Disclaimer: Merlin isn't mine. Only when I go off my medication.
Not entirely surprisingly, Merlin ended up in the dungeons again. It happened mid-morning on a clear, cool, beautiful day, when one visiting dignitary or another decided that the best way to move along his hidden agenda was to scare Uther senseless (as if the only marginally sane king needed help being paranoid). After careful consideration, said dignitary realized that Uther's weakest available link (since he just couldn't arrange for Morgana to make an appearance, unfortunately) was to threaten his only son and heir – and what better way than to accuse Arthur's manservant, who had unreserved access to the prince every day, of Camelot's cardinal crime?
It worked admirably well. A few well-placed comments and a planted witness here or there, and Uther was magically transformed into a quivering, red-faced maniac, and Merlin was shuttled down to the dungeons at record speed, locked in Camelot's highest-security cell (which wasn't saying much), and shackled hand and foot for good measure. His execution was set for noon the next day.
Gwaine arrived within the hour. He nodded amiably to the guards, told them he was on official business and needed to speak to the prisoner, and did they happen to have a spare set of shackles on hand? He was admitted into the cell, where he sat down in the straw next to Merlin and started clumsily trying to lock himself into the borrowed cuffs, which was apparently no easy task.
"Lend a hand here, will you, Merlin?" Gwaine said eventually, holding his semi-chained hands out toward the bewildered manservant.
"Thought you might like some company, that's all."
Merlin refused forthright to bind his friend, so Gwaine sat and pouted for awhile, his hands hanging loosely over his knees, encircled by unlocked shackles. Fortunately, Elyan happened along not too long after, and not only assisted Gwaine with his chains, but managed to somehow lock himself into his own set as well (as Gwaine looked on enviously and sulked). Elyan's excuse was that he was a blacksmith and was accustomed to working around uncooperative iron, but Gwaine insisted he must be double-jointed or something. Merlin refused to get involved.
The guards tried valiantly to turn away Lancelot and Percival, but were persuaded otherwise when Percival picked them up, each in one hand, and dangled them high enough that their helmets clanked painfully against the stone ceiling. Lancelot grabbed the last set of shackles hanging on the wall and ran next door to an unoccupied cell to find another set, and the pair joined Merlin, Gwaine, and Elyan in the cell. Merlin finally stopped staring in silent befuddlement at his companions, and when Gwaine struck up a cheerful, less-than-reverent conversation concerning Uther and exactly where he could stuff it ("it" was never clearly defined, but the meaning was understood), Merlin joined in with a smile on his face, resigned to his friends' antics.
Gwen arrived shortly after noon, bearing enough food for everyone (which was good, because one prisoner's midday rations had not been enough for four knights and one undernourished manservant). Her eyes were teary and bloodshot, and she did not say much, but just sat down next to Elyan after fiercely embracing Merlin and fastened on a pair of shackles she had brought from the forge. Gwaine fumed as Gwen proved as proficient as her brother at fastening herself into the irons.
"Gaius would be here," Gwen murmured after awhile, "but at his age…"
"Of course," said Merlin, although he personally thought it might have more to do with Gaius's stay in the dungeons during the Witchfinder's investigations.
"Arthur is, um," Gwen stuttered, "he… he was angry, you know, at first. But he calmed down after awhile. I think he's talking to Uther right now, actually, trying to figure all of this out."
"So he believed it?"
"Y-yes. Well. Sort of. He doubted that man's story from the first, but he did… consider the possibility." Gwen shuffled toward Merlin and took his bound hands in her own. "Merlin, it wouldn't matter if it were true or not," she said earnestly. "I believe that." She smiled tearfully and returned to her spot next to Elyan. Merlin tried to return the smile, but it came out weak and unconvincing.
The mood in the little cell was a bit somber after that, but Gwaine managed to liven things up before long. Before dinnertime (which they all sorely missed when once again, only one plate of food was brought), they were laughing and chatting and swapping stories and generally enjoying themselves far more than any prisoners ever ought. The guards, although steaming with frustration, made no attempt to escort the un-arrested inmates from the dungeons (most of the knights were, after all, still armed).
About an hour after dark, though, all conversation fell abruptly silent.
Arthur and Sir Leon stood at the door, grim-faced. The guards stepped away from the door at a nod from the prince, and Arthur stepped into the cell, his eyes fixed sternly on Merlin. The manservant resisted the urge to squirm as Leon followed, bearing chains.
Then Arthur grinned, Lancelot budged over to make room for Arthur next to Merlin, and Gwaine gleefully clapped his liege in irons. Leon sat next to Gwen and Elyan and smiled mildly as he was chained with the rest.
No one got much sleep that night. At some point, Gwen worked her way around the circle of inmates to Arthur, falling asleep on his shoulder after awhile. Gwaine couldn't sleep without ale, so he got extremely jittery as the night progressed. Percival lay back sometime before dawn and immediately began snoring like a bear, much to the amusement of all.
In the morning, word was sent for the prisoner to be released, and there was some confusion over which prisoner that was meant to be. In the end, all went free, groggy and sore and obscenely happy. Merlin was officially cleared of all charges of sorcery (no one quite knew why he suppressed a snicker as this was announced), and the conniving dignitary took his place in the cell.
"We should do this again sometime," Gwaine said as he led the way into the nearest pub.