Fandom: Merlin (BBC)
Summary: Merlin lays his life on the line to save Arthur yet again, only this time there are witnesses, lots of them. Only Arthur prevents him going to the headman's axe straight away, but Arthur alone cannot save him. That is up to both of them.
Word Count: ~45,160
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Chapter 2 Caged and Bound
Arthur made it his business to visit Merlin every morning and every evening, very careful to make sure that these visits did not interfere with his duties. Gaius was usually there when he arrived, but would leave to allow him to sit with Merlin alone. Not once in the three days since the feast had Merlin so much as twitched while he sat in the chair beside the bed and talked.
"I have resisted my father's attempts to give me a new manservant," Arthur said, staring past Merlin's passive features at the far wall. "I think it would be too much of a shock to my system to have an orderly room again."
Why he was talking to Merlin when it was obvious Merlin was so unconscious that he was barely breathing, let alone able to hear anything, Arthur had no idea, but sitting there in silence seemed so wrong. He really wanted to hear Merlin's inane chatter coming back at him, but so far there were no signs of consciousness at all.
"And my horse doesn't know how to react to being so beautifully brushed every day," he continued to talk. "I am sure he almost died of shock this morning. Of course I know you've been slipping him treats because he refused to let me mount until I produced three carrots today. You really are such a pushover."
It was strange what he was learning about Merlin just because Merlin wasn't there. How much Merlin was a part of his life was becoming more and more obvious; even when Merlin was away from him doing something else there had always been the knowledge that Merlin would be back shortly or in an hour or so. He kept finding himself making mental notes to ask Merlin to do something or to tell Merlin something and then remembering that Merlin was not going to be in his room, tidying it badly, when he finished training with his knights.
"And let me tell you I do not appreciate having to wait for the servants to fill my bath," Arthur prattled on with the first thing that came into his head. "How long have you been keeping the water hot with magic? I have discovered I do not like tepid bath water in the slightest. The sooner we get you out of here and back on the job the better, because I am very displeased."
He knew Merlin would have had a comeback about him being a royal prat or some such thing for that, and his chest tightened when all there was, was silence. It hurt to see Merlin imprisoned and cowed; his heart ached with it, but he could not let himself dwell on it too deeply. That his father had not yet changed his mind and ordered Merlin's death was one thing that made the wait bearable. The longer it went on, the less likely the king was to demand that Merlin pay the price of being a sorcerer the moment he woke up. Arthur still had no idea what he was going to do when Merlin did wake up, but he knew he could not let this end with an execution.
"All this loafing around had better be about getting better," Arthur continued to talk to fill the silence, "because if you're just wallowing I might have to teach you a lesson myself. We can't all lay around forever and a little wound like the one in your shoulder is no excuse for laziness. I was up and around far quicker than you and according to everyone, I was dying."
He felt so empty inside and he didn't like it. Finally he turned and looked at Merlin's relaxed, slightly flushed features and he sat forward in the chair. Gaius would return soon and they would talk and pretend that everything was going better than they expected. It would be as hollow a gesture as he felt in his chest, but it was all they had. It was like Merlin was shut away from them behind glass and Arthur hated it.
Arthur looked down as the pale, thin figure in the bed and knew without a doubt that he was losing Merlin. It had been a week and Merlin had not so much as stirred.
"How is he, Gaius?" Arthur asked as the physician tended Merlin.
"Slipping further away from this life with every breath," Gaius replied with a sigh and turned to look at him.
It was not what Arthur wanted to hear, but he nodded, knowing it was the truth. If he had not been looking hard and been able to see the virtually unnoticeable movement of Merlin's chest he would have believed Merlin to already be dead. Ever since the braces had been placed on Merlin's wrists and he had seen Merlin go completely still he had known it could not end well.
"His wounds are barely healed at all," Gaius told him, even though Arthur could see as much, "and they refuse to even seal properly. I believe Merlin requires magic the way we require food and the bindings shut it off from him completely. He exhausted himself utterly in the confrontation and I do not believe that if the bindings remain in place any longer he will live through the night."
Arthur looked at the ornate artefacts around Merlin's arms and neck and it was as if he could almost see them killing his friend, inch by inch. He knew Merlin was unique; had known it from the moment he had laid eyes on the troublesome young man who had become his friend, and he also knew he could not let this end. Merlin had done more than crawl into his heart, Merlin had crawled under his skin like no other person ever had, and no matter what his father tried to tell him, Arthur knew it was nothing to do with magic. Seeing everything that was bright in Merlin fade was unacceptable.
"Take them off," he said, just as Gaius was turning back to Merlin.
Gaius looked shocked.
"But your father..." Gaius began to say.
"My father promised me that Merlin will have a fair hearing," Arthur snapped back, "and Merlin cannot have that if he is dead before it happens. Take them off. The room will still contain him."
Gaius did not move,
"That is an order, Gaius," Arthur added, taking the full responsibility onto his own shoulders.
His father would not like it, in fact his father would rage and shout about sorcerers and their evil ways, but Arthur was not letting Merlin die.
Gaius bowed his head in acknowledgement of the order and as Arthur stood there, reached for the clasp of the first brace. Arthur watched every movement and he fancied he could see a little colour returning to Merlin's cheeks even as the first ornate binding was removed. Once the second was gone he moved forward to help, pulling Merlin's limp form into a slightly raised position so that Gaius could reach the clasp in the collar.
He felt the change the moment the bindings were removed as something tugged at part of him that he was not usually aware existed. He gave it willingly and just as he had felt that first time he had touched Merlin after the confrontation, it was as if heat seeped out of him and into Merlin. Only, this time, he knew it was not just heat.
Once the collar was removed, he helped Gaius lie Merlin back down on the pillows and then stepped back. The last thing he wanted was to be in the way. His father let him remain at Merlin's side under sufferance and he would not give anyone else a reason not to want him there. As Gaius went to place a compress on Merlin's forehead, Merlin moved and Arthur did not think he had ever been so glad to see something in his entire life. It was only the tiniest movement, little more than a twitch of neck muscles which shifted Merlin's head the smallest amount, but it was voluntary and it was real and for the first time Arthur began to hope.
Letting Gaius get on with his work, he stepped backwards and sat down in the chair by the wall. There would be fallout from this, but he could not regret it as he watched Gaius fuss over Merlin and could feel the life very slowly seeping back into his friend.
If there was one thing Arthur knew it was that if his father found out about the bindings being removed from someone other than him there would be hell to pay. There would probably be hell to pay anyway, but it would be worse if it did not come from him, which was why he placed the braces and the collar back in the leather bag from which he had first seen them produced and, leaving Gaius with Merlin, walked directly to his father's chambers.
"I had them removed," he said, placing the vile things on the table next to his father's chair and firmly taking responsibility for everything.
They were alone, but he knew that would not temper his father's reaction.
"Are you a complete imbecile?" his father asked, rising to his feet. "Those are the only things that protect us against that boy's power."
Arthur actually laughed at that; not a nice sound even in to his own ears.
"That boy was dying," he said, not willing to back down on this. "He is no more capable of harming anyone than a new born, not that he would even if he could. That room will be more than enough protection, not that I understand how. Ask Gaius if you think me soft in the head; he has whole theories about Merlin and his need for magic."
"Gaius has already proved himself a traitor," Uther started to tell him, but he was not having that.
"Gaius is your most loyal subject," Arthur decided he was not about to mince his words. "That old man would give his life for you in a second and his only fault is that he loves Merlin like the son he never had. If Gaius had ever thought Merlin was a danger to Camelot he would have, at the least, sent him away, and you know that as well as I do."
He was not used to speaking quite so harshly to his father, but he knew that Uther needed to hear it. No one else would dare tell the king what was right and true, which left only him.
"If you order those back on Merlin he will die," he was not going to give his father a chance to start ranting at him. "Go and see for yourself if you must. He was not healing, he was just lying there and that was a death sentence. You gave me your word he would have a fair hearing and that would be impossible if he dies."
Merlin brought out the best and worst in him and he could not let Merlin down.
"Merlin has never done anything except save my life and yours," he said with all the vehemence he was feeling. "The least you can do is know the man you intend to condemn. Take off your blindfold, father, and be the king I know you are."
Then, without giving his father time to reply, he turned and marched out the way he had come. Everyday he had Merlin was precious and he did not know how much longer he would be allowed that, but his father was watching too carefully; there was no way that Merlin could vanish like the druid boy had. He was as stuck as Merlin in that room all that way at the top of the west tower and he felt completely trapped.
Waking up was more of a gradual thing than what he was used to and Merlin was sure he heard people talking at times, but that had stopped when he finally opened his eyes. He had enough time to think about how lovely and soft wherever he was, was and quite how terrible he felt, before it dawned on him that he was surprised to be alive. That opened the flood gates to his memory and he recalled what had happened, at which point he did his very best to force his eyes to focus and find out what was going on.
Something wasn't right, that much he knew. He might have been lying on a comfortable bed, but the world felt wrong, muted somehow, as if it wasn't quite real. What he really did not expect to see when his eyes finally decided to obey him was the King, standing next to what seemed to be a four poster bed, glaring at him. The King was alive and whole, but there was no sign of Arthur and Merlin felt an edge of panic.
"Arthur?" he asked, needing to know that he had succeeded, that his sacrifice as least had been worth it.
At that moment he didn't care why he was still alive; all that mattered was Arthur. For a moment he saw a softer expression behind the King's eyes, but it lasted for only a tiny fraction of time and was gone, replaced by an even harder glare.
"My son is outside this room," Uther said in a very cold, hard tone and Merlin felt himself relaxing instantly; he had not failed, "and out of your influence."
Merlin didn't really care what Uther was saying after that; there were more words, but he now knew what he needed to know. His mind was free to move again, free to wander in a very dazed fashion and it wasn't interested in Uther's speech.
"Why am I still alive?"
The question popped out before he had any choice in the matter, interrupting whatever the King was saying, and he realised that his mouth was working without the willing cooperation of most of his brain even more so than usual. Uther raised an eyebrow at him, but it wasn't as if he could take the question back, and his throat really hurt after just those five words.
"You at least acknowledge that I should have had you executed," Uther said, still glaring at him.
"That's what I thought would happen," Merlin admitted, trying to bring his mouth a little more under the control of rational thought, "Sire," he added as he remembered whom he was talking to.
He felt like he might actually have died and he was too tired to try and lie or be clever. Given his display in the hall he was surprised he hadn't been executed while he was unconscious and unable to defend himself. Not that he really felt up to doing much more than breathing as it was.
Uther stood there in silence for a little while in a way he assumed was supposed to make him uncomfortable, but he really didn't have the strength to worry too much. Now that he knew Arthur was safe, he was still coming to terms with being alive. It wasn't as if the King could be much more threatening than the death sentence hanging over him anyway.
"Why did you come to Camelot?" was the very direct question Uther chose to ask.
"For help," Merlin admitted, since it was the truth and it popped into his head before he thought about it.
"From whom?" Uther asked and at that Merlin made himself shut his mouth.
They looked at each other for a little while.
"Gaius has already confessed," Uther finally said, "you cannot betray him by speaking."
That made him wonder if Gaius was still alive as well and he glanced at the table beside the bed. It definitely looked like Gaius' handiwork and he had a nagging feeling that Gaius had been close recently.
"I needed help to control what I am," he said after considering his options, "my mother sent me to Gaius because he was the only one who could tell me anything."
That was met with stony silence; if anything he said now caused Gaius to be executed as well he would regret it for eternity.
"He didn't really have much choice," he tried to put Gaius into a better light; "I saved his life the moment I met him and then I played on his sympathies."
Being well known as a kind old man might work in Gaius' favour at least, only Uther did not look impressed. The problem was, Merlin couldn't think of anything else to say and his thoughts were moving too slowly to come up with something remotely believable.
"Why did you become a sorcerer?" Uther broke the silence with another question. "It is against the law of the land."
Merlin found himself laughing at that and he realised he might be a little bit delirious. He was light headed and woozy and he wasn't thinking very clearly. Even talking seemed to be taking a lot out of him and there wasn't a great deal to start with.
"I was born this way," he said, blinking and wondering if the little flashes at the edge of his vision should be worrying him. "I didn't choose anything. My mother once told me I would move things I wanted before I could talk to ask for them. I only learned spells because otherwise things just happen, like I'm a big water skin with a leak. There was this one time when almost everyone in Ealdor found out ..."
He realised he was rambling and shut his mouth so fast his teeth clacked together. The fact that his mouth felt like old parchment and his throat was raw and dry didn't seem to have changed his need to talk. He really needed to control himself better, but, this time at least, when he managed to make his eyes focus on Uther, he thought that the King's glare was slightly less intense. Of course that might just have been his imagination.
The fact that Uther wasn't ranting at him was a good sign, at least he hoped it was.
"Have you ensorcelled my son?" Uther asked and for the first time Merlin remembered that Uther was Arthur's father.
It made his frown because he couldn't imagine ever hurting Arthur like that, but he did understand it.
"No," he said, a little too vehemently as he discovered the need to cough, which really hurt. "I would never do that," he managed to wheeze out as his whole body decided to ache.
He felt like he had been trampled by a horse or something, but he knew that couldn't be right and he wondered if it had anything to do with how dead the world around him felt. It was as if he was a bellows with all the air squeezed out and no way of filling up again and he really didn't understand what was going on. His head was all woozy again and he was finding it hard to concentrate.
"Lots of people keep trying though," he said, as the thought occurred to him, "like that cow Sophia. She tried to drown him to get back to Avalon. The Sidhe should bugger off back to where they belong and not try and steal other people's Princes."
With a supreme effort Merlin shut himself up again and tried to make his thoughts work properly. What his body wanted him to do was close his eyes and go right back to sleep, but the King was standing next to him and he wasn't so sure he'd ever wake up again if he gave in to his instinct.
"Sophia?" Uther's voice was sharp.
He knew it was his own fault and he really didn't want to explain, but he knew that he had no choice. At least if Uther was angry after he'd explained the King would have all the facts to be angry about, so he told Uther all about Sophia and the lake and Arthur nearly drowning. He really wasn't sure how Uther was taking the news, since the King had stoic and cold completely down as facial expressions went, but he told the man everything anyway. It wasn't as if he could be condemned anymore than he was likely to be already.
"Why did you not alert the guard as soon as you realised what was happening?" Uther all but demanded once he was done.
Merlin found himself laughing again, which was a bad idea because it hurt and it was bound to annoy the King, but he couldn't help it. Far too many things were beginning to appear amusing and he had a feeling that was a bad sign.
"You don’t usually believe me," he pointed out when he pulled himself back under control, "and anyone going after them would have just been killed. Sophia and her father were powerful even in human form, otherwise they'd never have been able to enchant Arthur. He has a really strong will, you know, stubborn as a mule most of the time, just like you in that regard."
He'd said too much again, he just knew it, but things just kept slipping out of his mouth. When he forced himself to look at Uther again he found that he was the focus of a very intent stare. He could honestly say he had no idea what was going on behind the King's eyes.
"How many times have you saved Arthur's life?" Uther asked him and it was possible the tone was not quite so cold.
Whether that was from anger or another emotion, Merlin couldn't tell.
"Um," he replied and tried to sort the wool out in his head to answer the question.
He began counting on his fingers, but kept getting confused, especially when he tried to decide what counted and what didn't. It was simply a matter of fact that he was in no shape to think that hard.
"Can't remember," he eventually admitted and then he was sure he saw a momentary glimpse of surprise on Uther's face.
"And yet you do not seem to understand why magic is outlawed," Uther said, back to the cold tone again.
Merlin knew the King had a blind spot about magic, but that irritated him and he wasn't thinking very clearly and even when he was he always said things that got him into trouble anyway.
"Magic is not evil," he said, and regretted instantly how forcefully he said it as his head pounded like Arthur was drilling his knights inside it.
"Magic corrupts," Uther spat back.
"No it doesn't," Merlin replied, even though his better judgement was screaming at him to shut the hell up, because even if he wasn't going to be dead very soon anyway, he sure as hell would be if he kept talking. "The ability to do what you want when you want with no one able to stop you corrupts, but that isn't just magic. Most people couldn't do enough magic for it to corrupt their little finger and most of those who could do enough don't want power anyway. I don't want power, I just have it and mostly I use it to make sure Arthur stays alive long enough to be the great king I know he's going to be. Well except when he's being a royal prat and I have to use it to clean his armour because he's given me too much to do, but that's not the point."
It was the last bit that finally made him sensor himself. Uther was staring at him again, but did not look as angry as he had expected. Not that that meant that the King didn't look angry, because Uther did, just not as insanely furious as Merlin had expected. Under that glare he had the urge to fidget, unfortunately he wasn't really strong enough to do so and he moved a little in the wrong way and agony ran through his shoulder, even more so than when he had coughed. He couldn't stop the little cry that escaped his lips and he screwed up his eyes in pain.
That was why he only heard the door open rather than saw it, but he definitely felt it as well. It was like being struck by a wall of heat when an oven door was opened and realising you were freezing. He knew what it was the moment it hit him and he gasped, arching off the bed slightly and clutching the bed clothes as magic tried to enter his every pore. It was so sudden and overwhelming that it hurt, but when it was cut off again it was worse and he felt like crying. Now he understood why the world felt almost dead and he would have railed against it if he had been able.
"Arthur," Uther sounded angry, "I told you to stay outside."
"I thought there was something wrong," Arthur said and Merlin wondered what Arthur had been listening for, but he couldn't even open his eyes to see Arthur's face.
"With your leave, Your Majesty," Gaius' voice this time.
There was some sort of reply, but Merlin didn't follow it and he only realised it must have been an affirmative when he felt a cool hand against his forehead. He just about managed to force his eyes open and saw a glimpse of Gaius' tired face, but that was all he could manage. The conversation with Uther and the feeling of magic trying to reach him had taken what little strength he had and he sank back to the dark depths of unconsciousness.
His father had placed himself between him and the bed and Arthur tried to look round Uther to see where Gaius was tending Merlin.
"I will have the truth, Arthur," his father told him, clearly angry, but somehow, not as angry as Arthur had been expecting when he had opened the door, "and I will not allow you to interfere."
Opening his mouth would only put him in worse trouble, Arthur knew, but he almost did it anyway. That his father had actually listened to him and come to see Merlin was a miracle in itself, but he was not sure how much good it had done.
"You were not alive when this kingdom was overrun by magic," his father continued to talk at him, "you do not know how dangerous sorcerers in our midst can be."
"I have seen enough, Father," Arthur replied, still trying to see Merlin, "and I know the dangers. Merlin is not one of them."
He believed with all his heart that Merlin was his friend and a loyal subject of Camelot and he did not know why his father could not see that. At his centre Merlin was a gentle soul; Merlin didn't even like hunting for sport for heaven's sake. He knew, from the depths of his being that Merlin was good, but all his father seemed to see was the magic. It was more complicated than that, he recognised the issues, but he would not allow Merlin to be sacrificed to them.
"Merlin is a sorcerer," his father said, not an overly unexpected response.
"And he had been in Camelot for nearly a year," Arthur pointed out, "and done nothing except help."
He saw his mistake as soon as he made it; at the mention of how long Merlin had been with them his father's face hardened.
"Clearly your judgement in this matter cannot be trusted," his father said with a finality that he did not like at all.
"Father, you will not..." he started to say, terrified that as king, his father would decide Merlin had lived long enough.
They both knew what Arthur was worried about.
"I do not renege on my word," his father said coldly and Arthur lowered his eyes, abashed.
That was one thing he did know; his father was swift to anger and often a hard man, but his word was his bond.
"As I was saying, this sorcerer has had his claws into you for far too long for you to be trusted in this," his father told him.
"Merlin has no more influence on me than any other," Arthur tried to protest, but his father silenced him with a look.
"You need distance, Arthur," his father said in a very no nonsense tone; "you are forbidden to enter this room again. Leave now and return to your room. If you enter here again I will have the sorcerer summarily executed; am I understood?"
There were some arguments Arthur knew he had a chance of winning with his father, but it was all too clear this was not one of them. He could see that his father truly believed there was a danger Merlin was influencing him and nothing would change Uther's mind then. His only hope was that his father's attitude might mellow over time and so he bit back what he really wanted to say and bowed his head.
"As you wish, My Lord," he said and gave one last glance to Gaius who was now looking at him.
He could not fight this battle, so he retreated, turning and leaving, so he could fight another day.
On to Part 3