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Part 2/2

When Arthur strode into the great hall five minutes later, he was greeted by a scene that was only too familiar – his father on the throne, surrounded by stern-faced court advisors, the culprit kneeling on the floor in front of them. Only this time, the culprit was familiar, too.

Eglan was there, side by side with Eadwig. Both of them glowered at Arthur as he came in. Merlin turned his head as well, and Arthur felt a funny jolt somewhere close to his stomach. Merlin's left eye was swollen shut, and there was an ugly bruise beginning to bloom along his jaw line.

He swallowed the sudden fury rising inside him. "What's going on? Who – who did this?"

Eglan stepped forward. "My lords, I'm sorry to disturb our Yuletide celebrations with such an unpleasant matter, but we, my brother and I, cannot let such an insult to our honor pass unnoticed."

"What happened?" Uther asked. "Has my son's manservant offended you in some way?"

"He has indeed!" It was Eadwig this time, staring at Merlin as if he were a disgusting stain on an otherwise gleaming floor. "This filthy dog dared lay hands on my wife – dared insult her honor!"

Arthur couldn't help it: he laughed. "Merlin? You're not serious."

"I caught him at it!" Eadwig shouted, red-faced. "He was there, outside my brother's chambers, and she was in his arms!"

"We weren't doing anything!" Merlin's voice sounded strangely muffled, maybe because half of his face was too swollen to speak properly. "She was crying – I was just trying to comfort her! She said – she said Prince Eglan had –"

"Shut up, you little shit!" Eglan kicked Merlin in the stomach, hard enough to make him curl in on himself. "Shut your-"

Arthur wasn't quite sure how it happened – there were a few frenzied seconds, then he found himself standing over a fallen Eglan, his sword drawn and pointing at the man's chest. "If you do that again, I'll run you through where you stand!"

"Arthur!" Uther snapped. He'd jumped up, as had King Edwin when Arthur had drawn his sword. "Let Eglan free, now!"

Reluctantly, Arthur stepped back, sheathing his sword. His head was still pounding; whether from his sudden rush of anger or the hangover, he couldn't tell.

"Now," Uther said in a hard tone. "Let's settle this in a reasonable manner. Prince Eadwig, you claim your wife's honor has been compromised. Has Lady Lynet anything to say to this accusation?"

Lynet's eyes were red from crying. She looked paler than ever, and didn't raise her head as she spoke. "No," she whispered.

"Come now," Uther said, not unkindly. "You must remember what happened. Did Merlin – proposition you?"

Lynet merely stared at the floor.

"She's afraid," Morgana said into the silence. "She's afraid to tell the truth, can't you see that?"

King Edwin stepped forward. His face looked strained, and he seemed to avoid his sons' eyes. "Uther – I don't think there is any need for prolonged discussion of the matter. My son will agree to let the incident go if the servant is punished for his transgression, and we will speak of it no more. I would be greatly saddened if this marred the relations between our two kingdoms."

Uther gave him a long look, then nodded. "You are right, of course. There is no need to drag this out unnecessarily. The servant will be punished-" He raised a hand, silencing Eadwig and Arthur before they could speak. "He will receive ten lashes with a braided whip and spend the day and the following night in the dungeon. After that, we will let the matter rest."

Eadwig's face was still red, but he was no longer looking at Merlin. He was staring at Eglan, and Arthur thought he had never seen such hate on a man's face.

"Thank you, Uther," Edwin said, still not looking at either of his sons. "Let us enjoy the rest of our visit and celebrate Yuletide as a time of peace and prosperity."

"Indeed." Uther snapped his fingers at two of the guards. "Take the servant to the courtyard and fetch the whipmaster."

Feeling as if he might be sick, Arthur watched as the guards grabbed Merlin under the arms and began to drag him to the door. He waited until Edwin and his sons had turned away, then went over to his father. It was hard to keep his voice down, not to shout, but he knew that no matter what, he must not disgrace Uther in front of the court.

"Father, I know Merlin would never do something like that. You know him, he's little more than a boy and he has no social graces whatsoever. I'm sure he meant Lady Lynet no harm. I – I assigned him to Eglan as a joke… it's my fault he ended up in this situation."

Arthur had expected anger, but Uther merely looked at him. "I know it is."

"Then don't punish him for something he didn't do! Please, Father."

"What would you have me do, Arthur? Shame Edwin and his sons in front of the entire court by digging into the matter? It would destroy everything we've worked for these last ten years. I will not endanger the peace between our kingdoms over this."

"Merlin didn't do anything!"

"No," Uther said evenly. "He didn't. You did, and he will suffer for it. This isn't the last time this will happen, Arthur."

He turned and left. Arthur stood there, feeling as if he'd been struck a blow on the training field, unexpected and straight to the gut. Maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe it was exactly what he deserved.

He stood there for a few more seconds, then forced himself to move, to follow the crowd as they went to watch the diplomatic sleight of hand that was about to be executed in the courtyard. He wasn't going to leave Merlin alone in this.

###

Arthur had seen men whipped before – had watched scenes like this ever since he was a small boy. His father hadn't made him watch executions until he was fourteen, but he had impressed upon his young son what happened to men and women who broke the law, even if their crimes weren't severe enough to warrant the death penalty. He'd watched, and cried in his nanny's lap afterwards, until he got used to it and no longer cried.

Except that you didn't get used to it. Ever.

What he hated most about it was the crowd. Some of them were compassionate, others gleeful, but they all watched, all stayed until it was over, as if it were normal for a group of human beings to stand there and do nothing as one of them was tormented until they screamed.

As they dragged Merlin onto the scaffold, made him take off his shirt and forced him to his knees, Arthur noticed that only few faces in the crowd showed any kind of anticipation. Most of them were servants who knew Merlin, and it seemed that none of them wanted to see him hurt. Not that Arthur was surprised. There was something about Merlin, and it affected most people. He sensed it now, that general air of dismay, as if many of them were close to breaking the silence and demanding of their king to put a stop to this.

But none of them did. The silence stretched as the whipmaster climbed the stairs, unfurled the whip and took up the position.

Arthur heard a sob close by, and saw Gwen crying into Morgana's shoulder. Morgana's face was free of tears. She was staring at Uther, Edwin and the two princes, and Arthur could see that in this moment, she hated them for what they were – men, kings, people who terrorized sixteen-year-old girls and sent others to be brutalized in the courtyard.

The first crack of the whip was unnaturally loud. Merlin cried out – of course he did; Arthur had never seen anyone endure a whipping and not give voice to their pain. Some tried, but they failed. Some screamed until they fainted.

Merlin did not faint. After the fifth or sixth lash, he began to sob; great gasping sobs, as if the whip was driving all the air out of his lungs. After the eighth lash, his knees gave way and he sagged down, held up only by his wrists which had been tied to the pole. The whip fell twice more, and each time Merlin gave a strangled sound, as if he had no strength left to scream.

The inside of Arthur's mouth tasted strange, and he noticed in an absentminded sort of way that he had bitten himself. He wanted to spit the blood into the snow, wanted to see it red on white like an angry outcry, but didn't. People were still watching.

The whipmaster rolled up his instrument and stepped back. Merlin hung on the pole like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Only the blood trickling down his back attested to the fact that he was indeed alive, and probably freezing, bare-chested in the cold winter air.

Arthur began to walk towards the scaffold. The crowd parted in front of him, some scrambling out of his way as if they were scared of him. Maybe they were. At that moment, Arthur didn't care.

He climbed the steps, pushing the whipmaster out of the way – a petty revenge, for the man had done nothing he wasn't paid for. He knelt down next to Merlin, afraid to touch any of that bloodied, broken skin. Finally, he settled for wrapping one arm around Merlin's chest to support him, and cutting through the thrice-damned ropes with his dagger. Merlin's wrists fell limply to his sides, and he sagged against Arthur. The movement jostled his back, making him moan softly.

Arthur tossed his dagger onto the planks. "Can't you see he can't walk? Someone help me already!"

"Shut up, Arthur." It was Morgana. She knelt down next to Merlin, took his other arm and helped Arthur lift him to his feet. There would be blood stains on her fine silk dress, and they wouldn't come out, but Morgana didn't seem to care. Nor did she care about the looks she was getting from the crowd, and of course, Uther. Arthur knew there would be a lecture about propriety and station, a blazing row and an icy, weeklong silence between the two, but that was how these things went.

They helped Merlin down the steps and across the courtyard. His face was pale and sweaty, his eyes half-closed, but he seemed determined not to be carried, to walk on his own two feet. Arthur thought of all the times he had called Merlin a weakling and a girl. He had seen battleworn knights cry like children after far lighter whippings, and here was his idiot manservant, trying to stay upright with half his skin hanging off his back.

"He is to be taken to the dungeon," Uther said somewhere behind them. Arthur merely nodded. He hadn't intended to make things worse by interfering with Merlin's sentence. If he did, he knew it wouldn't be him who would bear the brunt of the King's anger.

Halfway down the steps, they had to stop when Merlin retched and vomited watery gruel onto the wall. Some of it spattered the hem of Morgana's dress, which was already soaked with mud and snow.

"S-sorry," Merlin gasped. "Sorry -"

Morgana used her sleeve to wipe his mouth. "Don't be stupid."

Arthur ordered the guards to open the first cell – the one that had a rickety old cot with an actual mattress, put there in case a nobleman ever found himself in Camelot's dungeon. They helped Merlin lie down on his stomach. The cell was cold, but Arthur knew they couldn't put the shirt back on him; it would stick to his back and aggravate the wounds.

Gwen, who had followed them, brushed Merlin's hair out of his forehead. "I'll go and see if Gaius is back."

The old physician usually spent the morning in the city doing rounds. Arthur didn't want to think about his face when he found his young charge in the dungeon, barely conscious after a brutal flogging.

"You should go, too, Morgana," he said. "Father's going to be angry enough as it is."

She was about to protest, but Arthur held up a hand. "I'll stay. I won't leave this cell until Merlin does, Yuletide celebrations be damned."

She held his gaze for a moment, then nodded. "I'll have some things sent down for you."

When she had left, Arthur sat down on the stone floor next to the cot. Merlin looked at him out of half-closed eyes.

"You clotpole," he said. "The King's not going to like this."

"The King can-" Arthur broke off. "Never mind. I'm staying."

Uncharacteristically, Merlin said nothing, just sighed and closed his eyes. Arthur watched him for a while, wondering if it was possible for someone to fall asleep like this. Maybe it was the shock setting in.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. The words formed a white a cloud in the cold air.

Merlin sighed again, not bothering to open his eyes. "I know."

###

"This should help." Gaius wiped his hands on a cloth and sighed. "It's the best I can do for now."

Arthur nodded. The physician had spent the last half hour painstakingly covering every welt on Merlin's back with a lumpy salve smelling strongly of yarrow and rose water, plants that would draw the bad humors out of the wounds and allow them to heal. There would be scars, of course. Merlin would carry those for many years, perhaps forever.

"He should be given water every hour or so, and maybe some broth, if he's up to it. If you notice a fever setting in, come and get me at once."

There was no 'sire' clipped to the end of Gaius' order, nor did the old man meet Arthur's eyes. It wasn't often that Gaius got well and truly angry, but this time, he was. Arthur sensed that only years of restraint in Uther's presence kept Gaius from giving the Crown Prince a piece of his mind.

"I'll take care of him, Gaius. I'm – I'm truly sorry."

Gaius' face softened a little. "I'm glad to hear it… sire."

Merlin coughed. "Are – are you done?" He blinked at Arthur. "He didn't stick any of his leeches anywhere, did he?"

"No leeches," Gaius said, a slight smile tugging at his lips. "Get some rest, Merlin."

###

Arthur added another log to the fire grate, stoking the flames. "Better?"

Merlin nodded drowsily. "Nice of Morgana to send all that stuff."

Arthur had to agree. Morgana had personally seen to the delivery, and if the guards wondered about the fire grate, the blankets and the food making their way into the dungeons, they weren't fools enough to question the King's ward. Uther, according to Morgana, was Not Happy about his son spending the Yule night in the dungeon, but Arthur was going to cross that bridge when he came to it.

He pulled his blanket more tightly around his shoulders. "When I was little," he said, "we used to have a mummers play on Yule morning. The mummers would come into the great hall, do a dance and throw pastries and sweetmeats to us children. We used to fight over them." He smiled reminiscently.

"Sounds like a tradition you would enjoy," Merlin said hoarsely.

"Not as much as Morgana." Arthur poked at the flames, making sparks fly up. "She usually came away with the lion's share. We wouldn't really fight her, what with her being a girl and all," he added untruthfully. In those days, not a Yuletide had passed without her bloodying some poor squire's nose over a bag of sugared almonds.

Merlin snorted, clearly not believing him. "So there aren't any mummers these days?"

Arthur shook his head. "When I was ten, one of them was caught selling love potions to the ladies at court. My father had him beheaded the next day. After that, no more mummers."

"Fun," Merlin muttered. Arthur pretended not to have heard.

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Well..." Arthur was glad for the darkness; somehow, it was easier to talk that way. "Didn't you have any Yule celebrations in Ealdor?"

"Oh." Merlin smiled a little. "Yes. We did. Not so much food, of course. We shared around what we had. Usually all the neighbors got together to burn the Yule log and roast chestnuts. There was this Irish fellow, Father Cadoc, who'd come all the way from Rome. I don't remember much of his stories, but he made the best gingerbread you've ever tasted."

Arthur stared into the flames. "Do you miss them?"

Merlin didn't answer for a long time, and Arthur almost thought he'd drifted off again. Then, "Yes. Every day, actually." He paused. "I know what you're thinking."

"What's that?"

"'You're such a girl, Merlin'," Merlin said in a fairly good imitation of Arthur. "Being homesick and all."

"I don't."

"Yes, you do."

"No, I don't, Merlin."

"Oh."

Arthur added another log to the fire. "You should get some sleep. Gaius will bite my head off if he thinks I've kept you awake all night."

"You are keeping me awake."

"Shut up, Merlin."

###

"Here," Arthur held the cup to Merlin's mouth. "One more, come on."

Merlin swallowed with difficulty, then let his head drop back on the mattress. His forehead glistened with sweat. "It – bloody – hurts."

"The pain-numbing potion must have worn off," Arthur said. "Do you need me to get Gaius?"

"No." Merlin coughed, wincing at the movement. "No, he'll just make a fuss. Let him sleep."

"Fine, but if you get a fever, I'm getting him."

Merlin winced again, muttering something that sounded like 'bossy prat'. Arthur sat back down on his bit of floor (now padded with a soft pillow, courtesy of Morgana). He'd never nursed anyone before; had never even entertained the idea. He remembered a night when he'd been five, and so sick with lung fever that he wasn't expected to survive until morning. Uther had sent the nanny away and sat with him, stroking his hair and telling him stories. For once, they'd been just father and son, not King and Crown Prince.

He poked at the flames, not wanting to look at Merlin when he asked his question. "What happened, Merlin?"

Merlin sighed. "Is it important?"

"I want to know."

"Well… Eglan had sent me away, but told me to stay outside his chambers in case he needed something. He-"

"Wait." Arthur sat up. "He told you to stand outside his door all night?"

Merlin gave a noncommittal grunt. "He seemed to think it was funny. Anyway, Lady Lynet came by and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was attending Eglan, and we talked a little. She said she was going to get me a blanket. Then Eglan came out; I think he heard us. He asked her to come in and share a nightcap with him. She – she didn't really want to, but he just sort of made her. After a while, there was a sound like a chair falling over inside, and Lynet came running out of the room." Merlin swallowed. "She was crying and said Eglan… Eglan had done something. She wouldn't say what. She was crying so much, and I just didn't know what to do…"

"So you hugged her," Arthur sighed. He didn't need to be told; he could see it happening.

"Yeah," Merlin said defensively. "What was I supposed to do?"

"You weren't supposed to hug a noblewoman with her husband and brother-in-law just round the corner," Arthur said, wondering how Merlin had survived until this day.

"Well, if I hadn't been advertised as the worst manservant ever and loaned out like a pair of old boots, I wouldn't have had the chance!"

Arthur bit down on his retort. Merlin was right, and he knew that for once, he should probably say so out loud. "I shouldn't have done that, Merlin, and I'm sorry."

Merlin smiled - not quite his usual funky grin, but getting there. "So you've said. Repeatedly, if I recall. I'm beginning to wonder what was in that concoction Gaius gave me."

"I'm trying to apologize, you idiot."

"I know."

"And I probably shouldn't have given you that face wash yesterday. It was really cold out."

"It was, actually. So you're saying you're sorry for that, too?"

"Merlin?"

"Shut up," they said together.

###

Yule morning dawned bright and cold, more so in the dungeons than anywhere else in the castle. Arthur had drifted from sleep to waking and back again, climbing to his feet once in a while to check on Merlin and make sure his condition had not worsened. He'd had the sort of strange dreams that could be expected from such fitful sleeping – at one point, he'd dreamt that Merlin's eyes glowed gold and the flames in the grate rekindled as if by magic. He must have stoked the fire himself and forgotten about it, for it burned bright and merry whenever he woke.

Merlin did not look well in the pale light of morning. He looked, in fact, like death warmed over, and only grimaced weakly when Arthur told him so.

"But it seems your wounds haven't become infected," Arthur added bracingly. Truth was, Merlin's back looked horrible, deeply bruised and covered in thick swollen welts, but there was no need to belabor the obvious.

"Y-you wouldn't have any mulled wine on you?" Merlin muttered. "I'd like to get pissed."

"Not today, you're not," Arthur said firmly. "Gaius wouldn't like that at all. Can you sit up?"

"If it means I can get out of here, then yes."

They made their way to the door, Merlin leaning heavily on Arthur's arm. The guards had not locked the cell; they didn't seem to have dared, given that the Prince was spending the night inside. Arthur helped Merlin up the stairs, pausing every dozen steps or so when Merlin seemed close to passing out. The castle was abuzz with early-morning preparations for the Yule day, people rushing about carrying bath water, garlands and table linen. Every servant they met gave them the same wide-eyed stare and belated curtsey or bow when they realized that it was indeed Prince Arthur dragging poor Merlin through the corridors. Arthur was surprised how little he cared. All he wanted was to get Merlin to Gaius, where he could lie down in an actual bedroom rather than a stone-cold dungeon cell.

Gaius looked as if he, too, had slept only briefly. With a distracted nod at Arthur, he began to check Merlin's back, tutting and fussing in a rather terrifying manner, then ordering Merlin straight to bed.

Arthur helped him into his little room, which was as messy as it had been the first time Arthur had seen it. He was surprised when he glimpsed a rather heavy tome lying on Merlin's bed – it didn't look like the kind of silly fairytale romance Merlin would read before going to sleep. Just when Arthur was about to pick it up, Gaius dropped a tray he'd been holding, and after that, the book had mysteriously disappeared.

They helped Merlin into bed, and Gaius began to apply more of his healing salve. Exhausted from the walk, Merlin complained only briefly, then closed his eyes and seemed to go to sleep.

Arthur looked around the room, at the scattered things, the drab little bed, the collection of colorful rocks and snail shells on the window ledge that was just so Merlin. He'd had few friends in his life – admirers and bootlickers, yes, but not friends – and right now all he wanted to do was stay here in this messy room, wait until Merlin woke up, annoy him a little and maybe ask him about that book. He didn't care if all they did was play a few rounds of dice. This was how Arthur wanted to spend his Yule morning – with a friend.

He knew that he could not, though. His father was waiting, and more likely than not had a lecture ready on a Crown Prince's duties and obligations (which, in Uther's eyes, did not include spending his nights in dungeon cells watching over a hapless manservant). There would be more food, more wine, more speeches, and Arthur would be lucky if he could escape before nightfall.

"Sire?"

He looked up, and saw Gaius standing in the door.

"Sire, the King is asking for you. He wants you to give Prince Eglan a tour of the armory."

Arthur sighed. "I should be going then. Gaius?"

"Yes?"

"You'll let me know how he's doing, won't you?"

The old man looked at him, his eyes strangely soft. "Of course I will."

Arthur nodded and, glancing back at Merlin once more, began to walk to the door. It had to be enough… for now.


Epilogue

"You know," Merlin said conversationally, "I could have had her down in a second with a simple summoning spell. There was no need to strain your old bones climbing that tree."

Arthur Pendragon, once and future King of Albion, tried to look as dignified as he could with a tiny black-and-white kitten clutched to his chest. "You might have botched the spell. I couldn't risk it."

He handed the kitten to Bodicia, Percival's youngest granddaughter and apple of his eye. "Take good care of her, and don't let her climb any more trees."

Bodicia beamed at him. "Thank you, sire!"

Merlin smiled as he watched her race off across the courtyard. Snow had fallen heavily overnight, covering Camelot's many turrets and towers with a blanket of white. Yuletide was almost upon the land.

Arthur leaned against the tree, gazing into the distance.

"You're not brooding again, are you?" Merlin asked.

"Just thinking."

"You know that's not good for you." Merlin grinned, and a moment later ducked as a snowball came flying his way. The second time he was not so lucky, and it was Arthur's turn to grin.

"Reflexes getting a bit rusty in your old age, Merlin?"

There was a moment, right then, when he remembered another snowy day, a crowd gathered in the courtyard and a joke gone horribly wrong. It was strange, how well he recalled those events when they had happened so many years ago. Eglan had long since fallen in battle, Lynet was queen and the scars on Merlin's back had (almost) faded. The memories had not.

"Arthur?"

He turned around. For a second, he didn't see Merlin the Court Sorcerer, all long black robes and venerable beard, but a gangly young man in a brown jacket and one of those silly neckerchiefs. And then, Merlin laughed, and Arthur thought that there wasn't really any difference, after all.

The End


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