Rating: K+ for some violence
Summary: AU to Castle Fyrien (or however you spell that). Merlin and Cenred meet again.
Merlin had thought for sure he was being brave. He'd been certain he knew exactly what he was doing. When Arthur had announced that the three of them were going to rescue Elyan, when he had looked at Merlin with something akin to understanding in his eyes and gave Merlin the option to back out without fear of reprisal and Merlin had refused, Merlin hadn't felt the least degree of terror. When Merlin discovered that Morgana was coming as well, his resolve had solidified from granite hard to mountain hard.
Even knowing where they were going, who they might run into, Merlin had felt no fear.
Funny that, because he was certainly feeling it now. It had hit him like a vengeful slap, as though Merlin had merely been denying its presence, the moment Cenred had laid eyes on him, head canted as he studied his former slave with dawning recognition. But that dawn had never quite cleared the horizon. As Cenred had all but Morgana dragged from the chamber, he stopped the guard hauling Merlin long enough to tell him to put the runed shackles on the boy, just in case.
If he recognized Merlin then it wasn't a clear recognition. Merlin would have loved nothing more than to be thankful for such a small favor, had it not been the calm before the storm.
Merlin tried to find the courage that had allowed him to come this far, but it was currently dead and buried. Speaking of dead...
"I don't understand why we're not dead already," he said.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Because Cenred will want to torture me first. Find out what I know."
"Aren't you afraid?"
"No. Not in the slightest."
Merlin shivered, making the chains rattle. "You should be. You don't know-" he swallowed back the bile that rose burning into his throat. "Cenred's good with torture. Most of it won't be about information. Some of it he does just for fun-"
Merlin snapped his mouth shut, realizing too late that he had said too much about that which he had promised himself he would never speak of. Not out of any need to avoid the past, but because it iwas/i the past – an old life shed like dead skin, replaced by the new and fresh that was his life in Camelot. As far as Merlin had been concerned, the day Arthur saved him was the day he had been reborn – no longer the slave desperate to survive, but the servant bound and determined to protect.
That was why it had been so easy to come, because it hadn't been about him. Like hell he was leaving Arthur unprotected, and like hell he was going to let Arthur and Gwen be captured by Cenred, for Cenred to do to them what he did to Merlin.
And, yet, here they were – captured and at not only Cenred's mercy but Morgause's and Morgana's as well. Arthur was right, Merlin was useless. When Merlin glanced at Arthur, he expected to see annoyance over Merlin's cowardice. He was startled to see something soft and melancholy instead, and was that contrition?
"I shouldn't have let you come," Arthur said.
Merlin scoffed with a weak laugh, clenching his hands to stop them from shaking. "And let you face Cenred on your own? I think not."
Arthur gave him a fleeting smile, then tilted his chin toward the chains. "Why did he bind you, anyway?"
"Spite, I imagine," Merlin said.
"Merlin, those chains have runes. They're magical, aren't they."
Merlin's heart, already beating fast, became a hammer in his chest. But he shrugged with easy nonchalance. "He can be a little extra possessive of the things he loses and gets back." Which wasn't a lie. Not even in the slightest. What Cenred lost he made sure to not only get back but keep close at hand until he became tired of the sniveling. He had once had Merlin chained to the foot of his bed, his throne, his dining table until he wearied of tripping over Merlin's battered body.
"So he remembers you," Arthur stated.
"I'm familiar enough for these," Merlin said, raising his wrists. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. He didn't know which he hated more, being in Cenred's clutches again or the memories it was dredging up. "I'm probably a bit hard to recognize without the bruises and blood and... such. And I think my hair was longer, then, too."
Merlin tried to smile. Arthur refused to smile back.
"We're going to get out of here, Merlin. I promise you that," Arthur said.
Merlin sat up hopefully. "You have a plan?"
"Not as such."
Merlin sagged. "Well, could you do us both a favor and hurry it up?"
Arthur opened his mouth for an impatient retort when the cell door swung open. One of their two guards stomped in, causing Arthur to tense and Merlin to go perfectly still.
It was to the surprise of them both when the guard ignored Arthur in favor of Merlin, grabbing him by the back of his jacket and hauling him to his feet.
"Wait, what are you doing!" Arthur demanded, getting to his feet only for the guard to shove him back down.
"Stay put," the guard growled. He shoved Merlin roughly. "You, forward."
"Arthur?" Merlin whimpered, and hated himself for it, for the raw terror and weakness it betrayed. Arthur was immediately back up, but his reward was the cell door slammed in his face. Merlin could hear him pounding on it, bellowing for all he was worth.
Merlin was hustled like a sheep down the corridor where Arthur's shouts were not so deafening.
Cenred stood there, waiting, arms crossed and face as cruel as Merlin remembered it.
"Kneel," Cenred said.
The guard chuckled, and with a boot to the back of the legs, Merlin's knees slammed into the cold stone of the floor, forcing a pained grunt from him. Cenred grabbed him by the hair, tilted his head left then right. He released Merlin and circled around behind him, causing Merlin to tense until he thought he would snap. He gasped when he felt his jacket yanked harshly down to his elbows, winced when the collar of his shirt dug into his neck as Cenred tugged on it, exposing as much of Merlin's shoulder blade as possible.
Cenred laughed, digging his thumb into the brand scarred into Merlin's flesh.
"I had a feeling you were one of mine. But I didn't think it would be one of my wizards."
Cenred cuffed Merlin across the back of the head. "You lot always were more trouble than you were worth." He came back around to Merlin's front, smiling down at him triumphantly. "But you did have your uses." He brushed back Merlin's hair as though Merlin were a favorite hound. Merlin jerked his head away, glaring even as he shook.
Both of Cenred's eyebrows arched to his hairline. "Got a bit of backbone, I see. Tell me, boy." He crouched on his haunches, grinning from ear to ear. "Does your dear little prince know about you?"
Merlin said nothing, but he did look at Cenred, meeting his gaze as he would have never done had Merlin still been his.
"Thought not," Cenred said. He slammed his fist across Merlin's face, not hard enough to knock him out, but it did split his lip. Blood filled Merlin's mouth, metallic and sour. Merlin gathered the blood into his saliva, then spat it out on Cenred's boot.
Cenred laughed. "Oh, you are going to be fun to break all over again. I should kill you, you know. Morgause wishes me too but I could do with a sorcerer. My stocks have been so woefully depleted as of late, and as powerful as Morgause is I've always preferred having my magic users cower at my feet."
"Then you may not want me. I have no intentions of cowering to you," Merlin growled.
"Oh, you will, my little wizard. You and I both know it." Cenred stood. "Maybe this should help refresh your memory of how it will be." He grabbed Merlin's hair and held him in place while slamming his knee into Merlin's chest. The air rushed from Merlin's lungs, replaced by suffocating pain.
"Take him back," Cenred said with a dismissive flap of his hand.
Merlin gasped, only remembering how to breathe when he was lifted roughly to his feet. He was half-marched, half-dragged back to the cell doubled over. But when the guard opened the door, it was to an empty cell.
"What the...?" the guard growled, shoving Merlin to the side. Someone whistled. They both looked up. Arthur smiled showing teeth, then dropped from where he had been holding himself along the ceiling. He knocked the guard out, only for the second guard to come rushing in. Merlin steeled himself against the aches enough to straighten then clobbered the second guard across the back of the head with both fists.
"Wonders never cease," Arthur said, bewildered. He snapped quickly from it. He grabbed the keys on the back of the first guard's belt and unlocked Merlin's chains.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked. He didn't wait for an answer. The second the chains were off, Arthur captured Merlin's jaw in a gentle grip, studying the bruises blossoming on his face.
"It's nothing, Arthur, leave it," Merlin said, pulling his face free. But Arthur had seen all he needed to, not just the bruise but the way Merlin was favoring his chest.
Arthur's expression was thunderous. "The hell it is," he said darkly. "Come on."
As was the case with most of their ventures (more like all of them, really) the rest of their rescue mission they dealt with as they went and still managed as though they had planned it all down to the smallest detail. That should have been the end of it, them free to make their escape and put Cenred behind them. But of course Arthur had to go after Morgana, and of course Merlin had to go after Arthur despite knowing what awaited the both of them. But, then, knowing what awaited him was why he went, after all, despite Cenred's "reminder" having proved effective.
Where as Merlin had been haunted by memories the moment Cenred saw his face, now he was being plagued by them – of the kicks and blows day in and day out, the hunger and cold and the desperate need for it to all end, just for a moment, no matter the cost. The thought of Cenred doing the same to Arthur and Gwen, of Cenred keeping them like pets to torment and hurt for his own amusement...
Really, Merlin was amazed that he didn't destroy Cenred on the spot, blast him away with a spell the moment he saw him pretending to use Morgana as a shield. Merlin would have destroyed the both of them had Morgause not stepped in and sent a fireball Arthur's way. Merlin deflected it, the rebound more potent than it should have been, creating an explosion that ripped through the room, causing it to collapse.
It may not have been a fireball to the chest, giving Merlin the privilege of witnessing Cenred's face at seeing one of his pets bare its fangs, but if it meant a dead Cenred then Merlin wasn't going to complain. He, Arthur and Morgana left the king and his witch to their ruin, and good riddance to them both.
Merlin could have sworn he was happy. He'd felt energized while they rode away from the castle, so high on triumph that not even Morgana glowering at his back could bring him down. They were free, they were going home, and even if Cenred weren't dead (which Merlin really hoped he was) Merlin had at least humiliated him by escaping his grasp a second time. There was laughter as they rode back, and even more laughter when they made camp and Elyan regaled them with embarrassing tales from his and Gwen's childhood - such as the time Gwen had climb a tree when she was six and ripped her brand new dress their mother had made her. Gwen had cuffed him good-naturedly for that one.
Merlin thought he was content, that he was at peace. He thought he would be able to sleep, but he had no sooner closed his eyes when he was sure he could feel the cold burn of magical shackles on his wrists.
Merlin scrambled from his blankets to the nearest tree outside the camp. He dropped to his hands and knees, and there emptied his stomach. He purged three times, dry-heaved twice then sagged, spent and shaking with an exhaustion bordering on crippling, against the tree.
A hand touched Merlin's shoulder. He jumped, flinching hard enough that he bumped his head into the trunk.
"Ow," Merlin groaned, rubbing his scalp.
"Sorry," Arthur said, and Merlin was surprised to hear actual sincerity in his voice. Arthur held out a skin of water. "Here. Rinse and drink."
Merlin did as told, more than glad to rid himself of the sour taste of sick. The cold water felt good on his cut lip and was heaven going down his throat when he drank.
"Better?" Arthur asked.
"Yeah," Merlin said. Except that he was still shaking, and now his chest was hurting again. They had already determined no ribs were broken but the throbbing ache kept begging to differ.
Merlin startled a second time when he felt something slightly heavy settle around his shoulders.
"Merlin, will you relax? It's only your blanket," Arthur said with a roll of his eyes.
"Oh, right. Sorry. Don't know what's got in to me."
"I think I might have an idea," Arthur said. He settled himself on the ground next to Merlin despite the smell of the sick so close by.
Merlin, still resting against the tree, turned his face away, even though it was too dark for Arthur to see his flush of humiliation.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said.
"You already said that," Arthur said.
Merlin shook his head. "No, for... for this." He chuckled in self deprecation. "For being the scared little girl you always say I am."
Arthur stared at him blankly. "At what point were you acting like a scared little girl?"
"Um, back in the cell? And just now?" Merlin said, giving Arthur an odd look.
Sighing, Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. "Merlin, I know you're not used to me saying this but at no point did I think you were being cowardly. Lords, Merlin, I may not know every disgusting detail of what Cenred and his men did to you but I was there for the aftermath, if you recall. For you to come with me as you did, to face him once again and still come back for me... Merlin, what part of any of that would I dare call cowardly?"
"How about the part where I won't stop shaking." Merlin clenched his fists and tensed his body, but the tremors continued to rattle through him. "Arthur, why can't I stop?" Merlin said, and he didn't care if it sounded like begging. He was safe, he was free, Cenred hadn't taken any of them, and yet his body refused to understand that.
"Because courage is not a lack of fear, Merlin," Arthur said kindly. "It's doing what you feel must be done despite your fear." He chuffed. "Even now there are days when I'll find myself shaking and unable to stop. It's nothing to feel ashamed of, Merlin, believe me."
Merlin managed a smile. "Even when you think I'm hiding behind bushes to get away from bandits?"
"Except then. You're definitely a scared little girl then."
"But not when I'm puking myself inside out."
"Not when you're puking yourself inside out because you faced the man who tormented you for so many years. You need to believe me when I say this, Merlin. I thought you were brave. Very brave."
Merlin sighed. "Thank you."
Arthur grunted a non committal reply, then tugged on Merlin's arm. "Come on. Back to the fire. I'll stoke it up. It should help with the shakes."
Merlin rose unsteadily to his feet, and Arthur kept a supporting hand on him as they made their way back to the camp. Merlin was still having difficulty wrapping his head around that fact that he had been in anyway courageous. But because it was Arthur who had begged to differ, he was very much inclined to believe it.
A/N: I am totally up for suggestions for this 'verse as I wouldn't mind a few ideas on where I could take it. Rewrites of certain episodes, maybe a whole new adventure. If there's a specific scenario for this verse you'd like to read then tell me about it. I can't promise it'll be written, but the more ideas the merrier. Just nothing with pairings. I don't write pairings.