Well, here we go.

hpenchantress, I hope you got that homework done... ;D


~12~ Once Bitten, Twice Shy

The noose was coarse and merciless around his neck. It rubbed cruelly against his skin, a constant reminder of his inevitable doom.

There were two score Essetirian soldiers standing at attention around the gallows. An audience of grovelling slaves was separated from the regal crowd of highborn gents and ladies by yet another line of soldiers. Over twenty shackled men and women stood behind the stage, heads bowed in submission. Ten other prisoners, waiting anxiously on the gallows, were being covered by grey hoods one by one. Merlin would soon be next.

The warlock found himself scanning the crowd frantically for his mother. Several times, he forced himself to stop, but his eyes unwillingly continued to search for the woman he trusted most in the world. His scrutinizing was in vain, and he wasn't sure if the ache that blossomed in his chest was relief or despair.

Hanging. What a way to go. After all he'd been through...

It seemed heartless, unjust. Better to fall off a horse, black out and drown in a creek. Better to trip down the stairs and snap his neck. Better to die of food poisoning! But no, a hanging shall be his reward for following his life, for serving his destiny for the greater good. A hanging at the hands of a monster and his dogs. It wasn't fair.

Without pause, Merlin's hands worked furiously at the bonds behind his back; his wrists were raw from chafing against the rope. He could use magic, of course, and had tried several times, but Severus the sorcerer was prepared, and particularly vicious with his binding and holding spells. The wards were completely unfamiliar, and thwarted Merlin's every effort to liberate himself. The other prisoners were similarly bound so he could not free even them. Perhaps if he had a knife, he could cut the rope, for why would Severus worry about physical escape methods?

For about the fifth time, Merlin glowered at the gallows lever, which, when pulled, would end the life of ten people simultaneously. But, for the fifth time, his spell rebounded, hitting the invisible barriers he could not overcome. He had never faced anything like them.

Eventually, his raw wrists couldn't take anymore, and he stopped to rest. He took the time to scout the area and gather his bearings, and he saw Romulus sitting on a podium to the left, looking stormy and vengeful. It was clear he hadn't wanted his 'playmates' to be stolen away by a simple hanging. Where was the fun in that? Around the Torturer were five other sorcerers. Merlin could sense their taint from the gallows.

To the right were the stables. The mutterings of uneasy horses were barely heard over the restless audience. Behind, Merlin remembered, loomed the keep of Essetir Castle, connected to the outer battlements via a stone bridge, where soldiers could swiftly rush to defend the walls.

Twenty paces before the gallows, past the audience, was another stage set at the foot of a grand tower. Below a green and black canvas was a throne, and a few sets of more plain chairs. There, on the throne, must be where the lord of Essetir will sit.

Three nooses down, the hangman was covering a captive's head with a sack. Though Merlin couldn't see the captive's features, he could tell by the man's stature and filthy curses that it was Gwaine.

Gwaine. If the ruffian was here, caught and awaiting execution, then the others must be as well, somewhere in the lineup of the doomed and damned behind the gallows, shackled like lost souls awaiting Hell.

He could hear Lucia weeping as her head, too, was covered. He felt like weeping with her. He had brought this upon all of the kitchen slaves. It was his fault.

So save them.

But how?

Save them.

"Ladies and gentlemen! His Majesty Morgrim III, king of Essetir, Lord of..."

king? He calls himself a king? Merlin turned his ears off from the announcer and continued to look for a means of diversion. He was sure that screaming, "Look! A distraction!" wasn't going to cut it this time. Eventually, his attention was recaptured and dragged to a procession of nobles, led by a dashing man riding proudly through the parting crowd on a muscular roan steed. Merlin recognized the beast as Arthur's best horse, taken when he had been enslaved.

How dare he? Merlin raged inwardly, feeling his teeth grind, and found himself wondering what had become of his friend and master. His enquiry was soon answered.

After Lord Morgrim and his extravagantly-dressed nobles came a cart drawn by a pathetically-thin mule, flanked by a pair of armoured, mounted guards, halberds in hand. On the cart was a metal cage. His wrists chained high to the front side of the cell, Arthur sagged lifelessly on his knees, head resting forward against his suspended arms.

The king of Camelot was announced, and the sophisticated applause from the aristocrats was swallowed by the heart-wrenching wave of despair that rose from the slaves. Their final hope of salvation was lost with the capture of Essetir's archenemy. Morgrim's lip curled in disgust and indifference at the wails of the hapless slaves, and he ignored the colourful threats and oaths of retribution thrown at him as he dismounted the roan stallion and took his seat on the throne.

When a brave woman from the crowd of workers broke free of the others and charged at the cart, Merlin's yell of, "No!" was drowned out by the roar of the spectators. The woman hurtled herself onto the cart with surprising agility and starting hitting the lock of the cage with a rock. A mounted guard nonchalantly hit the woman in the back with his halberd, and she crumpled, howling in pain. She rolled off the cart and was run over by the wheels. The crowd was outraged, but was held in check by the guards of Essetir.

The sounds must have revived Arthur, for, as Merlin warily watched him for signs of life, the king finally raised his head, eyes squinting against the light. The servant's heart clenched. Arthur was alive, at least. But for how long?

The king glanced sluggishly up at his wrists, manacled to the metal bars, then at his surroundings as the cart was backed into place near Morgrim's throne podium. He got off his knees and tugged fruitlessly at the chains, teeth baring into a snarl. Then his gaze locked with Merlin's across the stretch of twenty strides, over the sea of various faces, and as reality caught up, his expression became one of fury and hopelessness.

Merlin surrendered to his tears of despair. He heard a thudding behind him, and suddenly he went blind as a rough sack was pulled over his head. There was a malicious chuckle, and Merlin recognized it as Severus's.

"Die for real now," he hissed, and even through the bag over his face, Merlin could smell the stench of rancid onions. "A swift drop, a sudden stop, an' no more wee bunny."

It was more of a surprise to the warlock than the slaver when Merlin snarled and tried to kick him. Bursts of contemptuous laughter spewed from the spectators. Merlin couldn't enjoy the victory, for the sorcerer slammed a vengeful fist into his stomach with the power of a battering ram. Doubling over, Merlin choked as the rope pulled taunt around his neck. He straightened, heart throbbing. Severus left the gallows, still snickering in derision.

"I shall enjoy this."

The darkness of the cover and the feel of the noose on his throat quickened Merlin's breathing. Panic, struggling to take over, was winning out.

"By decree of king Morgrim III of Essetir, Lord of Northern Albion, Ruler of the Coast, those convicted of crimes against the empire are sentenced to death." The rehearsed terms of the announcer echoed emptily around the courtyard. "These crimes being both plenty and sinister in nature, the convicts of the following transgressions do now stand before you: treason, hearsay, murder, vandalism, kidnapping, trespassing, and harbouring fugitives from the crown. By decree, all those convicted of said crimes are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until death doth ensue."

Murder? Kidnapping? What is this rubbish? Merlin could hear the other nine shifting uneasily to his left, though his pounding heart nearly drowned them out. The reining panic squirmed with glee and forced the warlock to rock from foot to foot, and tried to make him break down completely.

No! he snapped at it, grasping onto the remains of his calm composure for the sake of dignity. I shall not be overcome.

Even so, he felt his breathing rate increase, and could do nothing to slow it as he heard footsteps thud along the podium behind him. The hangman was heading for the lever that would drop the trapdoors below the convicts' feet, including Merlin's.

The warlock heard Lucia crying beside him still. Gwaine continued to curse foully. Merlin sobbed, "Freya—"

The floor disappeared.

۞ Ӂ ۞

If I close my eyes, this will never happen.

If I keep my mouth sealed, it won't admit defeat.

If I shut my ears from the world, I won't hear my friends die.

Arthur felt like a child hiding from a nightmare. But it wasn't a nightmare. It was for real. The anxious aura of all, the sudden calm, then the creak of the wooden trigger and the thud of dropping trapdoors, the gasp of the crowd. Finally, the snap of a life ending in less than a heartbeat. It was all too, and agonizingly, real.

He opened his eyes, and forced himself to stare between the bars of his cage into the face of his failure, to burn the memory into his mind forever. A single, traitorous tear rolled free, creating a clean streak through the grit down his cheek. It had fallen off his chin by the time he registered what he was truly seeing.

It was not a row of dangling corpses, now fodder for crows. Nor was it a miraculous phenomenon where the trapdoors refused to drop and left the ten captives safe. No, it was something in between.

Three bodies dangled lifeless. Another stood looking confused, his covered head turning from side to side. The podium beneath his feet had never collapsed. The last six were hanging from their nooses, but the trapdoors hadn't fallen properly, or fast enough. The six were helpless as they kicked and thrashed, unable to die quickly. One of those was Merlin.

Lord Morgrim's jovial, booming laugh blared across the courtyard.

"What a performance this has turned out to be! The hangman never properly attended to his gallows!" Again he let out a bark of laughter. "I'm so sorry, your majesty," Morgrim sneered at Arthur the way only a malevolent leader could sneer, "now we must watch them strangle to death!"

"Now!"

There was a shrill whistle and a thud, followed by a howl of agony. The hangman, who was struggling to pull the gallows's lever all the way down, slumped lifelessly, a crossbow bolt between his shoulder blades.

For a moment, all could only stare in shock, and then there was a mad panic.

"Order! Order!"

Despite Morgrim's bellowed commands, his sergeants were unable to keep control over the terrified crowd. When two of the mounted guards fell, bolts emerging from their necks, both both slaves and nobles alike fled for the gates, pushing and shoving, trampling those unfortunate enough to fall.

"They're locked! We're trapped!"

Wails of terror rose. Chaos reigned as more soldiers died from waspish bolts of invisible archers, and horses panicked at the noise and commotion.

Arthur, staring with his eyes wide from his prison, barely heard Morgrim's roars of anger.

"Romulus! Severus! Calm this rabble down, or feel the noose around your necks!"

From the podium on Arthur's right, Romulus began ordering his five sorcerers about. Then, in quick session, three of those mages fell, screaming in pain, dying by the crossbow before they hit the ground.

Furious, Morgrim drew his sword and kicked his throne uselessly, a child throwing a temper tantrum. Then he froze, staring at the gallows. Arthur followed his gaze, and blinked in surprise.

A man bearing the serpent crest of Essetir had shoved his way through the panicky crowd and hurtled himself onto the stage of nooses. He drew his sword and sliced the bonds of the fortunate man who avoided the hanging entirely, the one whose trapdoor never even budged. Hands now free, the man pulled of the noose and bag from over his head. It was Gwaine.

The Essetirian soldier tossed Gwaine a dagger and they both got to work cutting down those still hanging, those still choking slowly to death.

"Guards, guards! Stop them!" Morgrim pointed frantically at the gallows with his sword, jiggling from one foot to the other. When no one heard him, or all ignored him, he prepared to drop off from the podium, but the crowd was too thick with slaves and soldiers. He stamped his foot in frustration. Arthur almost laughed.

The king watched with eager anticipation, though dared not hope, as Gwaine hacked the rope holding Merlin suspended. The servant fell and disappeared through the trapdoor below, and was lost from Arthur's sight.

Get up, he thought urgently. Get up and get out! Let me see you alive.

When the loud thunderclap exploded throughout the courtyard, order was almost restored. Slaves and nobles cowered, clamping their hands over their ears and cringing from the magic-created noise. The militarily disciplined soldiers of Essetir immediately set about straightening things out, the ones still on horses herding the workers into semi-organized groups. Then the Essetirian turncoat on the gallows put two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly.

From the stables to the western side of the yard suddenly burst forth a stampede of terrified horses. They crashed through the lines of soldiers and wrecked more havoc, knocking men flying or trampling them underfoot. The second implosion of thunder from Severus only succeeded in scaring the poor beasts even further. They were already being pushed to the limits: the mixture of loud, crashing noise and fire was none-too soothing for them – Arthur watched as the stables went up in flames. This was not a desperate, two-minute-made plan. This was a well conducted break-out, and it was working.

"Greetings, your royal excellency!"

Arthur's neck hurt as he snapped it around to see a young man clamber onto the cart with him and unlocked the cage with a ring of keys.

"Sean! What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"Like I said, I owe you my life," replied the youth, pulling the cage door open. "I told you you haven't seen the last of me!"

Sean unlocked the manacles around Arthur's wrists.

"Where did you get the keys?"

The man grinned. "New friends. Giant friends."

"Did you do this?" Arthur watched the chaos of the courtyard, which worsened with every moment.

"Me? No. Some other hotshots beat me to it!" He threw Arthur's arm over his own shoulders and helped him off the cart, before supporting him behind Morgrim's throne podium. There, an inconspicuous door was open to the tower, ready to admit them. Inside was a dark corridor. The youth hesitated. "Righty and Lefty should be breaking the gates down by now. They're really quite nice guys, those two. Smarter than they seem—"

"Wait for me!"

Sean nearly dodged inside the door at the voice barely heard over the din, but Arthur intervened in protest, and Merlin rounded about the throne podium and slid to a stop beside them.

"Whoo, that was close," said the servant, panting, hands on his knees.

Sean looked astonished. "Merlin? What are you doing here?"

The servant frowned. "Do I know you?"

"It's me! Sean, from Ealdor, remember?"

Merlin blinked, and then recollection spread across his features. "Oh, oh, Sean! How are you, mate?"

"Tired. Help me carry him?"

Merlin grabbed Arthur's other arm in support, grinning at the king's amazed, yet grateful, look.

"I thought you were a goner for sure, Merlin," he said, his relief showing through his pain.

"So did I," the servant replied grimly. "In fact I still may be one."

Arthur laughed, and it felt good to do so. "Imagine your life not employed to me," he chortled. "It would've been a lot quieter."

"When we get back, I'm resigning."

"I don't think so, idiot."

"Just watch me, your highness."

Arthur paused. "...What did you say?"

The servant's expression became one of distress. His words were sincere and courteous. "I'm sorry, your majesty. Did I offend you?"

Arthur stared at him, eyes wide. Then his hand suddenly flew to Sean's knife belt, snatched out a dagger and stabbed Merlin in the throat.

Sean gasped as blood squirted from the servant's neck and mouth, and he dropped the king as he retreated. Arthur's hand was still grasping the dagger as he fell, and it tore out of Merlin's flesh, releasing more blood.

"Arthur, what have you done?"

"Sean, get back! It's not Merlin."

"What?"

The Merlin who was not Merlin grasped his neck, coughing blood and choking, and he fell to his knees. He stared accusingly into Arthur's eyes, betrayed.

Arthur sneered. "For future reference, Severus, I'm the prat."

The illusion slumped lifelessly, and then dissipated like smoke into the ground.

"Saints alive," Sean breathed.

"Severus knows where we are," Arthur grunted, using the wall to help himself stand. "We can't stay here."


An appropriate chapter title, wouldn't you agree?

"You can't argue with all the fools in the world. It's better to let them have their way, then trick them when they're not paying attention." ~ Brom (Eragon)