Characters: Merlin, Arthur, Gaius, some Gwen, Hunith
Summary: AU of The Dragon's Call. Arthur rescues a slave boy. Destiny can begin.
A/N: Please indulge me while I indulge, because this is pure indulgence. It's also based on a bit of a theory of mine, because I was thinking one day about why Hunith would send her wizard son to a land that hates magic, and it got me wondering if it wasn't just about sending him to someone who could help him understand his powers (Gaius) but also to put him where she knew no one would try to use him for his powers - namely Cenred, who may not care much about those distant little villages but might have if rumor ever reached him of the dark-haired boy with the strange golden eyes. Then, one thought led to another and this story was born.
If you would like to explore the concept of Cenred - or anyone else possibly having discovered Merlin before he got to Camelot - please feel free. In fact I encourage it.
So Much More
Merlin was fed up, that's what it all came down to: tired of being hungry, tired of being threatened, tired of the pain, the broken promises, the endless demands and tired of being... well, tired. He was tired, and when tired in mind, body and soul one didn't merely lack effort, they had no more effort to give because they didn't give a idamn/i. And no amount of yelling, kicking, being tossed around and threatened with promises of a good lashing and no rations for a week was going to change that.
Merlin lay on the ground and took it all – the yelling, the kicking, with the bonus of the magical chains having an unpleasant run-in with his back and ribs. He curled his body against it, fat lot of good it did, and would have happily used his magic to make it all stop if the pain hadn't been so horribly distracting.
But all he had to do was hold out until his mind ceased its infernal hold on consciousness, then let him remain unconscious until his body finally gave up the ghost.
Merlin had never considered himself a quitter - not when Cenred's men had ripped him away from his home and mother at the age of fourteen, not when the beatings began, and the hunger, and being chained both body and magic day in and day out unless Cenred needed his powers, then it was do as you're told and maybe you'll eat, and Merlin too hungry and weak not to comply. Not even when they would drug him during his more rebellious phases in which he attempted to escape.
So as far as he was concerned, he wasn't giving up, he was taking the only alternative still in his control. And if dying meant he no longer had to hurt people in the name of someone else for a mere crust of bread... well, he supposed he couldn't be blamed for taking the easy way out (though easy his ass, because it hurt, it hurt so much, his ribs cracking and his blood slicking his skin).
Then someone had to bellow, "Stop, leave him be!" The pain had to end, which was a good thing, yes, except for the part where he was still alive. Because when he cracked his eyes open to see his benefactor standing over him looking resplendent as a king in red and gold, he immediately wondered what new and creative ways were awaiting him to get him to hurt others for the sake of yet another tyrant, and he wondered why his damned body refused to let go.
Defeating Cenred's patrol shouldn't have been this easy – the man armed himself with bloody sorcerers, for goodness sake – and even with the survivors subdued, the hairs on the back of Arthur's neck stood on end still waiting for a trap. But as he and the knights scoured the forest in search of said trap, what he got was a pathetic display of cowardice in the form of one of Cenred's men beating some poor slave boy near to death with a chain.
"Stop, leave him be!" Arthur bellowed, charging forward. The man ceased his abuse, his fury now turned on Arthur – an imbecilic mistake if there ever was one. The man went flailing after Arthur, sword and chain swinging and battle cry more of a battle warble. One quick cut to the chest and he was down, just another body to add to the pile and easily ignored in favor of the slave boy.
Arthur honestly didn't expect the boy to be alive, covered in blood as he was, clothes thread-bare and tattered and, lords, had they not fed him, iever/i? But when Arthur crouched beside the body and pressed his fingers to the filthy throat, he felt the thready throb of a pulse. It didn't seem possible. Arthur could see the cuts and bruises through the tears in the shirt, saw the bloodied chain lying forgotten on the ground, and yet the boy breathed – a shuddery, fragile breath but a breath none the less.
Then the boy stopped being Arthur's to worry about. Leon arrived along with Sir Giles and Sir Jeffreys, and they shared in Arthur's shock that the boy still lived. Sir Giles, always practical, was certain that death most likely wasn't long for the poor lad, while at the same time he unclasped his cloak to wrap the battered yet very-much-alive body and carry it back to the horses. They did what they could for the boy, of course, coaxing water on him, wrapping his wounds, putting the honey Gaius had given them onto the worst of the lacerations and keeping him covered in a cloak to stay warm. The rest would be up to him, but considering the state of his body and what he must have been through, Arthur had to wonder if the boy still had the will to live.
Merlin cursed himself for still having the will to live. Of course he would still have it because he wasn't a quitter after all and no amount of wanting his damn misery to end would change that.
Or maybe it was hope he was clinging to, that tenacious need that transcended all agony to one day taste freedom and remember what it was like; to remember life as it had been when there was no pain and hunger, only happiness and a mother's love for her son.
Lords, how long had it been since he allowed himself to think of his mum? He wasn't supposed to be thinking of her, the only pain he didn't have to endure if he could help it, the only control he'd ever had when he could manage it.
Too late. He'd thought about her - her face twisted in anguish as she watched her son being tossed into a cage binding his magic with runes - and it made his heart beat so hard it hurt.
He must have whimpered when someone asked him if he was all right. Every meager muscle in Merlin's body tensed at the question. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had asked him that. But they would ask him that if they wanted to make sure he was still alive, to determine whether keeping him and applying him to their own needs was worth the price of fixing the damage. Cenred had never had all that much patience for rebellious sorcerers, and would have run Merlin through at the first sign of recalcitrance if some bloody druid hadn't gone on and on about Merlin being some powerful, important git called Emrys.
And if there were druids in this new kingdom as well then they would tell this new king what the other druids had told Cenred, and then they would chain Merlin, starve him, hit him, possibly drug him because that's what happened when a sorcerer didn't want to work for Cenred willingly. Maybe this new king would offer Merlin riches and a comfortable life, too, in exchange for doing as told and hurting people even if those people were children.
Merlin wondered if he would take the offer, this time. Maybe he should. He could use it to escape... no, he had already tried that with Cenred and Cenred had threatened his mother, then had him chained for three days in the dungeon. Except these people didn't know he had a mother... but they could still capture him with their other sorcerers and chain him like Cenred had.
Merlin wished his body would give up and die already, but no. It had to spite him by keeping his heart pumping but the rest of him too weak to so much as light a candle with a thought. Stupid body.
The slave boy's presence was disconcerting. Arthur had rescued his fair share of slaves but usually in groups and usually in good enough condition to be left at a nearby village where they would be cared for with aid from the kingdom, while Arthur and his men escorted the slavers to Camelot's dungeons.
But Camelot was closer than the nearest village, and the boy too weak and injured to risk a detour to a place that may or may not have a skilled enough healer to care for him. There was also a need, of sorts, to ensure that the rescue of the boy wasn't in vain if he did indeed survive the journey, and Gaius was the best healer in the region. If he couldn't save the boy, then no one could.
What was disconcerting, however, wasn't the usual dull-eyed blankness and constant nervous tension normally associated with a freed slave, nor was it the tears the boy kept shedding at random. It was that they were silent tears – no sobbing, no hiccuping, just the tears as though his eyes were ridding his body of excess moisture and nothing more. He had yet to talk, let alone look at anyone directly but that, too, was part and parcel to a former slave. Getting him to eat or drink anything was turning into an ordeal, full of gentle coaxing and demanding much patience. Sir Kay had attempted to threaten the boy hoping to scare him into eating but that had only made the boy curl up and cover his head as though expecting a beating, and the way he had quaked had left Kay so disturbed he couldn't even look at the boy without going pale.
When the boy did eat and drink, it was mostly when he was tired, perhaps too tired to realize what he was doing.
Or maybe the boy had a strong will to live, after all.
Whatever it was keeping this boy's life in his body, Arthur doubted he would ever find out. They were home, passing through the gate's of Camelot. On entering the courtyard, Arthur took one last look at the boy wrapped head to foot in a red cloak, the only parts of him visible his matted black hair and listless blue eyes, then he ordered him to be taken Gaius and that he was to be well cared for.
He wondered if he would cross paths with the boy again. He mostly doubted it.
They didn't take him to a dungeon, but then they wouldn't with how damaged he was, and Merlin knew a healer's chambers when he saw one (more accurately smelled one, with its herbs and potions meant to keep a damaged body alive even while the owner of that body wished to die). The knight carrying him had set him on a cot, keeping him wrapped in the cloak. The physician, however, wasn't in, leaving the knight torn between waiting or hurrying matters along by finding the physician himself.
The knight chose the latter.
Merlin was left alone, unchained and unobserved.
Of course only now would he be presented with the perfect opportunity for escape, when he was hurting and sick and could barely move. It was with far too much effort, pained grunting and panting breaths that he managed to push himself onto his elbows.
Only to promptly drop back onto the bed, broken bones and broken skin sending agony rippling through him.
The door opened. Merlin froze. He watched as the white-haired old man in the frayed robes ambled into the room, muttering to himself. He was so caught up in his mutterings that he had yet to notice Merlin even as he bustled about. His bustling brought him to a shelf of books on a second level landing with only a flimsy wooden rail protecting him from a nasty fall.
Merlin's body began to cramp from all the tension. He shifted as quietly as he could, which in the still room might as well have been a shout. The old man turned to locate the noise. He lost his balance, leaning too far back into the rail that snapped under his weight, and he fell.
The state of Merlin's body often dictated the strength of his magic, but where his body failed adrenaline made up for it. Merlin slowed time around the old man. His eyes then quickly darted around in search of something soft for him to land on, and spotted the bed. He moved it with a thought beneath the man, released time and the man landed with an oomph and not an injury to show for it.
But it meant the man finally noticing Merlin, and he did not look grateful. Instead, he widened his eyes and said sternly, "You!" Then he was on his feet and moving toward Merlin like a blustering storm, and adrenaline once more came to Merlin's aid. Or at least it tried to. In his mad haste to get away Merlin had forgotten he'd been wrapped up, and he fell to the floor tangled in the cape.
But he ignored the pain and fought the cloth hindering him until he was able to scoot away from the tower of angry old man still barreling toward him.
"What did you just do?" the man demanded.
Merlin gaped, distracted by the sudden lack of anywhere else to go. He coward, shaking, against the wall.
"Tell me!" the man said.
"I – I - I have no idea what happened..."
"If Anyone had seen that..."
"No! Th-that was nothing to do with me. That – that was..."
"I know what it was! I just want to know where you learned how to do it!"
"So how is it you know magic?"
"Where did you study? Answer me!"
Merlin flinched back, shaking harder with his hand outstretched as he often did when he knew a beating was coming – a useless habit he could never learn to stop. "I, I've never studied magic or, or been taught."
"Are you lying to me, boy?"
Merlin thought he was going to be sick. Beatings were a definite whenever someone thought he was lying, even when he wasn't. "What do you want me to say?"
"I was born like this!"
"That's impossible! Who are you?"
"Merlin! M-Merlin, sir, Merlin. My name is Merlin," Merlin stammered. He swallowed repeatedly to push back the bile. "P-please, I'm... I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." mean for what? Didn't mean to save the man's life, to use magic, to be here? He didn't even know why the man was so angry. But he said again, making himself as small as possible, "I'm sorry."
Then the man blinked, regarding Merlin as though Merlin had just appeared out of thin air, and the man's face blanched. "Merlin... I know that name. Why do I know...?" He blinked again, and then his features were pinched with horror. "Lords, boy, what happened to you?" He moved closer and reached for Merlin.
Merlin shrank back as far as the wall would let him from the approaching hands. The man paused, and from one breath to the next his features softened from confusion to concern to something like melancholy, and he retracted his hands.
"Oh, my boy, I'm so terribly sorry. I'm not angry with you, I promise. Merely startled. Here, let me help you up, I promise I'm not going to hurt you."
Since there was little choice in the matter, the next time the man reached out for him, Merlin let him. He lifted Merlin to his feet by the biceps, then slung his arm across his shoulders and supported his half-dead weight back to the cot. As the man laid Merlin gently onto the cot, he regarded him with a mixture of shock and horror.
"You poor lad, you're nothing but skin and bones." He lifted Merlin's shirt, and the melancholy was back. "Oh. Oh, you poor boy. Here, let's get you back up so that I can attend to you properly."
Merlin needed all of the old man's help just to sit up, as well as to stay up as the man maneuvered him out of his shirt. The scare and the mad scramble to get away had sapped Merlin of any strength he may have had, and no amount of unease could chase away his growing fatigue.
"I'm so sorry I scared you," the man was saying as he removed the bandages the knights had wrapped around him. "I should have said thank you but such an open display of magic startled me. Do you not realize how dangerous that was?"
"It was?" Merlin said dumbly.
The old man looked at him oddly. "Yes, very dangerous. In fact I strongly advise you not use your magic at all. Not while you're here."
Merlin's jaw sagged slowly open. "But... I thought... isn't that why I'm here? To use it?"
Gaius paused in his unwrapping to stare at Merlin in alarm. "Are you serious? Merlin, do you know where you are? Do you know anything of Camelot?"
"Cenred hated it," Merlin said.
Merlin nodded. "I was Cenred's. But then your king... or whoever he was... he destroyed his patrol and took me. But... why would he take me if not to use my magic? Why am I here?"
Again, there was that melancholy, along with sympathy, turning the man back into a harmless old healer instead of the raging giant of fury that had chased Merlin down. It made Merlin feel almost comfortable with him. Almost... safe.
"I imagine because Arthur wanted me to heal you. Merlin, magic is forbidden here. On pain of death."
Merlin's heart gave his ribs an almighty kick. "He brought me here to kill me?"
"No! No, of course not. You would already be dead if he knew you had magic. He obviously brought you here for me to help you." The old man lifted one of Merlin's raw and bloodied wrists, studying it with the shrewed eye of a true physician. "Slavery is illegal, here," he said. That Merlin's hand was shaking was impossible to miss. The old man engulfed Merlin's thin hand into his calloused ones, warming it as he smiled at Merlin.
"You're free, Merlin. You were not brought here because Arthur wishes to claim ownership."
Merlin's heart thudded so hard it pained him. He swallowed, and that hurt, too.
"I'm free?" he said in a voice so small he was sure the old man wouldn't have heard it. But the man's smile widened and he nodded.
"I'm free," Merlin said. His eyes blurred. He blinked, and moisture tickled down his face. "I'm free. I'm... I'm free." His whole body began to shake. "I'm..."
"Shhh," the old man soothed, cupping a wrinkled hand around the back of Merlin's head. "Easy, my boy. Deep breaths. You need to calm yourself. You're very weak right now and there's only so much your body can take. Yes, you're free, and if you tell me where you're from I'll see if there's a way to get you back home, if you wish."
"Ealdor," Merlin said quickly and easily. "I'm from Ealdor but... but I don't think I can go back. Cenred might find me again if I do. But my mum... she might not be safe... I need to go back..."
The old man shushed him gently again, the hand going from his head to his neck. "Easy, Merlin. If you can't go back perhaps we might see to it that your mother journey's safely here. What's her name?"
The old man went still as a tree. "Hunith," he echoed. Then his eyes turned round as saucers, the color leeching from his skin once again. "Oh. Oh! Merlin!"
Merlin flinched. "Wh-what?"
"No, Merlin. Hunith's boy! Oh, curse me for an idiot, of course! I thought I knew your name." He laughed, but there were tears with the laughter as though he didn't know whether to be merry or weep his eyes dry. "Oh, Merlin, my poor dear boy."
And then he engulfed Merlin in a hug, burying Merlin's thin body in his broader one. And Merlin let him, too weak and too confused to fight it.
"You're mother will be so happy," the man said thickly.
Merlin started in surprise. "You know my mother?"
"Yes, I know your mother, as I know you from her letters to me." He released Merlin, holding him out at arm's length. "Perhaps she mentioned me? Gaius?"
Merlin shook his head, but Gaius' smile never faltered.
"No matter," he said. "No matter at all. And once more I find that I have to apologize, I didn't mean to alarm you, but your poor mother was so devistated when you were taken. Believe me, I have every intention of reuniting the both of you."
"Really?" Merlin said.
"Of course!" Gaius said. "In fact, I will write her the moment I have you settled." He resumed tending to Merlin's injuries.
For the first time since before Merlin had been tossed into the magical cage like an animal, he remembered how to smile.
Merlin was given a room – his very own room, located up a short flight of steps in Gaius' chambers – where he could recover in quiet peace. He'd never had his own room, not when he was with his mother in the their single room hut and not when he was Cenred's (a cell didn't count, not with fellow prisoners next door). He was given better clothes, nothing that fit his skinny body but Gaius knew a seamstress who was even now resizing a few bits of discarded apparel for Merlin to wear later. He was given food, water, medicine for the pain and his only orders were to rest and recover.
Rest and recover!
Merlin's first evening spent in his room, in his ill-fitting but oh so warm clothes, food in his stomach and medication dulling the discomfort of his inuries, he was so giddy he couldn't sleep. Knowing that he was free, that Camelot didn't want him for his magic, that his mother would come and he would have a home again, Merlin wept.
In fact he seemed quite prone to weeping. The next morning, instead of his usual wake-up call of a kick to the ribs or back, he woke to Gaius bustling in baring a tray with a bowl of porridge, berries, a cup of water, and Merlin had wept again. He tried not to, smiling gratefully, saying thank you, but his body had trembled and the tears had rolled, and the moment Gaius had relinquished himself of the tray, Merlin found himself in another embrace. But Gaius' warmth and soothing words only made Merlin shake and weep harder until he was too exhausted to cry, and Gaius had too spoon feed him.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said thickly after the third bite, tears still leaking form his eyes. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
Gaius merely smiled. "I believe it's called joy, and it's nothing to be sorry for."
Merlin laughed. He couldn't remember the last time he laughed. That, too, made him cry.
It wasn't until two days later that Merlin felt more composed and less prone to weeping. Now he was just giddy. Right at this very moment a letter was on it's way to Ealdor, to tell his mother the news and invite her to Camelot. Right at this very moment, an event had been set into motion in which he would soon see her again.
But it would still be some time before Hunith both recieved the letter and made her journey to Camelot. In that time, Merlin vowed to get stronger, or at least strong enough to meet her upright on his own two feet rather than bed ridden.
On the third day, Merlin had his breakfast downstairs with Giaus. Two days after, he took his first steps outside for some sunlight and fresh air – Gaius' idea, though he was a little reluctant with how easily Merlin got winded and chilled, even if the day was warm. But Merlin made sure to rest where and when he could, which he really wished he didn't have to. Still bruised and scabbed, his clothes ill-fitting and his inability to not shy away and bow his head in humility whenever some guard happened by was making him something to be stared at, and it was making him increasingly nervous.
He found a little respite in what looked to be the training grounds – men in Camelot livery sparring with each other or throwing various weaponry at targets, and so attracting the majority of attention of whomever was passing by.
Merlin's attention was monopolized by an agonizingly familiar face that his brain just couldn't quite place, and he stared, wracking his mind relentlessly trying to place that face among the many in his addled memory. It was difficult, because for some reason all that his wracking was able to conjure was an image of red and gold blazing like sunlight and flames.
He was distracted from his efforts when the familiar person in question first mocked a servent for his inability to hold a target properly, then threw a dagger at the very target the servent was attempting to carry away. The familiar person laughed, his cronies laughed with him, and in one of Merlin's fits of rebellion he bristled.
"That's enough. You've had your fun, friend."
Merlin hadn't meant to say that, he really hadn't, but when rebellious his mouth had a habit of diconnecting from his brain. The familiar person stopped laughing, and stared at Merlin, looking like he couldn't decide whether to laugh some more or run the boy through. But the longer he stared the more the look morphed into something more thoughtful verging on searching.
"Do I know you?" the familiar person asked.
And yet despite so much familiarity Merlin still shook his head, keeping his mouth firmly shut and preventing himself from shoving his foot even deeper into his mouth.
"Are you sure?" the man asked. "You look familiar."
Merlin shook his head again.
The young man's face shifted instantly to something cold and annoyed. "So I don't know you."
Merlin shrugged and mumbled, "No."
"And yet you called me friend."
The familiar person stepped closer, his gaggle of friends with him, closing in on Merlin. But it wasn't their advancing Merlin noticed, it was their expressions lined with tight smiles and anticpation for what to them would soon be a spot of fun, the exact same expression Cenred's men wore on those nights when they had been bored and looking to alleive that boredom using one of Cenred's pet sorcerers.
So Merlin, doing what he always did when about to be tormented for a laugh, when he'd had magic chains on his wrists and no strength to his body – opened his big mouth.
"My mistake," he said.
"Yes, I think so," said the young man pompously.
Merlin glared at him and said through clenched teeth, "I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass."
The man was on him, grabbing his upper arm and pulling him roughly forward, and Merlin – doing what he always did when he knew the pain was about to begin – shrank back, bracing himself for the usual shove to the ground or back-hand to the face.
Instead, the familiar person studied his bruised and scabbed face. "Really, do I know you?" he asked.
"I'm M-Merlin," Merlin said, hoping beyond hope that if the familiar person really did see something familiar in him in return, his name would be enough of a distraction for the other man to focus on trying to recall rather than on adding to Merlin's bruises.
But, then, Merlin's luck never had favored him, much.
"Well, Merlin, clearly you're not one to learn lessons quickly judging by the state of your face. Just how stupid are you?"
Merlin's heart beat erratically, his body locked up in a conglamoration of terror, anger and humiliation that, thankfully, prevented him from opening his mouth and digging his grave any deeper.
"I asked you a question, Merlin," the familiar person taunted, giving Merlin a firm shake.
Merlin gasped out a pained breath and muttered repeatedly, as he always did when his rebellion made matters worse and he couldn't take it anymore, "Sorry, I'm sorry. Please, I'm sorry."
His chin was gripped in a gloved hand, his face pulled roughly up so that he had no choice but to have the maddeningly familiar visage in his sights, and his body shook as it awaited the beating.
The familiar person studied Merlin's face with intensity. "I do know you," he breathed. His eyes widened with realization. No, more than realization – horror. He whispered in a voice both awed and shocked, "You," then released Merlin.
Merlin, so tense his joints had locked up, stumbled back barely catching himself in time to keep from dropping.
The familiar person looked him up and down, still shocked and momentarily speechless because of it.
Then, "Go. Get out of here," and the familiar man turned away.
Merlin didn't waste a second making as hasty a retreat as his trembling body would let him. That, too, was what he always did after the torment, whenever an opportunity for a brief escape presented itself. It was habit, and one he was thankful for, his body moving as his mind reeled over having gotten away unscathed. He stumbled, staggered and didn't stop until he had reached Gaius' chambers, bursting through the door and about to drop if Giaus hadn't been there to catch him.
"Merlin, what in the world...!" Gaius gasped. He half-led, half-carried Merlin to the cot where he sat him down and looked him over. He pressed his fingers to Merlin's throat over his pulse, then his palm to his chest when the pulse hadn't told him all he needed to know. "Merlin, you're shaking like a leaf, what happened?"
"I'm okay," Merlin said even as he gulped in air. "I'm... I'm fine. I'm fine." A manic little chuckle of disbelief escaped his throat. "I'm fine." He was fine. Perfectly fine. Not a new bruise or even a back hand to the face, and he couldn't wrap his brain around it.
But after a moment of sitting there as Giaus looked him over, followed by a quick swallow of water, Merlin found enough composure to relate to Gaius what had happened.
"I didn't mean to say those things, I didn't I swear," he babbled. "It's... I... I'm always doing that even though I know I shouldn't but I get so angry and scared at the same time I – I..."
Gaius hushed Merlin gently. He took him by the arm, and with an equally gentle tug eased Merlin off the cot and up the stairs to his little room.
"It's all right, Merlin," Gaius said as he helped Merlin lower himself onto the bed. "Though I dare say you were fortunate that Arthur recognized you or it would have resulted in a day in the dungeons for you."
Merlin's eyes snapped up in terror. "Arthur."
Gaius nodded while sliding the over-sized boots from Merlin's feet.
"I know that name. Why do I know that name. And his face, I knew that, too," Merlin said.
"Well, I imagine you would," Gaius said as he worked free the other boot. "He and his men are the ones who took you from Cenred."
"What!" Merlin yelped. "He... he... what! Gaius, Giaus I just called him an ass!"
But rather than share in Merlin's horror or so much as reprimand him, Gaius chuckled. "My boy, you never cease to amaze me. Now get some rest. You've exhausted yourself. And don't worry about Arthur. I doubt you'll be running into him again any time soon."
Arthur paced, fumed, and shed himself of his armor bits at a time by yanking them off and tossing them where ever he saw fit. It made him feel a little better, although not as much as putting upstarts in their place would have made him feel. Of all the insolent, cheeky... that ungrateful little bastard! Arthur had isaved/i him, at great personal risk to himself. He'd had his men carry his stupid, scrawny, broken body back to Camelot, had ordered him to be looked after and healed, and this was how the little upstart repaid him?
Then he had the igall/i to cringe in humility and use his broken, helpless state to provoke Arthur's surprise and pity and make off, leave Arthur standing there in front of his men looking soft and pathetic.
Arthur threw his gloves across the room with everything he had. That Merlin had probably planned it, knew from the start that there was no way Arthur would refrain from hitting someone weak and helpless but also someone Arthur had gone out of his way to save. A damn fine job of it the boy had done, too. Excellent acting, the terror so real, the cringing, the trembling. Little bastard. If Arthur ever saw him again it would be too soon. He had inquired after his health just a day ago, for goodness sake! If he never saw him again, then good riddance.
Merlin's life was becoming strange. He dreamed of a cave deep beneath the castle and of a voice calling his name. But when he woke, the voice echoed louder, more demanding, refusing to be ignored. It wanted him to come to it and it told him how.
Merlin sat up in bed, shivering with dread.
"But I can't. If they find me-"
They will not. Use your magic, young warlock..
"If I'm caught they'll kill me!"
Then you must do your utmost not to get caught. The castle sleeps, Merlin. The time to come is now.
It was not, however, wonder nor curiosity that motivated Merlin onward despite his terror. He had always been prone to self-conversations while stuck in Cenred's cells, and as the saying went, you knew you were mad when you began to answer yourself. Merlin wanted - needed - to prove to himself that he hadn't gone mad. He had worked too hard and too long in keeping the fragments of sanity that still remained to him to lose that sanity now.
Merlin had no trouble slipping through the dark castle and avoiding the guards. He would know the tromp of heavy boots and rattling chain mail anywhere. The dungeons – and it just had to be the dungeons – were a different matter, and Merlin had no choice but to use his magic to distract the guards. Deeper and deeper he went below the castle, down a long flight of stairs into the dark with only a torch conviscated from a wall sconce and lit by magic to guide him. At the end of the stairs was a gaping hole in a wall of natural rock. And on the other side, a cave beyond measure, bigger than the castle itself.
The thunderous flap of mighty wings ripped Merlins' gaping attention from the cave and fixed it on the great, golden body flying straight at him. Merlin yelped and pressed himself against the wall in a shaking heap. The great creature landed on a mass of rock with a reverberating thud and regarded Merlin with a mixture of surprise and amusement.
"How small you are," it said, "For such a great destiny."
Merlin gulped. It talked. The great big, flying thing of scales and claws talked. Merlin peeled himself from the wall, forced himself to straighten and look as unafraid as he could manage. Which might have been possible if his knees hadn't been knocking together.
Merlin said, once again failing to hide his fear, "What do you mean?"
The dragon chuckled. Then it talked of destiny, of magic returning to Camelot and uniting some place called Albion by Merlin helping the once and future king. Oh, and that the once and future king just happened to be Arthur, the very man Merlin had insulted just this afternoon.
"What!" Merlin barked. "You can't be serious. It must be some other Arthur because this one's going to kill me the moment he sees me again, I know it."
The dragon tilted its head to one side, curious now, but still with that same blasted amusement. "Sees you again? Why did he not end your life when the moment was his to do so?"
"I – I don't know," Merlin said, shifting with growing discomfort and wishing the dragon would stop looking at him so... so deeply. "Maybe because he saved me, or pitied me. But I insulted him. He won't let that go. People like him never let that go."
"And who, exactly, are the people that the prince are like?"
"People with power," Merlin said easily. "Kings, princes, knights. People who command with only a word, who can hurt others and think nothing of it." He began to shake, and moisture stung his eyes. "People – people who hurt to get what they want. I'm sorry, I am, but I can't do that again. I can't." He shook his head hard. "I can't."
The great dragon's gaze softened. "Oh, young warlock. There is so much pain in you. But none of us can choose our destinies, Merlin. And none of us can escape it."
Merlin collapsed back against the wall, eyes flooding, hand covering his mouth. It was happening again. Gaius had been wrong. He wasn't free, he was bound to forever serve, to forever act and do it in the name of someone else. To hurt in the name of someone else. And if he didn't...
"Merlin," the dragon said gently. "Do not fret so, young warlock. For the future you and Arthur are to bring about will be one of peace."
"But at what cost!" Merlin said, his voice cracked. He pushed away from the wall, staring imploringly up at the dragon. "Am I to be a slave again, is that it? To kill and destroy or else suffer the consequences? Is that all I am to be, a slave!"
"Oh, young warlock," the dragon said softly. Then he smiled. "You are to be so much more than you have ever been." And he flew away.
Merlin didn't sleep for the rest of the night and it showed according to Gaius' consternation – he kept looking at Merlin between sips of porridge, frowning whenever Merlin let his own porridge spill from the spoon rather than let it complete its journey to his mouth.
"Bad dreams?" Gaius asked.
"Something like that," Merlin said. He looked up at Gaius and hoped the dread he was feeling wasn't showing on his face. "Arthur, is he – is he a good person? Most of the time, that is? He isn't the type of person to, um... I guess, to hurt people? Or get mad and order his men to – to – to do things? Bad things?"
Gaius' frown deepened the wrinkles on his face. "Merlin, I told you, you have no need to concern yourself with Arthur."
"I know, it's just..." Merlin began, waving his spoon in messy circles. But the necessary words eluded him and he wasn't feeling brave enough to open up to the fact that he had snuck around the castle visiting imprisoned dragons. If accidentally using magic sent Gaius into a tizzy, he couldn't begin to imagine the reprimand he would get for talking to a dragon.
Merlin sagged, spoon dropping back into his bowl. "Never mind."
Anything Gaius might have said on the matter was instantly dropped when they were interrupted by a visitor. All matters concerning destiny and Arthur were completely forgotten when Merlin was introduced to Gwen – maidservent to the Lady Morgana. She was polite and kind and a bit tongue tied, and Merlin decided right away that he liked her. She had heard about what had taken place on the training grounds, about the thin and bruised young man who had stood up to the prince. When Gwen said how it was a brave thing he had done, Merlin could feel his ears start to burn. The visit, brief as it had been, had become enough of a distraction for Merlin to forget about things like destiny and possibly cruel princes to take a small nap.
When Merlin woke feeling, not refreshed, but better than when he'd first gotten out of bed, he came down stairs to see Gaius dressed in different robes – very fine robes, to be exact – and looking years younger in his exuberance.
"There is to be a banquet this evening," Giaus explained. "To be attended by the Lady Helen. She is to sing tonight and I am quite looking forward to it. You may attend too, if you wish, as my own personal guest. I should be able to find something appropriate for you to wear although it may not fit any better."
Merlin smiled fondly, his heart swelling at the old man's constant kindness.
"Thank you, Gaius but... I don't..." he twisted the ends of his large sleeves uneasily and took a steadying breath. "I don't like parties very much." Where he had been forced to perform tricks and cow before the lords and ladies of the court as Cenred displayed his collection of tamed and docile sorcerers, who the lords and ladies could kick and punch without fear of retaliation.
Gaius nodded in understanding and with a reassuring smile. "It is all right, my boy. I will be sure to have someone bring you something since I will not be here to cook, and I want you to eat every last bite," he admonished kindly.
Merlin nodded vigorously, then asked, "When do you think my mother should be arriving?"
"Sometime tomorrow, actually," Gaius said. "Give or take depending on when she set out, but knowing her she would have set out the moment she recived that letter."
Merlin's heart swelled so much he was sure it was going to burst from his chest. It left him feeling energized, and he helped Gaius with those piddly little tasks still to take care of before he left for the banquet. What Gaius was unable to finish, Merlin took care of – putting various bottles on shelves for the most part. A middle-aged maid brought him a plate of food not long after and Merlin ate every bite as promised. Full and riding high on the joy of seeing his mother, Merlin caved to curiosity over just how good a singer this Lady Helen was, and he slipped away to the bangquet to see if he had missed the singing.
Slipping in unnoticed wasn't hard. Merlin arrived just as everyone was entering the banquet hall, and Merlin joined the back of the crowd, taking to the shadows the moment he was inside. With so many servents coming and going, carrying dishes or refilling pitchers, sneaking out would be no problem, either. And banquets weren't so bad, not like the parties that came before. People didn't like having half-starved and bloody sorcerers within sight while trying to eat. That no one had seen Merlin, or so much as glanced his way, helped, too, and he swelled with pride over how resilient to old fears he was being.
Then the Lady Helen began to sing and it all went wrong. People were nodding off while being buried beneath webbing as though some unseen spider were cocooning the entire court. Merlin could feel the weight of an enchantment pressing against him but his magic pressed back, pushing it away. He saw Gaius with his head on the table, Gwen against the wall with the other servents slumping to the floor, and Lady Helen approaching the king and prince as deliberate as a hunting snake.
Which meant having to pass beneath the chandelier. Merlin's magic flashed within his eyes and the chains holding the chandelier snapped. The chandelier crashed onto Lady Helen and the moment her singing stopped, everyone woke groggy and confused.
Merlin didn't really think about it as he made his way around the table, shaking those not waking fast enough, Gaius included.
But of course the Lady Helen... or whoever she was, no longer young but old and decrepit... wasn't dead. Merlin's luck wasn't that kind. She pulled a knife and with magic threw it straight at the prince. Merlin reacted, slowing time long enough to plow into the prince, knocking him from the path of the blade.
Because Merlin's luck hated him, the king rewarded him by making him Arthur's manservent.
Merlin wished he'd never been rescued.
Arthur's father was mad, but knowing better than to make such an accusation to his face, he settled for arguing over what a monumental mistake this "reward" was. The boy Merlin was a former slave, beaten, broken, possibly wild and unpredictable and certainly cheeky.
"All the more reason to provide the boy with proper wages in which to support himself," Uther had replied in that dismissive way of his that signaled the end of the conversation.
But Arthur wasn't angry, not entirely. Annoyed, massively, but as his manservent Merlin would be his to sack using any reason Arthur wanted, so it wasn't as though this had to be a permanent arrangement.
Arthur entered his room. Being the trained knight he was, he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. Today's events having left him on edge he turned his head and instantly relaxed. Some time during Arthur's calm but pointless arguing someone had brought Merlin to his quarters – the steward, no doubt, who was of the "teach them to swim by offering a bit of advice then tossing them into the lake" variety when it came to training new servents. Which was ridiculous. It was only a few days ago the boy had been freed and even an idiot could tell he was still healing. He was too thin, too ragged and as wild-looking as Arthur had claimed him to be. The boy stood there, hands clenched tightly at his sides, eyes glued to the floor and a look of such dread it had drained his face until it was pure white. It seemed a miracle the boy hadn't fainted, yet.
He was also shaking, Arthur realized – slight vibrations in the shoulders that from time to time would increase into a shiver that wracked his entire body.
Arthur paused. He studied Merlin, studied the humility that had been mostly lacking during their confrontation on the training field. He approached Merlin and when he did, the boy stiffened, shoulders raising just a fraction toward his ears, body making the first moves to curl into itself – the pose of someone expecting pain, not wanting pain, but resigned to it all the same.
Lords, the boy was thin. Arthur was amazed that such a large shirt hadn't slipped off him at the collar. Hunched as he was, the material brushed against his back and Arthur could see ribs, backboone, shoulderblades like real blades dulled and trying to push through his skin. He saw the fading bruises and healing cuts through the wide collar, back and front.
It made Arthur remember this boy curled up on the ground, beaten and dying and whimpering with pain. This same boy glaring at him, defying him, angry and boiling as though with a fury that had been waiting years for an outlet.
"I should've put you in the stocks for what you said," Arthur said.
Merlin licked dry lips but said nothing. Arthur ducked his head to make eye contact.
"What, finally learned your lesson?" he said.
Merlin flinched. "M – M'sorry," he muttered.
"I'm sorry. F-for what I – I did... what I said."
Arthur backed away and snorted. "No you're not."
Merlin's shaking increased and his hands came together, fingers twining and untwining within each other. Arthur circled Merlin once, and when he came back around to the front, he stopped and faced the boy.
"You're not sorry," Arthur said. He was surprised to hear not a tone of accusation in his own voice, but of acceptance.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said again, voice small, body small, such a far cry from the angry creature of yesterday.
And Arthur didn't like it. Gods, help him, he found himself actually missing the fiery little man from yesterday who would dare to stand up to someone so much bigger and imposing simply because he had been teasing a servent. Perspectives were funny in how they shifted, because Arthur could have sworn he'd had every right to be furious with this boy. He wanted to say it was pity holding him back except that it didn't feel like pity.
If anything, it felt not unlike admiration. Small, broken, skittish and yet despite all the torment and pain this boy had obviously gone through, there was still a part of him that knew how to walk tall in spirit if not in body. To see what he thought to be an injustice and do something about it.
And why the hell had Arthur thought the boy had been acting? Cheeky bastards didn't save your life then grovel like a kicked dog. They continued being cheeky bastards.
Arthur sighed feeling suddenly weary, and pity instantly replaced admiration. The boy looked like he was going to be sick.
"Yes, well," Arthur said. "Try not to do it again."
Merlin's eyes flickered up then down uncertainly. "Yes, sire."
"Better. Now, my first order for you is to return to Gaius and continue to rest and heal. You look like you can barely lift so much as my night shirt. Prince's orders should the steward try to counter them. Don't let him. I also want you properly trained which is to also happen after you are well enough to work. Shirking in your duties will result in cut wages, so keep that in mind."
Merlin nodded vigorously.
"Good. Gaius will let me know when you are well enough to begin you duties. You're dismissed."
It was with a hurried bow and hurried steps that Merlin began to leave the room.
"Oh, and Merlin," Arthur called.
Merlin froze with his hand reaching for the door. He turned his head enough to look at the prince. "Yes, sire?"
"You're not a slave anymore, Merlin. You are free to resign your position whenever you wish. Expecially should you wish to return home."
Merlin's hand hovered. Then it lowered. He straightened and said. "Thank you, sire," adding weight to the words to encompass more than this moment. Where there had been fear, there was only gratitiude, more than Arthur knew what to do with, and for a dreadful moment Arthur was sure the boy was going to cry.
"You're welcome," he said awkwardly. "You may go."
Merlin did, but not before Arthur saw him smile. It was a good smile, Arthur thought, and it made him smile, too.
Merlin sat stiffly on the steps of the castle courtyard, his leg jiggling up and down and his hands clasped so tightly together they would occasionally go numb until he remembered to ease his grip.
A light tap on his shoulder made him startle, but he looked up and relaxed to see Gaius. The old man stood next to him, smiling and holding out a cloth with bread and cheese.
"I know you probably feel far from hungry but I would appreciate you at least trying to eat something."
Merlin took the cloth and crammed a piece of bread into his mouth. "Do you think she'll know me when she sees me?" he asked around his mouthful. "It's been a while. She might not recognize me."
Gaius eased himself down next to him with a grunt. "I wouldn't be surprised if she did recognize you. Never underestimate the power of a mother's love, Merlin. Every letter she sent to me after you were taken always spoke of you – what you looked like, how much she missed you, her hope of finding you and her fear of never seeing you again." He looked at Merlin and asked hestiantly, "Do you...?"
"I tried not to think about her," Merlin said, unable to eat anymore. "It hurt too much. But I couldn't stop myself, sometimes. I thought of her whether I liked it or not."
People came and went like dandylion seeds riding the breeze – people carrying sacks and baskets, people in fine clothes or plain clothes, men and women and children but no one familiar.
Until the woman in the frayed brown cloak lowered her hood, looking around as though lost and desperate to find her way.
Merlin stood, the food falling from his lap.
He would know her. Anywhere, any time, even with wrinkles at the corners of her eye and a little gray in her hair, he would know her. She turned, still searching, still desperate, until her eyes found him and stayed. Time stopped. They looked at each other, mother and son. They drank each other in, filling themselves with memories and sorrows and hopes and joys and a pain both terrible and wonderful. Then time resumed and they were moving to each other. A walk. A run.
"Merlin?" Huntih cried.
"Mother!" Merlin cried with her.
Then they were in each other's embrace, holding on like they would never let go as they wept into each other's shoulders.
"Merlin, oh, my boy, my Merlin, my Merlin" Hunith sobbed and laughed, over and over. But Merlin had no voice, his lungs thick with years of hope and terror and a joy so all-consuming it filled the hollow cavity of his chest until he thought he would burst from it.
Then Hunith released him only to take his face in her hands and continue drinking him in, every line and edge that she had never forgotten and would never forget. Her eyes were red, her cheeks were wet, and she was happy.
"My boy," she said, and kissed his forehead.
"Mum," he said.
Merlin wouldn't resign, though Arthur had offered it. There was no home to go back to, not in Cenred's kingdom, and Hunith was staying right where she was. Home wasn't a place, anyway. It was people – his mother and Gaius. It was where he was safe and warm and where serving a prince was his for the choosing no matter what any destiny had to say. Luck was finally smiling on Merlin.
Merlin had never been happier to have such a strong will to live.
A/N: Just so everyone knows I have no plans of turning this idea into a complete rewrite of all the episodes since, IMO, nothing much would have changed other than, possibly, Arthur not throwing things at Merlin. But I may, and it is a tentative may, add to this should the mood strike. It's not a promise, thus why I'm going to label this story as complete, but it has sparked a few ideas I'm tempted to explore later on. Again, though, no promises.
I also apologize for any HTML tags that may have escaped my notice. I insert my own tags for other archive sites but have to remove them for this site and I always manage to miss a few. You don't need to point them out, just rest assured that it's not a glitch.
I almost forgot to add, if some of the dialog sounds familiar it's because it is from the show.