel this mess? There had to be. So she hugged him and tried to think of a solution.
Morning sun was slanting in from the window high above the Prince's head when first he heard it.
The harsh whisper echoed down from above his head.
This time there was the hint of a voice in the muted sound.
"Merlin! How did you get out?"
"Uther's been letting me assist Gaius a few mornings here and there. I'd have come to see you before but we just figured out what cell you were in."
"Morgana and I."
"Oh Lord, you're working with Morgana? I'm doomed."
"I heard that you supercilious prat."
"In the flesh."
"What are you two up to?"
"Well, we thought since you've had no visitors since you've been down there, you might care for some company. Clearly we were mistaken. Come on Merlin, let's go."
Slender, impossibly long fingers reached through the grate on the window above. When they waggled aimlessly in his general direction, Arthur couldn't help but smile. His idiot.
"Merlin...are...are you alright? I mean, Father...he didn't...do...anything to you, did he?"
"I'm fine, Arthur. The two of you were the only injured parties."
Letting out a quiet sigh of relief, the Prince felt the release of an anxiety he hadn't even been aware of until just that moment.
He didn't get the chance to say more. There was a scrabbling sound above and a hiss from Morgana.
"We have to go!"
And go they did, disappearing as suddenly as they'd materialized. Still, Arthur felt his heart lift. Clearly Merlin wasn't angry with him. He wasn't angry and he'd defied the King's orders to speak with him!
Surely that meant something, didn't it?
On his way back to Gaius' workroom with a pail of fresh water, Merlin thought he spied a dearly familiar face in the constantly shifting stream of bodies criss-crossing the central square.
He drew closer, thrilled to see it was his mother. Hunith lit up when her eyes landed on her son. Rushing forward, her arms lifted to enfold him, she almost sobbed out his name.
He drew back from her frantic embrace, upset by the obvious bruising he could see her beloved careworn face. His mother was one of the most gentle, giving people he'd ever known, who could ever want to hurt her?
He lifted a careful hand and caressed the air beside the contused flesh. "What happened?" She averted her deep blue eyes. "Who did this to you?"
"Kanen came back."
"Kanen? But he hasn't troubled Ealdor since I was a boy!"
"He showed up a few weeks ago and threatened Matthew. Said he'd return for the harvest and if we didn't give it all to him, he'd slaughter us down to the last woman and child in the village."
Tears ran in silver rivulets, tracking down the worn loveliness of her cheeks. Merlin had never been able to bear to see her cry. His mother was an incredibly strong woman and had never been prone to displays of weakness. For her to shed tears, the situation must be truly desperate. He gathered her in his arms and held her close. She lay her head against his chest and continued to speak.
"King Cenred cares naught for the border villages so I've come to beg help from your King."
"He'll see you today Mother, I'll make sure of it."
She drew back to look up into his face, smiling.
"Is your position so lofty you can guarantee me an immediate audience with the King of Camelot himself?"
She meant her words teasingly and was surprised by her son's furious blush. His reply was no less astonishing.
Uther consented to see his mother without hesitation as Merlin knew he would. However, to his surprise, the King wanted to speak with her in private, rather than in council.
He fetched his mother from Gaius' rooms and escorted her to the private audience chamber.
Hunith told her tale to the King with slow, eloquent words. Falling gracefully to her knees, she begged him for help. Her speech was moving and persuasive but when Merlin lifted his eyes to Uther's he could read the apology there. Even before he spoke, the mage knew what his answer would be.
"I'm so sorry for everything you've had to endure. Please, don't think I feel nothing for your plight but I can not send aid. Any action on my part would be seen as an act of war by King Cenred and he would retaliate by attacking my kingdom. For far too long, he's been spoiling for a fight and he would not hesitate to use any excuse he could to start a war."
Hunith's face fell but even humbled on the chamber floor she retained her dignity, as always.
"Thank you for your time, Sire. I understand your position and though I am disappointed I am very grateful that you granted me this audience on such short notice."
Merlin marveled at his mother's composure in the presence of royalty. She had better manners than most of the nobles he'd observed in his time at Camelot's court. He'd always known his mother was far better educated and well-spoken than the average peasant but it had never been more apparent than it was in this moment. He had to wonder, certainly not for the first time, what his mother's life had been like before he was born. She'd always refused to discuss it, just as she'd refused to discuss his father with him. Always she brushed his inquiries aside stating that the past firmly belonged there and only the present and future counted for anything.
He was distracted from his speculations when Uther began to speak once more.
"You are welcome to stay in Camelot. Your son has proven himself invaluable to me and I would be only too happy for you to make your home here as well. You need not return and face this perilous threat. You'll be well cared for and protected if you but choose to remain here. I'm sure it would greatly please Merlin as well."
Cornflower blue eyes sought Hunith's gaze beseechingly.
"Please, Mother. Stay. I can't bear the thought of you going home with no one to protect you."
She smiled at her son, gentle and warm but she addressed her response to his King.
"Thank you again, Sire but I'm afraid I must decline. I can't abandon my friends to their fate. I must return at once to see what we may do to help ourselves."
Uther inclined his head in acknowledgement.
"The offer stands open should you ever change your mind. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have many other affairs of state I must attend to. Merlin? Stay and visit with your mother. You can attend to your...duties later on."
"Thank you, Sire."
Merlin accompanied his mother back to Gaius' rooms. On their way, they encountered Morgana who insisted on joining them.
"I heard Uther had granted your mother a private audience and..."
"And couldn't contain your curiosity?"
"Something like that you cheeky brat! So, I gather something is wrong?"
"You could say that."
He retold his mother's tale as they paced the empty echoing halls of white stone. She listened with growing sympathy as the grim story unfolded. When he mentioned the King's refusal of his mother's request for help, a soft sound of surprise escaped her lips.
"He wouldn't send help, even for you?"
Hunith's sharp gaze shifted to her son and he squirmed slightly as they reached the door to the physician's quarters. He shot a warning look at Morgana and pushed the simple wooden portal open.
"What does she mean? Merlin? Why 'not even for you'?"
"It's nothing, Mother. She just means Uther's remained grateful that I saved the Prince's life. Twice."
"Yes, he's very grateful for Merlin."
The smile was evident in Morgana's voice but she said no more on the subject and Merlin was thankful for it. Instead she asked him to meet with her and Gwen in the South garden in an hour.
"I think I may have some ideas that could help you and your village but I need to make some inquiries first."
Merlin took the time to persuade his mother to at least stay the night in Camelot before returning to Ealdor. She was reluctant, eager to get back home as fast as her feet could carry her. He pointed out that she had been willing to wait for an audience so this delay couldn't really be cutting into her plans. Eventually she capitulated and he went to meet with Morgana and Gwen.
He spotted them as soon as he entered the garden. They were sharing a cozy bench beneath the bronzing leaves of an ornamental tree readying itself for the coming winter.
"So I assume you're planning on slipping your leash and returning to Ealdor with your mother."
"Uh..well...I mean...Uther...the King, he won't..."
"Relax, Merlin. I'm not about to tell him anything. I just want you to know we're coming with you. Both of us. I think I can also persuade Arthur to join us on this little venture."
She looked unbearably smug as his mouth flopped open.
It was Gwen who answered this time.
"You're going to need all the help you can get. I can mend armour and sharpen swords."
Morgana looked determined. "And I know how to fight."
"But you can't! I mean, why would you?" His bewilderment was genuine.
"If it was the other way round, you'd help us. You already have. You saved my life." Earnest brown eyes held his.
"And you helped me get the Druid boy out of Camelot We owe it to you, both of us." Morgana's voice was steady and sincere. "Now we just have to break Arthur out of prison and we'll be all set to go."
"How on earth do you plan on doing that?"
"It's simple. I'll drug the guards and steal the keys!"
"Morgana! If Uther finds out he'll kill you!"
"Oh I've no doubt he'll find out but we'll be well away by the time he does. I just need you to get me the fastest working sleep draught Gaius has, can you do that?"
Caught up in furious thought, Merlin didn't answer right away. He had no desire to see Morgana on the outs with Uther but if the girls were insisting on accompanying him, he knew they'd need Arthur. It was somewhat infuriating because he knew that they meant well but their presence would make it impossible for him to defend the village with his magic. He knew there was no dissuading Morgana once her mind was made up. There was nothing for it, both women were coming whether he liked it or not. If there was no way to go alone then there was no choice, they needed the Prince's help.
Finally, reluctantly he agreed to procure the draught. The plan was a remarkably simple one. Morgana would free Arthur that night and they'd leave with Gwen immediately thereafter. Merlin and Hunith would leave in the morning when Merlin was usually working with Gaius. With any luck, the warlock wouldn't be missed for hours.
As Merlin lay in the King's arms that night, he contemplated Uther's possible reactions to what lay ahead. He'd be furious, that was a given. He was almost frightened for Arthur and Morgana. The King didn't take kindly to disobedience or even simple insubordination from either his son or his ward. As for what Uther would do to Merlin, he honestly couldn't predict. In all their time together, Merlin had been too frightened to disobey his lover. He'd stuck to the King's chambers despite his unhappiness with the confinement. When he'd finally been allowed to leave his gilded cage, he'd followed Uther's rules to the letter, scared that any deviation would result in his freedom being curtailed once again.
He was about to flout a direct order from Uther that he not leave the castle's immediate environs under any circumstance. Merlin had no doubts there would be consequences for him. If the King went berserk when ignored by his own son, how much angrier would he be when a lowly peasant defied him?
When Uther woke him with need several hours later, Merlin couldn't help the desperate edge that crept into the act. He clung tightly to his lover as he welcomed him into his body. Naturally, the King noticed his fervor but thankfully misinterpreted it's cause.
"Mmmm...missed you today. See you did too."
Merlin simply nodded and clung all the more tightly, apologizing silently for what he was about to do to this man. Uther was far from perfect, was in fact a deeply flawed man but he'd been good to Merlin in his way. The soft-hearted warlock didn't like the idea of hurting him and it was clear from the man's over-protective stances that he would be hurt by Merlin's defection. Oh he'd be angry as well but most of that rage would be fueled by the pain of betrayal.
When they were both spent, Merlin didn't allow Uther to move away, pulling his lover down on top of him instead. He didn't mind the weight, needing it in some strange way. He didn't love Uther, there was no way he ever could, but he'd come to feel a great deal of sympathy for the man as he knew him better. The King was more than a little broken and clearly had been for years. He was like a patchwork of a man and not all the patches fit properly. It was as if he'd been shattered then home mended by an apprentice craftsman bereft of tools.
Ever ready to cuddle, Uther seemed content to wrap his arms around Merlin and hold him close. Nuzzling the long neck, nibbling his way across enticing collar bones and swirling his tongue in the hollow nestled between them. He inhaled deeply. He'd once told Merlin how "addicted" he was to the young man's scent. It seemed he was once again indulging his addiction while murmuring many of his usual post-coital thoughts.
"You have the most incredible skin. So soft, so so soft everywhere. I've never felt its like before. You know you almost glow? Such a sheen, luminous...that's what it is...luminous. I used to go crazy imagining what you'd feel like, what all that pretty, pearly skin would feel like under my hands. Now I know and it makes me even crazier. It's so hard to let you go when I have duties to attend. If I could, I'd keep you wrapped around me all day long."
It wasn't anything different from what Uther often whispered in his ear but for some reason it struck a chill in Merlin's heart that night. Uther's confession of feeling "crazy" hit him hard for it was nothing less than the truth. The King appeared strong and grounded but on the inside he was anything but. It was simply an act for his people, for his family and subordinates. Merlin was close to him in a way no one else ever had been. That included his deceased wife for she knew a different Uther, a healthy man with his emotions intact.
What would this man do to a lover who betrayed his trust? Merlin was frightened to find out but he wouldn't let it stop him. His mother was more important to him than anyone. Far more important than any punishment the King might mete out against him. It wasn't something he needed to worry about at the moment. He intended to stay with his mother indefinitely. Clearly she needed him and he had no intention of abandoning her. Still, sleep claimed a restless mind that night when it blanketed Merlin's consciousness.
The warning bell didn't sound until the dawn watch. It would seem Gaius' sleeping draught had done it's job well. He prayed his three friends were well away from Camelot by now. Uther flung himself out of bed with the first chiming and told Merlin to stay put while he hurried into his clothes.
The King returned a few minutes later vibrating with rage.
"Arthur's escaped and Morgana is the one who let him out!"
Merlin didn't even attempt to dissemble, knowing what a poor liar he was. Instead he simply stared at Uther with wide, apprehensive eyes. He didn't have to fake the fear, it was all his own. Thankfully, the King misinterpreted it's cause and made a visible effort to calm himself.
"It's alright, Love. He will not be allowed to touch you. The guards are searching the castle as we speak. I doubt they'll find him. I don't think he would have escaped only to wander the halls up here. He may have some hare-brained scheme to get to you, though. I can't be sure until the search is complete. I want you to stay here today, alright? I don't think I'll be able to get away until later but I'll be easier in my mind if I know you are here. Safe."
Unable to speak the lie, the warlock simply nodded in vague assent. It was enough for the King who kissed him deeply before sweeping from the room. Merlin rose on shaky legs and dressed in the plainest clothing he now possessed. He looked regretfully at the warm woolen cloak and the long fur-lined coat but taking either would raise the suspicions of the guards outside Uther's door. A thick doublet of wool and leather would have to suffice for the journey.
He slipped from the King's chambers as if it was any other morning. He hoped against hope that in his haste, Uther would have forgotten to inform his chamber guards that Merlin wasn't to leave. When neither batted an eyelash at his departure, he released a small puff of a sigh. He fetched his mother from Gaius' quarters as quickly as he was able. After giving the old man a heartfelt hug, the two departed as quietly as possible. When they approached the pair of guards standing watch at the castle gates, they waited for a small disturbance in the square beyond to distract the guards. Tugging Hunith behind him, they skulked past the sentries unseen. Now there were just the gates to the upper town to get through. This time, he sent her ahead of him and with eyes downcast to hide the flash, he froze time in its track. After that it was a simple matter of walking out into the town before letting the flow of time resume.
Knowing they had, at best, a few hours before he was missed, Merlin hurried his mother as much as possible. She complied but after the skulduggery of their departure, she was demanding answers.
"Merlin, what is going on? Why did you have to sneak past the guards to leave with me? Are you under some kind of house arrest or something? Did it have to do with the bells this morning? What have you done?"
"Nothing! I swear, it's not like that."
"Then what is it? Arthur can't be such a harsh master that he won't allow you to go into town...is he?"
"No, Arthur's not like that."
"Then what on earth is going on? Is it me? Did I offend the King with my request?"
"What? No! Of course not. The King was genuinely sorry he couldn't help."
"Then please, please tell me what's going on. You've never hidden things from me before and it's frightening me that you are now. What's happened to you, my boy? What is so terrible that you can't confide in me?"
"It's not terrible...it's...it's..."
He was blushing scarlet now. He could feel the heat spreading over his face and crawling up his neck to singe his ears red. How did you tell your own mother that you were making the two backed beast with the King of Camelot? Gaius had been bad enough but this was his mother!
"It's what, sweetheart?"
"Embarrassing!" He blurted the word.
"Oh, my boy! This is me, your mother. If you can't share your embarrassing moments with me, then who can you share them with? Please tell me. I'm sure my imagination is far worse than reality."
They were cresting the hill that overlooked the city now. Both of them hardened to a pied-à-terre mode of travel, they were making excellent time. Merlin kept his flushed face down, his eyes trained on the ground in front of his feet.
"Please, Merlin. Tell me."
So, haltingly, he did. Since she knew of his magic, he didn't have to give her the edited version he'd delivered to both Arthur and Morgana. His mother listened without comment, a look of gentle concern on her face as he finished.
"And well, Uther is very kind to me but he's also extremely protective. Even more so since Arthur broke into his chambers to see me. I can't even imagine what he'll do when he finds I'm missing. If he discovers Arthur is involved..." He just shook his head in confusion.
"Oh Merlin! How do you get yourself into these situations?"
She stopped him long enough to pull him into a warm embrace.
"I was right though. My imagination was far worse than the reality."
They both chuckled and continued walking.
"You're not ashamed of me, then?"
"Merlin, I could never be ashamed of you. You have such a loving, giving heart...I know you must have felt truly desperate to do what you did. But tell me...do you...care for the King?"
He contemplated the question in the harsh light of day. Did he care for Uther? He took his time answering the question.
"I care about him but I don't care for him in the way you mean. He's been kind to me, yes but he's not who I'd have chosen for myself. No matter the perks!"
He shot her a cheeky grin and a wink with the last bit and she smiled in return.
"I think you should tell him that, Merlin. If he cares for you, he'll understand and let you go."
"I...I'll...think about it."
They met up with the others a few hours later. In typical fashion he found amusing, Arthur snuck up behind them and prodded Merlin in the back with the point of his sword. The mage froze, ready to blast his attacker with a burst of power when he heard the Prince's voice.
"I'd ask you for money but I know you don't have any."
Merlin spun around, his joy bright and shining at finally seeing Arthur after so many weeks of separation.
"Arthur! You came!"
Hunith visibly relaxed as the stocky blond man pulled her slender son into a hearty embrace.
"Think I'd miss out on a chance to dispatch some scruffy brigands? Do you know me?"
Sapphire met cerulean as they locked gazes.
"I hope I do."
Arthur cleared his throat and stepped back, releasing Merlin as he did so. He turned to Hunith and bowed.
"You must be Merlin's mother, though don't worry I'll hold that against you. I'm Arthur."
She dipped a small curtsy and smiled up at him with Merlin's eyes.
"I understand you broke out of prison to help us. I'm most grateful."
"It's nothing. Can't have your idiot son blundering about the countryside with no one but my father's crazy ward and her maidservant for company, now can I?"
A sharp blow to the Prince's head was administered by said "crazy ward".
"See what I mean? Completely insane."
"Yeah, see if I ever rescue you again! That's twice recently I've done so."
"You didn't rescue me. I didn't need rescuing."
"Of course because you were making so much headway getting out of that dungeon on your own."
"Please! I think we should probably go...Uther's men might be right behind us."
Gwen, ever the voice of reason got them to quit bickering and sort out riding arrangements. Hunith rode behind Gwen and much to Arthur's disappointment, Merlin mounted behind Morgana. It may have been the most practical arrangement but Arthur still would rather have had the lanky boy curled up around him instead of being snugged up against the bane of the Prince's existence.
When they rode into Ealdor the next day, all hell had already broken loose. It didn't stop there and the following days passed in a blur of high emotion and bloody battle. As the dust settled, black smoke rose and Merlin found himself standing before they pyre consuming the body of his closest childhood friend. It hurt, it hurt so terribly. Will had been as dear to him as any brother he could ever have had.
Arthur was subdued but he chastised Merlin regardless. He should have outed his friend as a sorcerer to the Prince. His heart fell even further knowing he'd almost outed himself as a sorcerer before that final battle. How close had he come to losing Arthur? It was clear this was not the time to reveal his abilities to the Prince. He just had to hope such a day would come eventually.
With a heavy heart, he honoured his mother's wish that he return to Camelot with the others, with Arthur.
"I've seen how much he needs you, how much you need him. You're like two sides of the same coin."
It was strange hearing the Great Dragon's words fall from his mother's lips. However, he took it as a sign she was right and he gathered himself for the trip back to Camelot, the trip back to Uther and Arthur and a destiny he needed to put back on track.
He'd left camp to gather wood for the fire. Turning toward Arthur with a small armload of sticks, he smiled tentatively at him.
"What happened...you know, when I saw you in...my father's rooms. I'm...sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Throwing him a quizzical glance, Merlin protested, "You didn't. Not really."
"Father said you were black and blue from elbow to shoulder."
"Ah, that. It looked worse than it was, you know, my pasty skin and all. It didn't really hurt much." He shrugged it away.
"Still, I shouldn't have treated you that way. I was...angry. I took it out on you and I'm sorry."
"No harm done. I'm just so sorry your Father overreacted so badly. I've tried to get him to release you, Arthur but he doesn't really listen to me. He just sort of treats me like his favorite dog. Cute but not particularly bright."
When Merlin smiled at the Prince, fully expecting him to share the joke, he was shocked by the anguish he saw painted across those chiseled features. Arthur looked as if someone had ripped his guts out through his throat.
"Arthur? Arthur, what's wrong?"
But the Prince was stumbling away, one arm wrapped across his abdomen, the other extended in a gesture that clearly said, "keep away" . Confused, Merlin followed in spite of Arthur's attempts to wave him away. He was still clutching the pile of sticks close to his chest and calling Arthur's name when the Prince turned and sprinted away.
That's when Merlin heard a strange sort of squealing noise. Eyes locked on the retreating Prince, he knew the sound wasn't coming from him. He paused, swung to his left and saw a small, wild sow snuffling in the underbrush. The squeal came again but it wasn't coming from the pig in front of him. Too late, Merlin whirled around and saw the enraged boar coming for him, head down, huge tusks exposed and ready to tear his flesh. He was coming too fast, the mage had no time to focus his magic before he was sent flying by the testosterone fueled animal. Firewood scattered along with his thoughts and fast as lightning the boar was on him.
Merlin felt his shoulder tear, then teeth were sinking into him higher up, puncturing his neck and savaging the flesh. Sharp hooves were cutting into him as the boar danced back and forth over his prone body, seeking a new target for his rage. Merlin tried to scream but it seemed even his voice had deserted him. It was chomping into the soft flesh of his abdomen where it curved in under his ribs. Those wicked hooves slammed into his ribs and he felt two snap under the thing's weight. Finally, his voice returned and he managed a pained shout. Several more ribs went and as darkness slid over his vision he could hear the sound of swift boots on dry leaves.