A/N: Hey everybody! This is a companion piece toTo The Death, written upon a request from my reader Synk to see some of the story from Arthur's POV. It's been really fun writing this, switching it around to see it through Arthur's eyes, so thanks so much for suggesting it! Having no experience with sword fighting myself, I feel like I exhausted most of my knowledge in Merlin's duel inTTD, so I did not feel the need to reiterate the entire thing with Arthur watching. The end of the story was pretty self-evident, I think, and I feel that most of Arthur's part is earlier on, so I only wrote this up to Arthur's acquiescence. Hope you all enjoy it, and if you haven't readTTD, please do! :D
Arthur stared in shock at the gauntlet on the ground. It wasn't for him, nor for any of the other knights, and his brain was taking a moment to catch up to what that meant. Merlin was staring at it too, looking almost as shocked as Arthur felt. Arthur's mouth finally caught up to his brain, voicing his reaction the only way he could.
"What?" he cried. There were similar responses from the knights gathering behind him, all watching this bizarre confrontation. "What is the meaning of this?" The foreign knight didn't even deign to glance in his direction. Merlin's eyes narrowed suspiciously at his challenger.
"Why do you challenge me, Sir Carson?" he asked, sounding legitimately confused. Arthur was confused too. Who in their right mind would want to challenge Merlin? It wasn't as if he was a knight or a warrior. He didn't have enemies, not like Arthur did. He didn't fight in many battles, he didn't have blood on his hands that would earn him a challenge such as this. There was no reason for this stranger from another kingdom to evenknow Merlin, much less issue him a challenge. But the knight simply gestured indifferently, giving a little shrug.
"My reasons are my own," he claimed. "Do you accept my challenge?" Immediately Arthur started forward to take up the gauntlet; there was no way he was going to let Merlin fight this man, no matter what quarrel the knight may have had with his servant. But before Arthur got two paces, Merlin had snatched the gauntlet off the ground and faced Sir Carson again, his face set. Arthur gaped at him.
"I accept your challenge, Sir Carson," he said decisively. Arthur couldn't help the noise of outrage and borderline panic that escaped his throat. Luckily the other knights had all made sounds of horror as well. "What are your terms?" The knight smirked in a way that made Arthur want to slap the smug little expression off his rat-like face.
"Single combat. Noon tomorrow. To the death." Arthur's lungs seemed to have stopped working. He saw Merlin nod but he didn't really comprehend it. That couldn't possibly mean what he thought it meant. His mind revolted against what his eyes and ears were telling it. Merlin could not possibly have just accepted a duel to the death with a knight he knew nothing about. Even Merlin couldn't be that stupid. But Sir Carson was walking away now and Merlin was watching him go, a calm look of contemplation on his face. It was that calmness that pushed Arthur over the edge. He strode forward and wrenched his servant around to face him.
"What the hell are you thinking, Merlin?!" he shouted, anger and fear combining to make his question come out much louder and more forcefully than he had originally intended.
"The man obviously has a quarrel with me," Merlin said, taking a step back to be out of range of Arthur's ferocity. "I see no reason not to meet him head on." Arthur's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. No reason not to?
"You're not even a swordsman, Merlin! What on earth possessed you to take up his challenge?" The challenge that's going to get you killed! he thought a little frantically.
"The Knights' code—"
"You're not a knight, Merlin!" Arthur threw his hands up in frustration. "The Knights' Code doesn't apply to you, you were under no obligation to pick up his gauntlet. Nor are you required to go through with it. You have to withdraw, Merlin." Arthur was surprised by the intensity of the glare Merlin sent his way.
"Knights are not the only people with honor, Arthur," he said, his voice cold. "I will not renege on a duel such as this." Then Merlin had turned his back on him and was walking away, back toward the castle. Arthur watched him stride away in shock, his mouth still hanging open. He looked back at his knights, all of whom were looking at Merlin's retreating back in a similar manner, still too stunned by this sudden turn of events to do anything about it. Gwaine was the quickest to snap out of it.
"He can't be serious about this," he scoffed, though there was clear worry underneath his practiced scorn; Arthur knew Merlin to be Gwaine's first and closest friend and the knight's concern was evident in the tension of his shoulders and jaw despite his relaxed stance. "He can't be."
"He looked pretty serious to me," Elyan said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other nervously.
"Why would a North Umbrian knight seek out Merlin for a duel?" Leon muttered, more to himself than to the other knights, staring off in the direction Sir Carson had come. Arthur wasn't listening to him, though, still stuck on Merlin's abrupt anger.
"What was that last bit about?" he asked, bewildered.
"I think you insulted him, Arthur," Percival said. Arthur whirled around to look at him questioningly. Insulted him? How did he insult Merlin? Percival looked like he wanted to roll his eyes but, being infinitely more respectful than the servant in question, he simply moved to explain. "You implied that since he isn't a knight, he was under no obligation to stay true to his word. Merlin, while obviously not a knight, is still an honorable man. He will no more go back on his word than any of us will, knight or no, and it obviously offended him that you would expect him to do so."
Arthur scowled off toward the castle, fists clenching and unclenching with anxious energy. When Percival said it like that, he guessed it made sense enough. Arthur never really thought about Merlin in such terms. He was always just Merlin, a unique entity in and of himself. He had never met anyone like Merlin and therefore had a hard time thinking of him in general terms. Merlin defied every stereotype Arthur had ever tried to place upon him, so this sudden adherence to tradition was just as unexpected as every surprising thing he had ever done. Trust Merlin to be unpredictable simply by doing what anyone else would have done.
"I'm not going to let Merlin's newfound sense of honor get him killed," Arthur growled. Leaving the knights shifting awkwardly behind him, Arthur marched into the castle, heading immediately for the physician's quarters. He found Merlin being berated by Gaius, who looked very worried and more than a little angry.
"How many times have I told you to be careful, Merlin?" Gaius was saying, his voice harsh. Merlin stood before him, arms crossed and face set in defiance. "This is quite possibly the most idiotically dangerous thing you have ever done, and that's saying something!"
"I quite agree," Arthur said, coming forward to stand beside Gaius, who jumped rather violently and looked at him strangely before turning quickly back to his ward, his anger now overlaid with a look of triumph, as though he was certain Merlin would give up now that he had Arthur on his side. On the contrary, Merlin simply transferred his glare from his guardian to his master, looking no less stubborn. "This is ludicrous, Merlin. Withdraw from the duel."
"How is it ludicrous to accept a challenge when it is issued?" Merlin asked.
"It is ludicrous for you to accept a challenge when you do not have the skill to complete it," Arthur rephrased, speaking slowly and clearly. Merlin's scowl deepened.
"It's good to know you have so much faith in me, Arthur," he drawled. His tone practically dripped with sarcasm, but it wasn't the usual teasing kind, but much more cutting.
"Oh, don't be like that, Merlin, you know it's true," Arthur sneered. "You can barely hold a sword by the right end, how do you expect to win in mortal combat? Just withdraw from the duel."
"How many times have I begged you to withdraw from a dangerous fight?" Merlin shot back accusingly. "How many times have you ignored me and fought anyway because it would cowardly and dishonorable to back out?"
"And I survived every time because I'm a champion swordsman, Merlin," Arthur pointed out. "You were being a worrywart. I'm being practical." Merlin threw a fuming look at Gaius for some reason, looking like he was about to start pulling out his hair. Gaius did not respond and Merlin took a deep breath before turning back to face Arthur.
"You're not going to talk me out of this, Arthur," he said resolutely. "Don't bother trying."
"You're going to get yourself killed," Arthur responded, managing to come across much more relaxed about that fact than he really was.
"Then that's my prerogative." The tone of finality was unmistakable. Arthur threw up his hands in frustration and turned to storm out of the room. Before he slammed the door behind him he heard the unmistakable sounds of Gaius gearing up for another lecture. He hoped the physician would have more luck than he had.
Feeling edgy and restless, Arthur returned to the training field. He needed something to focus on, something that wasn't the impending death of his servant-turned-best-friend. The moment the duel entered his mind, he couldn't stop himself flashing back to all the times Merlin had been injured or dying or presumed dead or missing and he felt a near irresistible urge to hit something. So he snatched a sword from the rack and began slicing away at a training dummy. He wasn't controlling his strokes, he was not fighting to his usual standards, he wasn't even really aiming. He just threw all his strength behind his blows, hacking fiercely until sweat began dripping down to sting his eyes. Pulling back to catch his breath, Arthur caught sight of Leon and Elyan exiting the castle looking upset. He wiped his brow on his sleeve and waited for them to approach him.
"Merlin wouldn't listen to us either," Elyan told him.
"He says he will honor the Knights' Code as any of us would," Leon said. While obviously troubled by the danger his friend was in, the older knight had attained a grudging sort of respect for the young man who clung so ferociously to his integrity. "He would not be dissuaded." Arthur jabbed his sword into the ground with a curse.
"That idiot," he swore. "He's going to die because he wants to play knight." Leon frowned at him reproachfully but didn't say anything.
"Maybe you should talk to him again," Elyan suggested. "You may be able to get through to him where we couldn't." Arthur shook his head.
"Like Merlin ever does what I tell him to," he scoffed.
"Still, it's worth a try," Elyan insisted, Leon nodding alongside him. Arthur looked between them, seeing their worry, and knew he would have to try again. No matter how angry Merlin would get. He thrust his sword into Leon's hand and stalked off for the castle again. When he reached the physician's chambers he found the door closed but he could hear voices inside. It wasn't Gaius so Arthur crept closer to the door, curiosity getting the better of him. It sounded like Gwaine was trying his hand at persuading Merlin to back out. He didn't seem to be doing very well. Grimacing at his own shameful conduct, Arthur leaned his ear against the door to eavesdrop.
"—have no business in a duel like this."
"I have as much right to answer a direct challenge as the next man, Gwaine."
"Your rights don't have anything to do with it, Merlin. This is dangerous business; you're going to get yourself hurt. Leave the duels to the knights." There was the unmistakable sound of hands being slammed down onto a table and Arthur jumped slightly in surprise at the sudden noise.
"I am sickandtired of being treated like a child who got his grubby hands on daddy's sword!" Merlin shouted. Arthur stared at the door in shock for a second. He and Merlin had had their fair share of fights over the years, but never before had Arthur heard Merlin shout like that. Merlin may show little to no deference to his title, but Arthur guessed Merlin's respect for his position went just far enough to prevent him from raising his voice to his king. He seemed to have no such compunctions with Gwaine. "I don't need you to save me, Gwaine. Not you, not Arthur, not any of you. I can damn well take care of myself and I will go through with this duel."
"I will not stand by and let you get yourself killed!" Gwaine roared back.
"Get out of my face."
This was said so quietly and with such a deadly calm that it sent a shiver down Arthur's spine. Merlin sounded dangerous now. Arthur was suddenly very glad that he had never given Merlin reason to speak to him in such a manner, and he pitied Gwaine for being on the receiving end of the normally amiable man's apparently considerable fury. Arthur held his breath, waiting for the sound of a punch being thrown, but there was silence within the room. After a very tense moment, he heard footsteps and had barely a second to fling himself out of the way before the door was wrenched open hard enough to slam against the wall and Gwaine stormed past him without so much as seeing him, looking far angrier than Arthur had ever seen. He was sure that if he looked into the physician's chambers, he would see Merlin looking similarly livid. He found he had no desire to see such an incongruous expression on his servant's normally cheerful face, so he turned tail and hurried off toward his room before the furious Merlin could catch him snooping outside the door.
Upon reaching his chambers, he immediately found himself with an armful of Guinevere. She threw her arms around his neck and buried her wet face in his shoulder, her shoulders shaking with tears. Obviously she had heard about the duel. Arthur felt a little ashamed that he hadn't thought to comfort his wife. He had forgotten that Merlin was her best friend as well as Gwaine's, and even his own; of course she would be devastated at the thought of Merlin being killed in such a way. So he wrapped his arms around her and stroked her hair, nuzzling his nose into her hair, taking as much comfort as he gave.
"I went to talk to him, Arthur," Gwen choked out eventually, not pulling back but speaking into his chest so that it was a little muffled. "He apologized, but he wouldn't pull out. He said he had as much of a duty to uphold the Knights' Code as anyone else did, whether he is a knight or not."
"I'll talk to him again, Gwen, I promise," he said, kissing her head. "I'll convince him to withdraw. I will. He has to see sense about this. Merlin may be a brave idiot, but he's not stupid enough to risk his life over something like this, surely." He was trying to convince himself just as much as his distraught wife. It wasn't really working for either of them. Merlin's stubbornness and bravery were second to none, not even his own, he knew that. But he had to try. Merlin's life depended on it. Gwen pulled out of his embrace, wiping at her face embarrassedly.
"I've been sitting here crying like a loon for an hour," she muttered, sounding a little angry with herself. Abruptly, she began hurrying around the room, straightening and tidying and organizing. Arthur watched her sympathetically; she needed to distract herself as much as he had earlier, only she did so by falling back on old habits, manual labor and cleaning and washing. Anything to keep her hands busy and her mind blank. He let her fuss for a minute before pulling her back into his arms for a second. He kissed her gently.
"I'll put a stop to this," he told her quietly. She nodded up at him, her dark eyes still full of tears. He kissed her on the forehead and then released her. He had to try again.
His next attempt was just as unproductive as his first one. Merlin was much touchier than he had been, more defensive, and Arthur couldn't bring himself to push him. He still had Merlin's shouting ringing in the back of his mind and he was rather wary of bringing about that sort of fit of temper. A few minutes of ineffective bickering and Merlin essentially dismissed him. Feeling more than a little spurned, Arthur left. He went to the training field again and nearly destroyed the training dummy in his anger and his futility. He was angry at Merlin for being so damn stubborn, he was angry at Sir Carson for starting this whole thing, and he was angry at himself for not being able to stop this. Arthur had never done well with feeling helpless, and that was exactly how he felt now. He couldn't put a stop to the duel, not when it was perfectly legitimate. Nor could he be seen to be favoring a servant over a knight; propriety may not have been top of Arthur's list, but it wasn't something he could throw out the window completely. And he couldn't convince Merlin to change his mind. There was nothing he could do and that was killing him. So he rained down blow after blow on the poor defenseless dummy until pieces began falling off and the knights on the other side of the field were eyeing him worriedly.
So he tried again. And Merlin barely spoke to him at all this time. He answered with clipped responses, irritation clear in his every word. Arthur pushed harder this time, insulting him and hoping to get a response of some sort, but Merlin didn't rise to the bait as he had with Gwaine. He kept a tight hold of himself and told Arthur to leave after barely a minute. At a loss as to what else he could do, Arthur left. He wandered around for a while, feeling that destroying two training dummies was a bit much for one day, but not willing to go back to his room and face his distressed wife either. He caught snatches of feverish conversations on all sides and nearly every one of them was about Merlin and his remarkable duel. From what he heard, no one expected Merlin to win. The fatalism made Arthur's chest clench painfully; they were talking about him as if he were already dead. That thought spurred him back to the castle again. He would try again. One more time. Merlin had to see sense. He hadto. Arthur ran into Percival outside Gaius' chambers and the large knight nodded to him.
"Been in to see Merlin? How is he?" he asked tentatively, gesturing to the door behind him. "Is he still angry?" Percival shook his head.
"Not really," he said. "He's more frustrated than anything else. He was furious this morning, I hear; seems he had a bit of a row with Gwaine."
"I know." Oh boy, did he know.
"He looked all ready for another argument when I got here."
"Did he get one?" Percival shook his head again with a small smile.
"I didn't come to argue with him," he said simply. "Just wanted to make sure he was sure. He's thought it through, Arthur. He's made his decision, and we just need to support him in it."
"You're content to just let him condemn himself?" Arthur demanded incredulously. "He's walking to his death with this!" Percival tilted his head to the side, eyeing him shrewdly.
"I think you underestimate him," he said. "I think everyone does. Give him a chance. He might surprise you." Percival put a hand on Arthur's shoulder, nodded to him again, and walked away toward the armoury. Arthur stared after him for a moment, marveling at his quietest knight. Shaking his head to rid himself of the worry and fear that threatened to overwhelm him when he thought of allowing Merlin to walk out into that arena, he turned back to the door and squared his shoulders. He pushed it open and strode into the room. Merlin looked up and groaned at the sight of him. Had this been any other day, he would've boxed Merlin's ears for it, but he had more important things on his mind now.
"Withdraw, Merlin," he said authoritatively.
"No, Arthur," he responded in a similarly definitive tone.
"You're not a fighter, Merlin, you can barely hold a sword the right way up," Arthur said with an attempt at their usual teasing air, but his own angry fretfulness meant that it came out much more disparagingly than he had intended. Merlin bristled slightly, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms tightly over his chest.
"You do realize I have spent the last eight years watching you train knights and fighting bandits by your side and being your training dummy, don't you?" he asked contemptuously. "You don't think I've picked up a few things from all that? I've survived everything that's been thrown at us thus far, I have to be doing something right."
"Fighting bandits in the woods is one thing, Merlin, but mortal combat is a different thing entirely," Arthur insisted. He resisted the urge to point out that Merlin was usually hiding behind a tree during confrontations with bandits, knowing that would only make Merlin even more defensive. He fell back on the technicalities. "Single combat with a knight is like nothing else you've ever experienced. You're in over your head, Merlin, you have to realize that, surely."
"Arthur, you still view me as the gutsy peasant who led you on a chase through the market with a mace he didn't know how to use," Merlin said. "You have to realize that I've come a long way since then." A small smile tugged at his lips but Arthur didn't feel like smiling at all. On the contrary, the memory of that confrontation made him want to cry at that moment. He looked at Merlin and was surprised to realize just how much he had changed since that ridiculous fight. He was no longer the scrawny, plucky youth with more audacity than common sense. He had grown up a great deal, his shoulders had broadened and filled out, his arms had a definition that Arthur had not noticed, his clothes were not baggy on his thin frame anymore. But it wasn't just the physical changes that struck Arthur in that moment, it the difference in his bearing, in the way he held himself. Merlin no longer radiated that aura of youthful naïveté he had been so well known for in his younger days. Somewhere along the line he had lost that innocence, but he had not been left downtrodden like so many disillusioned young men. In its place was a sort of quiet self-assurance, a fortitude and confidence that asserted itself in his very stance. Merlin faced his friend, his master, his king, with his back straight and his head held high. He held his ground with a glint of steel in his eye and Arthur knew he had one last recourse. He drew in a deep breath.
"As your King, Merlin, I order you to withdraw from this ridiculous duel," he commanded with as much authority as he could possibly muster. Anyone else would have quailed beneath Arthur's imperial demand, but Merlin simply let out a huff of derisive laughter and raised an eyebrow.
"And since when have your orders ever stopped me before?" Arthur's shoulders slumped, all bravado leaving him in defeat, and he suddenly felt very tired. He rubbed a hand over his face, having to squeeze his eyes shut to fight back tears in the face of his foolishly brave servant. And best friend.
"Merlin, please. If you won't withdraw for your own sake, then do it for mine," Arthur pleaded, fighting to speak around the lump in his throat but making sure that Merlin met his gaze when he said this. "You're my best friend, Merlin, and I don't want to lose you. I don't know what I would do if I did." The thought of life without Merlin by his side, of having a bland and submissive servant following him around like a shadow, was enough to close off his throat completely and prevent any more embarrassing supplications. Merlin had always been there, through thick and thin, through the best and the worst times of his life, through everything. Arthur couldn't imagine facing a battle without Merlin riding alongside him. His servant had been a near constant presence in his life for the last eight years. So much had changed in that time, betrayals and upheavals and crises and near-death experiences, but the one thing that had not changed in the least was that Merlin was at his side, knocking him down and propping him up at the same time. And now that could change. And that thought scared Arthur more than any of the other changes in his tumultuous life.
For a moment Arthur thought this last heartfelt plea had done the trick, that Merlin would crack and give in and withdrawal from this thrice-blasted fight. Merlin's steely gaze softened, his expression of hard determination melted a bit, he dropped his defensive stance and just looked at him for a moment. His eyes looked suspiciously bright and Arthur knew that he, too, was fighting back tears.
"You know you've always been my best friend, Arthur," Merlin said softly, reaching out to clasp his shoulder. "But I have to do this." Arthur searched his face, shaking his head slightly in disbelief.
"Why?" he asked, desperate to know the answer for his friend's determination to get himself killed. "What do you have to gain with this? You have nothing to prove, Merlin. Not to the knights, and certainly not to me."
"I have everything to prove. To myself."
And suddenly Arthur wasn't seeing Merlin anymore. He was staring up at a younger Guinevere, the serving girl who would stand her ground against him. She was clutching at his shoulder, begging him not to go out and joust again. And he gazed up at her and said those same words. He could still remember how he had felt in that moment. Young and untested, desperate to prove that he wasn't just a title, desperate to earn the respect of his people and, more importantly, of himself. He remembered pushing Guinevere away and getting back on his horse, despite being grievously wounded, risking life and limb in his determination and his need to prove himself. And he saw that same need reflected back to him now. He took a step back. His heart clenching painfully somewhere around his navel, Arthur nodded. Merlin's lips twitched as if he wanted to smile.
"Alright, Merlin," he said with a weary sigh. "Just…be careful."
"I will," Merlin assured him. Arthur nodded to him again and turned to leave, but he stopped in the doorway. He turned back to look at his friend. Merlin looked so thin and fragile in that moment, but also somehow strong and resolute. It was incongruous, but also so very Merlin. That man was one giant mass of contradictions and surprises.
"Good luck, Merlin." Merlin really did smile this time. It was just a small one, but it fit on his face so much better than the grim determination that had taken up residence there.
"Thank you, sire." It was one of the few times that Merlin had said his title without any hint of sarcasm or derision. Despite his fear and his apprehension and his exhaustion, Arthur was fighting a small smile of his own as he closed the door behind him.
He found Gwen sitting in front of the window in their room, one of his tunics in hand. She was trying her hardest to focus on mending the tear in the sleeve, but her hands were shaking. He stayed in the doorway for a moment, just watching her. He loved her more than anything, but he couldn't help but remember that he only had her because of Merlin. His poking and prodding, his encouragement and advise, his years of being the middle-man and running messages and tokens of affection back and forth between them. He was the one who eventually convinced Arthur to give her a second chance. Like a lot of things in his life, Arthur's relationship with his queen was owed almost entirely to Merlin. And he knew that Gwen had been Merlin's first friend in Camelot, and they remained very close to each other. If Merlin was killed in this battle, Guinevere would be just as devastated as he would. He watched sadly as Gwen finally gave up on her mending and put a trembling hand over her mouth, trying not to succumb to her tears again. He crossed the room and pulled her up into his arms again. She clung to him, her tears falling silently.
"Why is he doing this?" she cried. "I just don't understand it."
"I do," Arthur said. She pulled back to look at him questioningly, practically pleading with her eyes; she needed to know, she couldn't stand the senselessness of it. "Do you remember that jousting tournament where I competed in disguise?" he asked. She frowned in confusion, not seeing the connection, but she nodded anyway. "Do you remember what you said to me? When I was injured? And what I said in return?"
Of course she remembered. How could she possibly forget? That was when their relationship started, with Arthur as a guest in her home. He had kissed her so gently, so sweetly, and then the next minute he was risking his life for the sake of a jousting tournament. She hadn't really understood it then, but she had realized that it was important to Arthur. He wasn't trying to impress her, he wasn't doing it for the glory and triumph. It was for himself. She nodded again.
"Merlin said those same words to me just a moment again," Arthur said. "I told him he didn't need to prove anything to me. But it's not me he needs to prove himself to. He needs to know that he's worth something."
"Why would he ever question his worth of all things?" she wondered.
"Well, look at who he spends his time with," Arthur pointed out. "The king and queen, the most trusted knights and the fiercest warriors in the Five Kingdoms, and the most renowned physician in the land. The knights all tease him and play jokes on him, and I admit that I spend most of my time berating him, and even though he knows it's all said in jest and I don't really think he's useless and stupid and all of that, but it has to grate on him after a while. He's surrounded by the best of the best, and I think he just wants to feel like he's worthy of being included in the group."
"Surely he knows how much we all care about him," she insisted. "We've never thought him inadequate or less than any of us. He's always been our equal in every way, he doesn't need to convince us of his value."
"It's not us he needs to convince," he reminded her gently. Tears welled in her eyes again and he enfolded her in his arms once more, kissing the top of her head and rubbing his hands over her back soothingly. "I may not like what he's doing," he whispered, "but I understand why. And I can't fault him for him. I've been there, I know how it feels. I think he really does need to do this. I only hope the idiot makes it through."