Rating: T for mentions of sickness, injuries and offscreen violence
Characters: Merlin, Arthur, some Gaius
Genre: Gen, Hurt/Comfort, Angst
Disclaimer: Don't own Merlin
Summary: Merlin is nearly burned at the stake and he's not taking it well. Takes place in earlier seasons when Uther is still alive.
A/N: Not my first fanfic (hoo, boy, how it's not my first) but it is my first Merlin fic. Though it hasn't been beta'd, it has been edited profusely (and I don't take kindly to people playing spellchecker for me, just so you know.)
When that Day Comes
Merlin had always liked fire. Heat was great when you needed an enemy to drop his weapon, and there was something heart-pounding spectacular about controlling such a fierce and unpredictable element. Fire had always been there for him; from learning to control his powers at a tender age by lighting candles or destroying some enchanted beast, he'd always considered fire a trusted ally. He would even go so far as to call it a friend.
A friend that was now betraying him, creeping up the kindling toward his feet like a line of hellish-red insects looking to devour his flesh. Red flames rose, writhing, and even still feet away Merlin could feel the agonizing heat licking at his skin, taste the acrid smoke pouring through his mouth and nose into his lungs, choking him.
All he had to do was summon a storm and drown the fire. The spell was on the tip of his tongue, screaming to get out, but the wall of villagers chanting for his blood was like a dam between his voice and his mouth. If he called the storm, filled the empty sky with clouds, it would prove their accusations correct and he would still burn. He might be a deft hand at tossing people around with a word but it wouldn't take long for the entire village to swarm him. And he was tired, weak, the villagers as fond of a good beating as they were of a good burning.
The smaller flames were teasing the toes of his boots, now. Merlin coughed, his chest already burning, and the increasing lack of oxygen filled his vision with bursts of black. The words begged him to be said.
Merlin swallowed the words. He had to wait just a little longer until Arthur returned with the real assailant. If he used magic, the villagers wouldn't care who the bane of their existence had been all this time. They would see magic and they would go mad as starving wolves. Merlin only had to wait a little longer...
The flames licked at his toes. Lords, it was so hot. Merlin couldn't breathe. There was so much smoke. It was pouring into him, smothering him like hands. He could smell it and taste it and it was all that existed. The words, oh how he wanted to say the words. He had to say the words.
Wait, just wait.
He had to. He was burning already. Make it stop, by the gods, make it stop!
Not yet, wait, please!
Merlin screamed, the words lost in the incoherency of his terror.
Halfway through the jumbled madness of his spell, he thought he heard shouting and a cry rising above his own. He knew that cry, a battle cry, and knew the voice bellowing it.
Suddenly, Merlin's hands were free and he was falling. A strong, chain-mailed arm caught him around the chest, forcing air from him when it pressed against damaged ribs. He was hauled from the flames down the hill of kindling then dropped to land in a heap on the cool ground. But the smoke had taken residence in his lungs that no amount of coughing could dislodge.
"Breathe, Merlin, breathe! That's an order!"
It was easier said than done. Merlin tried, he really did, because you were supposed to obey orders – mostly obey them, but this was an order he iwanted/i to obey. But the smoke in his chest had no intentions of leaving.
Then there was a hard clap to his back, practically denting his spine, and it was as though the smoke had been flung out. He sucked in a breath that hurt but he didn't care, sucking in another after that and another. It cleared away the spots but did nothing to stop the world spinning. Rolling onto his back, Merlin saw Arthur hovering over him, his face blood and soot-stained, his expression both frantic and grim. Once Merlin had taken his fifth, less desperate breath, Arthur nodded once sharply then rose and put his back to Merlin.
What followed was a lot of shouting, Merlin was too busy satisfying the demands of his lungs to make out most of the words. He forced himself to try and listen, anyway. Shouting was normally never a good thing but was really not a good thing when it included his name. And the look on Arthur's face...
Something was wrong.
"You leave him be, do you hear me! He's not your blasted warlock. The man lying dead at your feet is. Why won't you listen!"
"He's a sorcerer! He is. I – I saw him do magic! I swear I did!" said a man. There was a chorus of agreement and the hiss and crunch of shifting feet, of people on the brink of charging.
"You people are insane! You're just... you're insane! You've burned so many without ever finding the truth. I find it for you and you're still out for blood. Why can you not stop!"
No one answered, too busy shouting and hollering their anger. Merlin rolled his head to the side to see villagers snarling like beasts, pointing bony fingers at Merlin, demanding his death. A burly man in brown advanced.
A sword pointed at his throat stayed him.
"You outnumber me," Arthur said, oddly calm yet with a voice cold as steel. "You could take me easy but not before I take as many of you with me as I can. Who cares to be the first?"
No one moved, but they continued to shift and murmur, a human stampede a hair's width away from snapping and killing both Merlin and Arthur.
"Merlin, can you stand?" Arthur asked. He already had his hand out, waiting for Merlin to take it, but his gaze never left the villagers. Merlin took the hand. Arthur pulled him to his feet and it was horrible. The world danced, the bones of Merlin's legs turned to liquid and there was no choice in the matter when he fell against Arthur.
"Good enough," Arthur said tightly. He half-carried Merlin backward away from the villagers. A short burst of a whistle brought Arthur's horse, Merlin's horse following faithfully behind. Camelot's pride in its trained steeds was well placed.
For Merlin, getting into the saddle was a lesson in terror. Still dizzy and aching, he needed help from Arthur, help laced with brief periods of distraction any of the villagers could have used against them. But then Merlin was in the saddle. Arthur climbed onto his own horse with far less effort.
"Hold on, Merlin," Arthur said, the rein's of Merlin's horse in hand. Both beasts turned, and a kick to the flanks of one horse sent both into a gallop, forcing villagers to leap aside or get trampled.
Riding was a misery when beaten and still choking on lingering smoke. Merlin wasn't sure which was worse: that he'd nearly burned or that it had been entirely uncalled for. He hadn't used magic, which considering how much danger they'd been in had been quite the feat. The sorcerer that had been plaguing the village hadn't been all that talented. He was a trickster, nothing more, a man with a few small spells up his sleeve to send the villagers into a sorcerer-hunting tizzy because he was mad, bored and both made for a vicious combination, untalented or not. The villagers had been so desperate to stop the little fires that would pop up in their fields or their animals going mad for no reason that they would burn anyone they thought responsible, from harmless old ladies to infants simply because of some odd birthmark.
They had tried to burn Merlin when a fire had started in one of the barns, and the trickster had gotten away, leaving Merlin to face the accusations.
Merlin, still drunk on lack of oxygen, nearly laughed when he thought of what Gaius would think. But this proved it. Merlin didn't mean to cause trouble, trouble just... seemed to like him, that was all. He was a klutz, even when all he was doing was standing there.
Shouting snapped him back to the here and now. Merlin forced his aching head to turn on his aching neck. They were outside the village on the road, but the villagers were after them with pitchforks and torches. Merlin nearly laughed at that, too, and would have if it hadn't been for the one man with the bow and arrow.
"Arthur," He forced his voice to croak. "Arthur, ride faster!"
Arthur glanced back, twice, the second time his eyes bulging out of his skull. He nudged his horse and the gallop became a run. The sudden burst of speed jolted Merlin and pain ripped through his body. He cried out, doubling over, just as something buzzed past his ear.
Another cry followed his. Merlin forced himself to look up, over his horse's head to Arthur.
An arrow shaft protruded from Arthur's bicep beneath where his arm guards did not protect him. But he continued to clutch the reins of Merlin's horse with everything he had.
Glancing back, Merlin saw the villagers shrink away as their quarry outdistanced them.
"Well that's gratitude for you," Arthur grunted. He slid from his horse with another grunt, his arm going immediately to his chest. He hunched over the injured limb while making his way over to Merlin to help him down. Merlin waved him off.
"No, I – I've got it," he panted. He didn't have it, not one bit, but like he was going to let Arthur do further damage to himself. Merlin tried to be careful and yet still ended up on his back on the ground, lost air and pain keeping him there for the time being.
Arthur's face - pale, haggard, and filthy with dried blood - appeared in Merlin's watery vision.
"I really don't think you do," he said, not amused or annoyed, simply tired. He held out the hand of his good arm. Merlin took it, having no choice since his body wasn't all that inclined to move. The best he could manage was sitting up, and even that was a misery, various pains causing him to grit his teeth and suck in his breath. He curled into himself, shivering as he rode the pain out.
"Any other time you know I wouldn't have let this slide but seeing as how... lords, Merlin are you all right?" Arthur said.
Merlin nodded, and he meant it. The pain was indeed ebbing to an ache. A very unpleasant ache but one he could manage.
Arthur sighed. "No, you're not all right. Stop being so bloody pig-headed. Just... sit there and rest for a moment."
"I can't. You're hurt."
"Nothing I can't deal with," Arthur said airily.
Merlin smirked weakly. "Now who's being pig-headed. Really, I can manage this. It's not like I have a choice, anyway. Bring me my bag, we'll... I don't know, we'll tend to each other. How about that?"
Arthur rolled his eyes but did as Merlin asked, dropping the bag next to him.
"I'll get water," Arthur said, pulling his water flask from his own bag. They'd both had a feeling that staying packed and ready to go had been the wise course of action when they'd first arrived at the village, considering how twitchy the villagers were. Good instincts, something else to be thankful for.
As well as a good sense of direction. They'd had to leave the roads but Arthur knew the area well enough to bring them to a shallow river before dark. There was still light enough to see without having to light a fire just yet, and no need to worry about lighting a fire when it was time. The villagers never went into the woods, thinking them damned. They thought everything outside their village was cursed, and it amazed Merlin they had dared to make the journey to Camelot to ask for help in the first place. More than once, in fact.
It made Merlin wonder, as he rummaged through his pack, how Uther would react to the village having turned on Arthur like they had. Arthur wasn't even supposed to have engaged in combat with anyone. He had gone to investigate, a lesson meant to teach Arthur the difference between a village truly plagued my magic and one merely crying wolf. The village had come to Camelot before, many times before, with tales of sorcery but no actual sorcery to show for it (the trickster may have been mad, but mad like a fox), and even Uther had grown weary of dealing with them.
Knowing Uther, he was going to take this hard – both because of the injury to his son and because the villagers had been telling the truth this whole time. It was going to make things three times as worse for those only suspected of using magic. Actual magic users... well, they mostly seemed to do fine on their own as long as they weren't doing anything at all.
A thump next to Merlin's leg made him startle. A sharp intake of breath made him cough wretchedly.
"Sorry! Sorry," Arthur said, sounding almost sincere to Merlin's surprise. The smooth neck of the water flask was pressed to his lips. "Here, drink."
Merlin gulped the cold water happily, almost over-indulging until Arthur pulled the flask away.
"Not too much or you'll get sick."
Merlin looked over at Arthur who was now sitting next to him, looking like how Merlin felt – bone weary and hurting.
"So, who first?" Arthur said flatly.
"You. We need to get that arrow out and the wound cleaned," Merlin said. He shifted and Arthur shifted, putting the wounded arm within easy reach. Merlin removed the arm guards, a once easy task made difficult by his shaking hands. He was cold all of a sudden, even with the day still mostly warm, and his stomach clenched uncomfortably.
With the arm guards out of the way, Merlin studied the wound closely. The arrow had hit high, burying into flesh and muscle and coming out the other side. Good. Pulling it free would do less damage.
"It's a through and through," Merlin said. He sighed. "You know what that means."
"Just do it," Arthur said, jaw set.
It was with another sigh that Merlin broke the shaft and pulled the arrow free. Arthur, to his credit as a knight, merely winced and grunted, but there was sweat on his brow and his jaw muscles were jumping. Merlin then turned his attention to the items he had pulled from his bag.
Gaius, who Merlin regarded as a father but sometimes thought acted as his mother, made sure Merlin had left with a full bag of medical supplies. Nothing excessive, but the very things needed for wounds such as Arthur's – clean cloths, herbs, a small jar of honey, a small water flask for healing purposes only and a small bowl carved from a stone to mix poultices. Merlin cleaned the wound, covered it with a poultice-honey mix then bound the arm.
"Your turn," Arthur said the moment Merlin was done. They shifted again putting Merlin within easy reach of Arthur.
The villagers had taken Merlin's jacket and neckerchief, which in the grand scheme of things was good – it meant less to remove – but Merlin still felt sour about it. He could have used his jacket right about now; he couldn't seem to stop shivering. Arthur lifting his shirt made it worse.
"Those villagers were definitely insane. Is there any part of you they didn't hit? Got anything for bruises?"
"N-not really," Merlin said through chattering teeth. He felt his shirt being lowered, felt its course texture scrape against the small cuts on his back. Arthur's grimy, suspicious face suddenly appeared before him.
"You're shaking. You all right?"
Merlin chuffed. "Getting a bit nippy out is all."
Arthur's brow tightened, but after a moment he nodded. "I'm sure. I should build a fire. I can barely see."
Arthur struggled to his feet. When he was up, Merlin felt something warm settle across his shoulders. He turned his head enough to see Arthur's cloak now covering him. He smiled privately as he pulled it around himself.
The moment of almost-warmth had to end, however, when the fire was built and Arthur resumed his scrutiny of Merlin's injuries, complete with unnecessary commentary.
"How are you so skinny? You know I really don't think you're supposed to be able to see a man's ribs that easily. It's a miracle you're able to carry my armor. Maybe you do have magic."
Merlin stiffened. Arthur, however, snorted. "You would have blown yourself up ages ago if that were the case. Those villagers will believe anything."
Merlin forced his lips to form a tremulous smile. Maybe it was the aches or the exhaustion turning his brain to sludge – or maybe frustration - but his mouth moved without his mind commanding it. "Maybe I do have magic and I turn you into a toad every night."
"More like turn yourself into a toad," Arthur muttered.
"You don't think I could?"
"I think you'd be foolish to try in the presence of the prince. What if my father walked in? He's not always fond of knocking, you know. Not unlike a certain manservant I know, actually."
"I do too knock! Besides, it's not like you have anything to hide from me. I do draw your bath water, remember." And, lords, was that ever the bane of his days.
"Anyway," Merlin said, "Guess it's a good thing I don't have magic, then."
"I doubt you'd be able to hide it for long if you did."
A strange maelstrom of pride and anger swirled in Merlin's chest – pride in knowing that the prince was wrong, anger because... well... because the prince was wrong. As much as Merlin enjoyed their back and forth bantering some days, some days it was hard. Some days the lies, the dread, the sacrifices, the deeds gone unnoticed and the deeds like an anvil on his heart piled up until he felt so blasted tired of it all that he wanted to shout the truth for all to hear. Today he blamed it on literal exhaustion compounded by a good beating and smoke-logged lungs.
"Well, you're a good mess, Merlin," Arthur said. "Looks as though a few embers got the better of you. Have you any more of that poultice?"
"I can do it," Merlin said, reaching for the small stone bowl. Arthur beat him to it.
"No, you can't. Some of them you won't be able to reach. Just let me handle it. Last thing I need is you swooning on me like a girl because you were so tired you missed a few cuts."
Arthur was both surprisingly gentle while still being efficient. Most of the damage was on the back, Merlin having curled into a ball during the beating, but most of the burns were on the front – a scattered few on Merlin's chest and a rather nasty one on his ankle. But no amount of careful handling could stop the sharp flutters of pain that made Merlin's face scrunch in a perpetual wince.
"Done," Arthur said. "I'm afraid there's not much I can do about the bruises. I'll need to bind your ribs, though. One of them felt like it was giving."
As Arthur used the last of their cloths to wrap Merlin's chest, he chuckled. "How sad is it that we've faced dragons, griffins, monsters, even the undead and it's a village of peasants that defeat us."
"I wouldn't say defeat. We did get out alive," Merlin said.
"It's the principal of the thing, Merlin. After everything we've faced you would think a horde of paranoid villagers would be nothing." Arthur clucked his tongue. "My father is not going to like this."
"Think he'll do something to the villagers?"
"He won't let this slide, that I'm certain of. They did try to kill the crowned prince and all. On the other hand, he might just blame it on some enchantment and let it pass. Hard to say when magic's involved."
When Arthur finished, he placed the cloak back over Merlin's shoulders. He then stood back eying his handy work and not liking what he saw.
"Well, you don't look any better..."
"Thanks," Merlin grumbled.
"But you don't look ready to drop dead on me." Arthur grabbed his pack, rummaged through it, and tossed Merlin a chunk of bread and salted meat. "Eat, rest, we've got a long ride tomorrow and the less stops we make the better."
Merlin wasn't hungry, but he forced himself to take as many bites of food as possible. All he wanted to do was curl up and sleep, and perhaps it was because of that bone-marrow deep exhaustion that he asked, "If I did have magic and you found out, would you burn me or behead me like that trickster?"
Arthur, about to take a bite of his own food, paused and twisted his face in disgust. "Merlin, really, you couldn't have thought of a less... ioff putting/i topic? You can't even make conversation without bungling it up, can you?"
Merlin shrugged. "Just being curious."
Arthur sighed and stared at Merlin. "It's a morbid curiosity. I really do wonder about you, sometimes, Merlin. And I'm not going to answer that. You don't have magic so what does it matter?"
Merlin smiled contritely. "You're right. Morbid curiosity. Sorry."
They ate, they packed should they need to make a hasty retreat, and they curled up on the cool ground, Arthur in his bedroll and Merlin in both his bedding and the cloak. They slept, and Merlin dreamed of smoke; black, oily coils of it roiling from snaking tongues of flame crawling up Merlin's boot, of clouds of smoke slithering down his throat, turning his lungs black, choking him like strong hands around his neck. It was all he could smell, could taste, the intense heat all he could feel peeling his skin from his bones until he was nothing more than ash floating away, as though he had never existed.
And Arthur stood there, watching.
Merlin woke choking on his own panicked gasp. His brain, still lost in the miring dregs of a nightmare, forced his body to scramble away. He could smell the smoke, taste it, feel the heat on his back. He had to get away and get away now.
A hand landed on his shoulder. Merlin panicked, flailing, fighting. He saw Arthur's face, Arthur who knew the truth, who was going to drag him to the flames and watch him burn..."
"Merlin. Merlin! Wake up, you're dreaming! Merlin, stop, you're going to hurt yourself!"
In the end it wasn't Arthur's voice that stopped him, it was the sudden rebellion of his stomach. It purged itself, decorating the ground with his barely digested dinner.
It was only three purges but it exhausted Merlin. He would have collapsed to the ground, right in the mess, if Arthur hadn't pulled him away – upright then scooting him over back to his bedding, helping him fall in a more gentle drop to lay shaking on blankets rather than the moist ground.
The fire had died sometime in the night, the pit little more than smoldering ashes. But Merlin could still smell the smoke, still taste it, and his stomach clenched until it cramped. He flinched when a calloused hand brushed across his forehead.
"Your skin feels warm. Just what we need, one of us developing a fever." Arthur sighed, leather creaking and dead leaves crunching as he sat back on his haunches. There eventually followed the sounds of rustling, splashing, then a cool, moist cloth settled on Merlin's forehead. "It's still too dark to move. Try to get as much rest as you can." Silence, then, "What was it?"
"What?" Merlin croaked.
"Your dream. What was it?"
Merlin swallowed, his dry throat clicking. "Burning alive."
A strong hand squeezed his shoulder. "It didn't happen, Merlin. I didn't let it."
Merlin wanted to make some pithy reply to let Arthur know that he was all right, that it was just a silly dream and nothing to worry about. But the smoke was still there, in his mouth, his nose, and he feared that to open his mouth would give his stomach another reason to purge. And with his luck, lately, that purge would take place all over Arthur's boots.
"You're all right, Merlin," Arthur said. His hand vanished. His presence, however, remained. Merlin could feel it next to him, continued to feel it until the sun rose and it was light enough for them to see and move on.
They made quite the sight, riding in blood-stained, smoke-stained, disheveled, exhausted and barely able to stay upright in their saddles. Between two nights of poor sleep and the pain of their injuries, riding had been a waking nightmare. Merlin was quite sure it was more the horses' doing that they found their way home than their own.
"I'd better take my cloak back, Merlin," Arthur said without meeting Merlin's eyes, which was as much contrition as Arthur ever showed. "You know how my father can be and I'm not in the mood to hear it." He moved his horse in close enough to take the cloak from Merlin's shoulders. It was a brief action, but in that moment their eyes met. In that moment, Arthur's body language spoke a silent apology.
"S'all right," Merlin said, grinning while also shivering. "Wouldn't want people getting us confused." Without his jacket and neckerchief, in a shirt that had seen better days, he was feeling decidedly exposed as though he wore no shirt at all.
Arthur barked a laugh. "Not even magic could make that possible."
They were met halfway into the courtyard by Arthur's father. Word always did seem to spread faster than a man could walk, or a horse in their case. He and Merlin had also been gone longer than intended, a regrettable outcome when one party had been beat near-unconscious and locked up while the other tracked down a rogue sorcerer with just enough talent to stay ahead.
Merlin did have to hand it to Uther, though; the man was granite on most days but at least he had the decency to go soft where the well-being of his son was concerned. Not a second was wasted, a flock of servants and knights aiding Arthur in his journey from the saddle to the ground, much to Arthur's obvious chagrin. But Leon Arthur had ordered to help Merlin.
"I brought him this far without him falling on his face, I'm not about to lose such an accomplishment," Arthur called back as he was herded into the castle. He would be taken to his chambers, Merlin knew, where Gaius would either be waiting or was heading there now.
Leon took Merlin to Gaius' chambers. Merlin decided en route that he had been too hard on riding while injured. It was nothing compared to trudging up several flights of stairs while injured. Little sleep and a stomach that refused most of what he ate had left him quick to exhaustion and breathless. Leon was practically dragging him by the time they made it to the tower.
"So much for a peaceful little village I take it?" Leon grunted as he deposited Merlin on Gaius' bed, easing him down onto his good side, then going so far as to remove his boots.
"You have no idea," Merlin groaned miserably. He felt Gaius' blanket spread over him, felt the reassuring grip of Leon's gloved hand. Then the knight's footfalls echoed away and Merlin was alone.
The fire in the hearth was low, the flames tiny fingers dancing shyly on the wood. But the smoke... the stench of it... like oil in Merlin's lungs. It made his stomach squirm even with nothing left to purge, and Merlin longed to throw water on the fire, to take away the stink and remember how to breathe.
He could feel the heat. Melting his skin. Skin peeling from bone. Merlin screamed but the smoke had smothered him. He could make no sound.
Arthur watched, his face like stone. A hand grabbed his shoulder.
Merlin startled upright sucking in air so fast he choked on it. The coughing that followed was harsh and painful, but the gentle claps on his back dislodged what ever it was trying to suffocate him.
"Easy. Easy my boy. That's it, breathe nice and slow."
"Gaius," Merlin coughed up simply to confirm what he already knew. The old man held him upright with a careful grip on his arm, his other hand rubbing small circles on Merlin's back.
"Yes, I'm here. I'm so sorry, Merlin. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Was I asleep?"
"From the look of it, and having quite the nightmare."
Merlin glanced groggily at the window and the growing twilight. Hadn't it just been afternoon not two minutes ago?
"Guess I was," Merlin said, chafing his forehead with the heel of his hand. Lords, did his head hurt.
It was as he was rubbing his head that the stench of smoke returned thicker than ever. Merlin recoiled, twisting his lip in disgust. The smoke was everywhere, soaked into his clothes and coating his skin like grime.
"Let me have a look at you," Gaius said, repositioning himself in from of Merlin. "All of you. Then food and rest."
"Can – can I have a bath?" Merlin asked, wincing at how pathetic he sounded, as though needing to bathe just to stop smelling of smoke was something to be ashamed of. But when Gaius helped him remove his shirt, when it was lying pooled on the floor, taking some of the smell with it, he didn't care. He wanted to be clean. He wanted the smell gone.
Gaius looked at him in concern. "Of course, Merlin. In fact it would be quite useful in cleaning some of these cuts. I hope you don't mind if we make it simple. I would like you to get as much rest as possible. Prince Arthur told us what happened. He was quite insistent that I go and check on you as soon as possible but Uther wouldn't have it."
"How is Arthur?"
"Doing quite well," Gaius said, unwrapping some of the bandages. "You treated the wound with great skill, Merlin. I might make a healer of you, yet. It should heal with little to no complications." The old man winced with each cut and bruise he uncovered. "I see why he was worried."
Merlin couldn't help a small smirk. "Arthur was worried about me?"
"Oh, don't let it go to your head," Gaius said, but smiling back. It didn't last. "Let's get you cleaned up."
Gaius had Merlin sit on one of the stools, wrapped in a spare blanket, while Giaus filled the kettle with water and put it over the flames. It wasn't a long wait, the fire stoked and the water heated just enough to be comfortably warm and cleansing. When Gaius deemed it ready enough he emptied it into the bucket, adding various herbs to heal and remove stench. He then put more water on to warm.
Merlin, with Gaius' help, had stripped but kept the blanket wrapped around his waist and covering his legs. Sometimes the people of the castle knocked, sometimes they didn't, and Merlin wasn't taking any chances. It also helped keep him warm, not by much but better than if he were completely naked. Merlin washed his front first with a cloth. He was intent on doing this on his own, certain he was capable of it. But the moment he went for his back his ribs cramped and various bruises pulled, forcing a grunt from him.
Gaius, filling the bucket with more water and herbs, sighed at the boy's stubborn resolve. "You had best let me do that, Merlin. It's your back I want clean since that took the brunt."
It was with a slight glower that Merlin held the rag up for Gaius to take. He grimaced at the course fabric scraping over the bruises, the cuts and the knobs of his spine. Gaius was a master at treating wounds while causing as little pain as possible, but completely avoiding discomfort not even a master could accomplish. Merlin stared at the flames, bright and painful to his eyes. He could almost feel them, like they were reaching for him, hungry to devour him. Merlin looked away at one of Gaius' shelves, suddenly glad for the distracting discomfort.
"I didn't use magic this time," Merlin said.
The scrubbing paused, then resumed.
"No magic at all?" Gaius asked, amazed.
Merlin shook his head. "None. I was nearly burned, anyway." He took a shuddering breath. "Do you think – what do you think Arthur would do, if he ever found out?"
"Let us hope that he doesn't."
"But if he did. If something happened where I had no choice but to use magic in front of him, what do you think he would do?"
The rag slopped into the bucket. Water splashed painfully loud when Gaius wrung it. Headaches and fatigue always did make things more agonizing. The rag returned to Merlin's back, scraping over the tender skin and knobby bones.
"Gaius?" Merlin prompted.
"I'm sorry, Merlin. It is difficult to say. Uther has filled his head with tales of the evils of magic, and Arthur's loyalty is first and foremost to his king."
Merlin's shoulders sagged.
"But that does not mean there is no hope. I'm sure that were he ever to witness you using magic, he would see you using it for good and only good, and he would take that into consideration. He might only banish you."
"Oh, only banish me. Lovely."
"Well I would consider that a far better fate than being burned at the stake."
Merlin shuddered, burying his face in his hands. "I don't want to die like that," he said, and hated how broken it sounded.
Gaius' hand rested on Merlin's wet shoulder. "It won't Merlin. Arthur may have been influenced by his father but he is still a fair man. Besides, you wouldn't be the first I had... iescorted/i from the kingdom to avoid a similar fate."
Merlin lifted his face and turned it to see Gaius looking rather pleased with himself. Merlin chuffed, and both men indulged in a little light laughter.
"Have faith in Arthur, Merlin," Gaius said. "Your fates are entwined to help make a better world, and I highly doubt that better world begins with you being burned for sorcery. I do believe that when the time does come, it will be for the good of you both. When it happens, it will be because it was meant to happen."
"Can't it meant to be now? So I can get it over with?"
Gaius regarded him sadly.
Merlin sighed. "You're right. Probably should wait until Arthur is king or something." He shivered. Not shuddered but a full-body quake that had nothing to do with being cold. "Thing is... Sometimes... sometimes I'm tempted. But then I think about when he went to Morgause, when he saw his mother, when he believed his father had betrayed her. He was ready to kill Uther, Gaius. And I had to lie to him, tell him magic was evil. And it makes me afraid of the day he does find out. What if he thinks I betrayed him and he-" Merlin swallowed. "Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever have the courage to tell him. I'm scared, Gaius. I'm scared... I'm scared he'll hate me for it."
The rag slopped into the bucket. Gaius pulled a chair next to Merlin, sat and wrapped an arm around Merlin's shoulders, pulling the boy against him.
"I believe," Gaius said, "That when the time comes, it will not be easy. But it will be worth it. I believe Arthur will be the honorable man he has always been, and will see only the loyal man you have always been. And that, more than magic or swords, will be what brings about the peace this land is destined for."
It was different, this time. This time, they were chased by the villagers and captured. This time, the flames devoured both Merlin and Arthur. But Merlin still woke with a gasp, body flinging itself out of bed until he realized he was in a bed, not on a pile of wood or the hard ground. But the dream echoed harshly in his mind, fogging his brain. He sat there, hunched over, face in his hands as he fought back the urge to sob.
"Here, drink this," someone said, prying one of his hands away from his face and pressing a cup into his palm. Merlin took it and gulped it all down without pausing for breath.
"Um... you're welcome?"
Merlin froze. He turned his head to see not Gaius but Arthur sitting on the bed next to him, and reality hit him like a giant wave of ice.
"Your breakfast!" He gasped. "I haven't brought it. I haven't polished your armor, I haven't-" He started getting up. Arthur grabbed him by the bottom of his night shirt and tugged him back down.
"You're injured and not the only servant in this castle," Arthur said in mild exasperation. "So please relax before you drop dead at my feet. I don't think Gaius would be too pleased with me if that happened."
But the light banter wasn't enough to dispel the shakes from both the dream and the sudden panic over neglected duties. It didn't go unnoticed.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked, and there was that honest to goodness worry again, even if it was touched with mild irritation. "I thought Gaius said your fever had passed." Arthur took Merlin's blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders.
Merlin tugged it tightly around himself. "Sorry. Bad dreams."
"Still? It's been two days."
"It has?" Merlin said, squinting at his window. "Didn't we just get back yesterday?"
"And here I thought you were hopeless when you were healthy. But Gaius did say you were in and out. We both were, apparently, but you longer."
Merlin looked at Arthur, dressed in his usual clothes but with the addition of a sling for his arm. He looked much better. A little pale, perhaps, but he had lost blood. Merlin dreaded to think what he looked like. His hands alone said it wasn't good, almost white and rather knobby.
"Anyway," Arthur said. "I won't keep you. Merely wanted to ensure how far along you were coming. My armor isn't going to polish itself, you know."
Merlin chuckled. "And here I thought you were more of a prat when iyou/i were healthy."
Arthur punched him in the shoulder, but it was light, barely felt. "You must be feeling better if you think you can talk to me like that."
"When have I ever not talked to you like that?"
Arthur shook his head. "Keep it up and I will have you polish my armor, sick or not." He gave Merlin another light punch in the shoulder. Merlin punched him back.
"You know you hit like a girl, Merlin," Arthur said. But he left, chuckling, Merlin chuckling with him.
Then Merlin thought of the day when Arthur would find out, when everything would change. They might never banter like this again.
Unless they would. Unless it wouldn't matter that Merlin had magic, just like it didn't matter that Merlin was a servant, and that kings and princes weren't supposed to worry about servants. They weren't supposed to treat their wounds, give them their cloak because they were cold, or come to see if they were getting better.
Maybe Gaius was right.
But for now, Merlin decided not to worry on it. There would come a time when Arthur would know, but that time wasn't now. When it did come, whatever the initial, immediate reaction, Merlin would trust Arthur, and would make sure Arthur knew he could always trust Merlin in return.
Merlin curled back up in bed. This time, he didn't dream.