Pairing/Characters: Uther Pendragon, Merlin/Arthur
Genre/Category: Outsider POV
Word count: ~2300
Spoilers/Setting: Spoilers up to series 2
Disclaimer:Merlin doesn't belong to me.
A/N:Written for the kinkmeme on LJ
The hall is in chaos.
In the middle stands Arthur, safe. Protected by a boy who looks so much like Balinor that, in this one moment, it makes sense that it had been him who saved Arthur.
Then reality asserts itself, and Uther realises that Arthur was saved by Balinor's son.
Uther never knew that the Dragonlord had a child, though he dimly recalls a pretty girl working for Gaius, and how she disappeared the same night Balinor escaped from the dungeons. But the resemblance to a younger Balinor is uncanny, and it makes Uther's throat tight with panic. He wants to rip the boy away from Arthur, order the guards to arrest him, to kill him.
Then the Lady Helen breathes her last, a rattling, heavy sound that returns Uther to his senses. He cannot have the boy killed, much less arrested. Not after saving the prince's life in a hall full of witnesses, saving Arthur'slife, even if (or maybe because) he is Balinor's son.
The situation leaves him feeling out of his depth, shaken in a way he hasn't felt in a long, long time. He thinks Arthur is safe and the boy saved him and Balinor and opens his mouth.
The words come unbidden, without thought or caution, but they feel good. As though rewarding the boy with the position of being Arthur's manservant is the most natural thing in the world.
As though it's meant to be.
Later, after he dismissed his own manservant and is alone in his chambers he is horrified.
He let the son of a Dragonlord live. More than that, he gave him the perfect excuse to be near Arthur. To get close to him, close enough to kill, and the terror of that thought robs him of the breath he needs to shout for the guard.
Half a lifetime ago, Uther ordered Balinor's death. Nearly twenty years later, Balinor's son saves the life of Uther's son.
Uther spends the night sitting at the table in his chambers, his thoughts confused and painful, pretending not to notice the tremble in his fingers, the burn behind his eyes.
Uther is sick after breakfast.
He didn't leave guards with Arthur last night.
He strides towards his son's chambers, nearly breaking into a run, and why didn't he take precautions, what if Balinor's son has already taken his revenge for his father—
Arthur's voice is clearly audible in the corridor, even from a few paces away from the closed door.
"Honestly, Merlin, you have to be the most useless person in the castle. In the whole of the kingdom, really!"
Panic seizes Uther as he realises that Arthur is speaking to Balinor's son, insulting him as though he is nothing more than a mere commoner, and Uther is blinded with fear for a moment, fearing the boy's retribution, fearing the wrath of a Dragonlord.
The boy's answer is inaudible, but the tone is petulant and, given his heritage, disrespectful without a doubt. It's a testament to Uther's emotional turmoil that the memory of another voice, deeper but similarly disrespectful in the face of royalty, makes the tension in his shoulders uncoil.
The dragon remains undisturbed beneath the castle.
The guards aren't aware of the creature they are guarding, but they assure him that no one has entered the dungeon in years. This generation of guards is too young to have ever witnessed anyone venturing into the cave below the castle. Uther prefers it this way. The rumours speak the truth in this case, but for the sake of the people it is best that only few truly know about the prison beneath Camelot.
Uther is not fool enough to descend into the cave proper, but he gets close enough to the entrance to hear the rustle of the dragon's wings, the rumbling of fallen stone as the dragon settles, the rattle of the heavy chain.
He holds his breath.
"I know you are there, Uther Pendragon," the dragon says, spitting his name. "Hiding in the shadows, I see. Once a coward, always a coward. For the sake of the future I hope that your son is a braver man than you."
Leave my child alone! Fear stays Uther's tongue.
"Do you suffer yet, I wonder? Have you finally seen what your hatred and fear of magic has done to the land? Tell me, Uther Pendragon," the Great Dragon snarls, voice low and full of loathing, "has Igraine returned to haunt your dreams? Has she cursed you yet for killing her son? For ruthlessly destroying everything that is good and light within him, until he becomes nothing more than a miserable and hateful shadow of his self – until he becomes you?
Wild eyed and shaking, Uther tells the men guarding the cave that their services aren't needed any more. No one is to come down here ever again.
The guards stare at him in alarm, until Uther snaps at them to go, to never returnand they flee.
He cannot risk leaving men in such close proximity to the dragon, he realises now. Not when he can still hear the dragon's jeering laughter, hears it throughout the whole of the castle.
It's only when Uther is back in his chambers that he remembers why he ventured beneath the castle in the first place. But the dragon obviously remains chained, reduced to jeering taunts and petty lies. Besides, a bumbling country boy from a neighbouring kingdom would hardly know about the dragon that lies below Camelot.
No, the dragon will remain imprisoned until the end of its wretched life.
Still. He should have killed the thing when he had the chance.
A fortnight goes by, and the boy still lives.
During that time another attempt is made on Arthur's life, but his son triumphs over the traitorous coward. After the magical nature of the attack has been revealed Uther watched the boy carefully, but Balinor's son or not, the boy appeares to be nothing more than a clumsy, mumbling fool.
In truth, after seeing the boy nearly kill himself while inexpertly polishing Arthur's armour Uther begins to doubt himself. Balinor was proud and strong, nothing like this idiot of a manservant.
And yet, there is something in the slant of the boy's eyes, in the quickness of his smile that reminds him strongly of his old friend.
Uther cannot bring himself to arrest the boy.
Another month finds Uther in an abandoned part of the dungeons, a wineskin and rat his only companions.
He remembers coming here on the eve of his wedding. Gaius dragged him down there, four stolen wineskins in one hand and a wicked grin on his face. And in one of the cells, Balinor, grin mischievous and surrounded by more stolen wine.
Uther remembers being happy. In the company of his friends and about to marry the woman he loved, he thought that the happiness would last forever.
But it didn't, Uther thinks bitterly, taking a long drink. Nimueh was the first to turn against him. Balinor followed.
Balinor, who refused to give up magic; refused to see how evil and corruptive it is. Balinor, who argued and fought with him until Uther had no choice but to arrest him. Balinor, whose face twisted with rage when he realised that Uther had tricked him. Used him.
Twenty years later, drunk on wine and haunted by Balinor's ghost Uther drowns in shame and regret. He knows that imprisoning the Great Dragon and exterminating the rest was the only sensible course of action. Dragons were, and still are, the emblems of the Old Religion. If Camelot was to be purged of all magic, the dragons had to be purged as well.
Uther accepted this truth a long time ago, and did what was necessary. For twenty years, he has known this truth.
Now he sees the face of an old friend, hears the dragon's voice. And doubts.
Autumn turns into winter and turns into spring, and Uther turns a blind eye to the boy's heritage.
Uther is not stupid. He sees the boy saving Arthur's life time and again, sees him use magic. Indecision stays his hand. He fears the boy, both for his heritage and his magic. But every time he thinks to call the guard, to put an end to this farce, he sees Balinor.
He sees the look on Balinor's face when Uther gave the order to imprison the Great Dragon, and kill the rest, when he arrested him.
He sees the look Uther imagines must have been on Balinor's face when the guards informed him of his own execution.
The boy lives.
After a year Uther stops seeing Balinor's son and starts seeing Merlin.
Merlin keeps saving Arthur's life, and Arthur keeps saving his. Merlin uses magic recklessly, and Arthur defies his king.
It is a vicious cycle that goes on and on, and Uther doesn't know how to break it. Doesn't know if he wantsto break it, because the evening of the Beltane feast, Uther stops seeing Balinor.
He sees Igraine.
The feast has gone on for over an hour when Uther sees it.
Arthur looks around the servants lining up on the side of the hall in exasperation, pointedly raising his cup when he spots his manservant. Uther only notices because he seems to have developed a sort of sixth sense when it comes to the boy.
Merlin rushes forward and somehow manages to trip on the smooth stone of the Great Hall.
"Oh, for-" Arthur starts as his manservant spills wine all over himself, but thankfully doesn't drop the heavy jug. The few people who notice chuckle or shake their heads fondly. The clumsiness of the boy is legendary.
Uther doesn't know what makes him look at his son in that moment. Whenever he unobtrusively observes the two of them he always focuses on Merlin. He is, after all, the sorcerer hiding in a court that outlaws magic by punishment of death.
But Uther turns his head just that bit more, and sees the way Arthur gazes at his manservant.
Beneath the exasperation and exaggerated irritation is a softness Uther isn't used to seeing in his son. The look in Arthur's eyes speaks of fondness and yearning, and maybe even love.
And the world drops from underneath Uther's feet at that, because Uther knows how it feels to look like that.
Knows it, because before Arthur was born, Uther used to gaze at Igraine with that look. He knows how the feeling constrict one's heart, how it elates and crushes at the same time, because whenever Igraine was near him his heart would sing, and when she was away the loss of her presence was as keen as the loss of a limb.
"Uther?" Morgana asks, resting a hand on his arm. He starts, and turns to her.
"Pardon me," he says after a second, mouth dry. "Did you say something?" He follows her look, and consciously makes his aching fingers release his goblet.
"Are you feeling unwell?" She asks, and he feels touched by the concern in her voice. He focuses on her and does not turn when Merlin finally makes his way to the head table, and does not listen to Arthur mock his servant.
"I'm fine," he says. "Everything is fine."
Afterwards, Uther wonders how he did not see it before.
His son's feelings for his manservant are as plain as the day. Mostly, it's in his eyes, the way he looks at Merlin, but every know and then he would forget himself, and his feelings would envelop his words like fine honey, or gentle his touch to a near caress.
His son looks like a man in love and Uther marvels that no one else seems to be able to see it. Not even the boy seems to notice, though Uther cannot imagine why.
Uther watches, and wonders.
At night he lies in bed and remembers how it felt to love Igraine, remembers the lengths to which he would go to ensure her happiness, the lengths he did go to give her everything she ever wanted. He thinks of the too short time they had together, and wonders what it would have been like had he never been granted the privilege of loving her.
He wonders if love ever has a chance.
There are moments in life when one can feel the future balancing delicately on a knife's blade. There are other moments, when one can feel the balance shifting, tipping towards despair.
In his life Uther experienced many of the former, but only two of the latter.
One was on the day his son was born, when Igraine lay in bed looking sallow and spent and too weak to even hold her son once before magic claimed its price.
The second is now, as he lays in a puddle of dirt and watches Merlin kill a sorcerer that would have taken Uther's and Arthur's lives had Merlin not interfered at the last second. Never before has Uther seen the boy perform magic this openly, this brazenly, has never seen the boy's eyes burn with magic and fury and fear as he spoke the words that robbed another man of his life.
By rights, he should have the boy arrested and executed. His power is frightening, and he clearly knows how to use it to kill. But it's been over two years now since the boy first saved Arthur's life, and a month since Uther first saw the love brightening his son's eyes.
For two years Uther has turned a blind eye to the boy's magic. First for a friend, then for his son.
Now he closes his eyes for the memory of the woman he loved, and a future in which love doesn't end in tragedy.