Beren (beren_writes) wrote,
Beren
beren_writes

Fic: To You I Pledge, Merlin (BBC), Merlin/Arthur, NC17/18, 04/07

Title: To You I Pledge (04/07)
Fandom: Merlin (BBC)
Author: Beren
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur
Rating: NC17/18
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
Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7
My Fanfic Listings (LJ) | My Fanfic Listings (DreamW)

Chapter 4 Bonds and Trials

Lying in a bed waiting to get better when it seemed to be taking so long was very frustrating, but Merlin could at least sit up on his own now, just. He still had little strength, but enough magic did get into the room to keep him going and help him heal, so he wasn't about to complain too loudly. The fact he wasn't dead yet was more than enough of a miracle for him not to push it and he did have Arthur to talk to when Arthur could be spared from his duties.

"I brought you some food," Arthur said, kicking the door shut behind him as he walked in with a tray.

The servants that were allowed anywhere near him were very nervous and so Merlin really appreciated the fact that Arthur seemed to have interceded on his behalf. Dealing with one more serving maid who almost dropped things because she was scared he was going to curse her, might have driven him mad.

"Thank you," he said and gave Arthur his best smile.

The stronger he became the less the door opening overwhelmed him, so he pushed his reactions aside easily.

"And Morgana asked me to give you this," Arthur balanced the tray on one hand and produced a small, embroidered handkerchief, "and Gwen gave me these for you," Arthur finished and pointed to the flowers on the tray.

That brightened Merlin's mood almost as much as seeing Arthur had. The handkerchief had a Merlin on it in Morgana's skilful handiwork.

"Will you tell them thank you from me please?" he said, feeling quite choked up at the little gifts.

That people cared about him kept him going more than anything else. What would happen the next day or the next hour even, was so unsure that he could not let himself dwell on it. To know that he had friends waiting for him gave him something to hope for.

"You're not going to cry are you?" Arthur said in such a normal manner that it made Merlin laugh.

"I'm not you," he replied, swallowing any reaction he might have been having to the gifts and entering into the spirit of the jibe.

"For that," Arthur said, "I'm stealing some of your dinner."

Even as he said it, though, Arthur was putting the tray down for him over his knees. It had little legs that sat on the mattress and made sure he didn't throw the contents across the room when moving, for which he was very glad. He could be clumsy at the best of times since he always seemed to be thinking about more than one thing, and being so weak he had even less control of his limbs. The fact that he only had one working arm unless he wanted to be in pain didn't help either.

"Well if you think I can eat all of this on my own you're dreaming," he said, looking at the over flowing plates of food.

It had become clear very quickly that someone in the kitchen still liked him, because the food that showed up was always very good and in ample portion. Since Arthur swore he had had nothing to do with it and neither had Gaius or Morgana or Gwen for that matter, that led him to believe at least one other person didn't think he was an evil sorcerer.

"I think," Arthur said, stealing a piece of fruit off the tray, "you may be eating better than me at the moment. I may have to have the cook put in the stocks."

"Makes a change from me," Merlin replied and reached for the mug of ale on the tray.

Given the concoctions Gaius kept forcing down his throat along with funny tasting boiled water, he was glad of something normal to drink. It wasn't strong, but in his current condition it also made him feel warm and fuzzy, which was a bit of a blessing.

As he ate, making appropriate noises of agreement or derision, Arthur chatted away about what was going on outside the room. Merlin enjoyed hearing Arthur grouching about the hopelessness of his knights or the idiocy of some of Uther's councillors. He did not know how Arthur had persuaded Uther to let him start coming to see Merlin again, but he relished every moment they spent together. No doubt Uther would be back for one of their evening chats, which still bemused Merlin since they seemed to debate the same things over and over again and never see it the same way, but it was Arthur he could really talk to.

He was beginning to feel sleepy with his belly full and the deep tones of Arthur's voice were very soothing.

"Oh no you don't," Arthur said and woke him up by taking the tray away, "I have strict instructions. Gaius wants to see if we can get you out of bed this evening."

That rather shocked Merlin, since he could barely sit up, let alone stand.

"Don't look so afraid," Arthur reassured him with a smile, "I'm not going to leave you to fall on your face. Gaius might poison me or something."

Merlin would have joked back, but the idea of getting out of bed had him quite spooked. He'd tried once before, when he was being pig headed, and it had taken so much effort just to get his legs off the bed that Gaius had had to help him back in when he'd found him an hour later, cold and shivering and totally unable to help himself.

Without asking him if he was ready or anything, Arthur swept back the covers and began helping him to turn to the side. It was ridiculously hard and Merlin knew it was because he didn't have enough magic at the moment, but it still frightened him. He really was little more than helpless and he hated it.

"Just lean on me," Arthur said, seeming to sense his nervousness and leaning in close.

Merlin let his good arm be pulled around Arthur's neck, where he just about managed to grip onto Arthur's far shoulder and then Arthur's arm went round his waist and they were set.

"Ready?" Arthur asked, as least giving him time to prepare for the big move.

"As I'll ever be," Merlin said, trying to sound nonchalant and not managing it.

He then found himself hauled to his feet, which was a lot easier than expected because Arthur did most of the work. Merlin felt his shoulder twinge at the movement, but it was as if his feet were barely on the ground, which was a good thing, because his legs were shaking even with the effort of just standing. Beside him, Arthur was all strength and muscle, virtually holding him up and he felt suddenly very small and protected.

"Gaius said just a few steps, to start to get you moving again," Arthur said, holding him tightly.

Merlin made a sound of acknowledgement, but his mind was spiralling away as he looked at Arthur's chiselled profile. He could feel the physical power in Arthur so clearly and he could see the king that would be. For a moment he thought he saw an older face overlaid on Arthur's, a face full of wisdom and kindness, tempered with the same mischievous wit he saw in Arthur now, and then his knees buckled.

"Oops," Arthur said, catching him before he even began to fall, "maybe too soon."

He blinked as Arthur helped him to sit down again on the bed and the vision was gone, but it left a feeling in his heart of something he couldn't quite grasp. It had been a glimpse of what should be and it was fleeting, but he knew that he had to make sure it came to pass. This was important, more important than anything else he had ever known and for the first time he knew that the Dragon, amongst its self interest, had spoken the truth. Suddenly he knew that there was something he had to do, something the universe needed of him.

"Arthur," he said, looking deep into Arthur's eyes, "you will be a great king."

Arthur just grinned at him as if he was a bit soft in the head.

"Of course I will," Arthur replied; "I'm bred to it."

"No, Arthur," he said, needing his friend, his Prince, his future King to understand he was serious, "I have seen it. You will be the greatest king this land has ever seen and you will be remembered forever."

He could feel what little magic he had at the moment moving inside of him. The core that sustained him with the trickle of power that came from Arthur, from any who visited him even though they didn't know they had it, shifted within him as he finally, truly recognised his destiny. Whatever force chose to interfere in his life; he could feel it then, feel it pushing him onward.

"I pledge myself to you, Arthur Pendragon," he said formally and it was almost as if someone else was saying the words as they came from deep inside of him.

He placed his hand on Arthur's chest, feeling the life there under his palm.

"My magic and my life are for you and your kingdom that will be," the words just flowed out of him; "this I swear, so shall it be."

His magic flared, causing pain in his chest and he stiffened, feeling weakness wash through him as an ache settled over his heart. The world seemed to become remote in his consciousness as his magic moved through him and he knew he had just done something that bound him. There was no going back, for better or worse his course in life was now set. Wondering how long he would have on this path, he slumped against Arthur and let the world float away.

====

"Merlin," Arthur said, shaking the motionless man in his arms.

When Merlin had spoken those words, Arthur had felt it in his soul; he knew Merlin had just done something with magic, but he was more worried that Merlin wasn't moving.

"You idiot," he said even though he was pretty sure Merlin couldn't hear him.

He hurriedly stood up, lying Merlin back onto the bed. Merlin was barely breathing, sounding as if he was almost struggling to do that and Arthur knew he had to act fast. Not caring what the guards outside might see he ran to the door and wrenched it open.

"Fetch Gaius," he all but roared at one of the two men on duty.

The two guards looked at each other as if unsure.

"Fetch Gaius now," this time he did roar with the full fury of which a Pendragon was capable, "unless you want to be flogged within an inch of your life and put in the stocks from here to eternity."

That got the man moving.

He went back to Merlin, leaving the door open and it seemed as if Merlin was breathing a little easier just from that. Yet Merlin was still so still, not moving in any way to give signs of life and it reminded Arthur too much of when they had first brought Merlin to the west tower.

"Merlin," he said, hoping for some reaction, smoothing the hair off Merlin's face and praying for any sign that Merlin was still with him.

He was so busy trying to get a reaction out of his manservant that at first he did not notice the gold glow, but then his eyes travelled down Merlin's chest. Under the thin nightshirt he could see something and it made his stop. He knew well enough that the light was coming from just over Merlin's heart and he dreaded what he might see. It occurred to him that this might be the end of his sorcerer, that, that glow might be the last magical moment of Merlin and the idea froze him. However, he was not a prince for nothing and if there was anything he lacked least it was courage, so he shook himself and carefully moved the material away from Merlin's skin. What he found made him pause even more.

There, over Merlin's heart, about the size of a man's palm was a dragon, the Pendragon dragon in an outline of gold and even as he watched it was changing. Under his gaze it slowly filled in, forming the full crest, only overlaid on it was a red and gold A. It was the Pendragon mark, the mark of kings, but it was his alone as well and looking at it, he knew that Merlin's oath was sacred. Merlin had meant every word of his strange little speech and Arthur could feel the tie that bound them together. Without a doubt he knew that Merlin was his and the protective feeling he had been nurturing for some time grew even more.

"Sire, what happened?" Gaius' voice brought him out of the daze he seemed to have fallen into.

"I had him out of bed like you asked," Arthur said, stepping away so Gaius could move in, "and I think he saw something. He swore an oath and then he collapsed."

He indicated the sign on Merlin's chest.

"It was magic," he said, and then wished he hadn't as he saw his father appear in the doorway.

It appeared Gaius had been with his father when he was summoned. Not that that was surprising, since Uther had taken to talking to Gaius about Merlin quite a lot.

"Magic?" his father jumped on the word.

Uther stepped into the room and slammed the door, making a dramatic entrance, but Arthur's eyes went straight to Merlin. As soon as the door closed Merlin's breathing became laboured again.

"I believe he has over taxed himself severely," Gaius said almost immediately.

"Father please, open the door," Arthur all but begged; he could see Merlin slipping away before his eyes.

"He dared do magic," Uther said in a completely cold tone; "he brought this on himself."

All the times his father had spoken to Merlin, everything people said about Merlin, Arthur had hoped it had begun to sway his father's opinion, but it sounded like they were back to square one.

"He bound himself to me," Arthur threw the truth at his father in a desperate attempt to make his parent see reason. "He pledged his magic and his life to me; that is the magic he did. See for yourself. He is not our enemy."

The crest was more than obvious on Merlin's chest now, swirling with what little magic Merlin had left.

"Gaius?" Uther asked and Arthur prayed his father would relent.

"It is something Merlin would do, Sire," Gaius said in his usual calm tones. "If he felt that proof was needed of him, he would not hesitate to give it. I doubt he thought of the consequences."

That was Merlin through and through; jump first, ask questions later.

"Father, please, the door; he is slipping away," he did not bother to hide how much he cared. "There is not enough magic in here to sustain him."

There was a moment when he thought his father would refuse, but to his shock, after a few moments his father turned and opened the door. Immediately Merlin's breathing eased, but it was still weaker than before and Arthur did not know what he could do. He waited, hoping that Gaius could tell them what was happening. It seemed like an age as the old physician went about his task.

"I believe, Your majesties," Gaius said, eventually standing back and turning to look at them, "he may be unconscious some time. I think the oath has drained what little reserves he had managed to recoup and we are back where we were when we first removed the bindings."

Arthur looked at his father and the king did not look happy about that. There was only so long this could go on and he knew, the longer it took the more face saving his father would have to do. He knew this was a political mine field that he was helping cause, but he could not regret it.

"Let me take him out of here, Father," he said, pulling the mantel of Prince around him, as well as appealing as a child to his parent; "Merlin will heal far faster without these enchanted walls."

He looked to Gaius.

"I have seen Merlin recover from illness and injury far faster than a normal person," Gaius back him up. "I believe his magic helps him."

"He is a prisoner," Uther pointed out, but to Arthur's surprise his father did not sound angry, more resigned than anything else.

"And I give you my word he will remain under my watch at all times," Arthur replied, looking his father full in the face. "I will keep him at close quarters at all times as if he were a hostage."

It pained Arthur to see Merlin so weak and helpless. He knew that for Merlin to regain strength he had to be outside the warded room and he prayed his father would see reason. He was almost holding his breath.

"On your head be it, Arthur," Uther finally said and he could barely believe his father was relenting. "If he escapes you will be punished and you will hunt him down."

"Of course, Father," he said, princely mantel fully in place.

He knew what was at stake, but all he could think about was Merlin. Before his father could change his mind he turned and picked up Merlin, his manservant's frame feeling like almost nothing in his arms and then he walked out. Merlin was his now, his beyond a shadow of a doubt and he walked straight to his rooms, ignoring every one along the way. Only when he placed Merlin on one side of his bed did he even realise that Gaius had followed him. His father, however, was conspicuously absent.

"Make him comfortable, Gaius," he said and let the man do his work.

====

Something was different; that was the first thing that went through Merlin's head and the second was that someone was humming to themselves, a female someone. Opening his eyes he tried to puzzle out what was going on. The first thing he realised was that he was no longer in the west tower and it didn't take him very long to recognise Arthur's room. That was one thing that was different and as his eyes sought out the source of the humming he saw Gwen tidying up.

"Gwen?" he said, a little confused.

"Merlin," she said, turning to him and giving him the biggest smile, "you're awake ... but of course you knew that since you're talking to me and ..."

"I'm awake," he agreed, smiling back even in his confusion since he was so happy to see her. "What am I doing here? What's going on?"

Gwen immediately put down what she was doing and walked over. Looking at the light from the windows it appeared to be mid morning and he realised he had to have been sleeping for quite a while again.

"Arthur brought you here," she told him, patting his hand kindly. "After you swore your oath to him you were so weak you would not wake up and Arthur persuaded his father to allow him to bring you here to recover. He took responsibility for you like he would do a royal hostage. He's been so worried about you."

With the word 'oath' Merlin remembered what had happened before he passed out, and not sure why he was doing it, but knowing he needed to he looked down at himself. Barely hearing the rest of what Gwen was saying he pulled down his night shirt and saw the shimmering mark. It was Gwen's little gasp that made him look up again and he could see her eyes were fixed on his chest.

"I heard Arthur tell Morgana about it," Gwen said in little more than a hushed whisper, "but I never imagined."

Neither had Merlin as he looked back down at it; that, at least, explained the ache he remembered before passing out. Feeling more than a little self-conscious he covered it up again and tried to work out what he had been thinking.

"I don't think I did either," he admitted, turning the whole idea around in his mind.

He had effectively branded himself without even knowing what he was doing and at a logical level he thought he should resent that, but he simply didn't. He had meant every word when he pledged himself to Arthur and the mark was simply a visible representation of that. For now until he died he was tied to Arthur, that much he knew, and he realised that was what else was different. He could feel the change and it felt right.

"And why are you here?" he decided to change the subject since he didn’t want to think that deeply just at that moment. "Not that it isn't a pleasure to see you, but I thought anyone who knew me except Gaius and Arthur were being kept away."

Gwen smiled again at that and began to fluff his pillow beside his head, as if she felt it needed it.

"Well with you being laid up, someone has to clean," Gwen said, fussing over him like a mother hen, "and my lady was perfectly willing to lend me to Arthur for a little while, so here I am. Arthur was called away to his duties, but one of his knights is on guard outside and Arthur wanted you to wake up to a friendly face."

Merlin smiled again at that, feeling more settled than he had since his status had been revealed. It was clear his fate was still up in the air, but he refused to dwell on that. What would come would come; he had chosen his path now and he could not change it.

"Do I smell food?" he asked as his nose informed his stomach that it was time to be hungry.

That earned him a knowing smile from Gwen.

"Yes you do," Gwen replied and began to start to help him to sit up; "Arthur left strict instructions for there to be something for you to eat as soon as you decided to wake up."

To his pleasure, Merlin found that he felt so much stronger that Gwen barely had to help him into a sitting position at all. He was off balance thanks to his shoulder, but he felt fifty times stronger than he had before. The magic flowing freely through his body was something he would never take for granted again and it felt wonderful.

When Gwen presented him with a large platter of bread and cheese and soft fruit he dived in like a starving man. It seemed that with his magic his appetite had also returned with a vengeance.

====

"As I thought," Arthur said as he closed the door behind him; "Guinevere has been spoiling you."

Gwen had jumped to her feet the moment Arthur had entered and now appeared adorably embarrassed.

"I'm injured," Merlin replied in kind hamming it up and sinking back into the pillows with a dramatic sigh, "someone had to look after me."

The way Arthur's eyes lit up at the way he spoke said everything Merlin needed to know. Gwen had been splitting her time between tidying the already tidy room and sitting and talking to him and he had been able to feel himself becoming stronger with every minute. He could actually sense the magic around him and he knew Arthur could see the change in him.

"You always need looking after, Merlin," Arthur said and walked further into the room, throwing himself into the chair next to the table and picking up an apple, "that's why the rest of us are always so busy."

"Yes, because you look so busy at the moment, Sire," he replied and pushed himself into a better sitting position.

He wasn't about to try and get up by himself just yet, but he was definitely enjoying the fact he wasn't dependent on everyone else to make sure he wasn't flat on his back. His shoulder made itself known as he moved, but it felt so much better than it had done.

"Well," Gwen interrupted carefully, clearly still embarrassed, "if you do not need me any more, Sire, I should return to my lady."

"Please don't feel that I'm chasing you out, Guinevere," Arthur said, becoming polite and princely again when speaking to Gwen.

"Thank you, Sire," Gwen said, falling back on formality, which Merlin always found endearing, "but I really should be getting back."

Arthur stood up again.

"Then thank you, Guinevere," Arthur said, taking her hand and kissing it, "you have done a superb job with my wayward manservant. Please pass my thanks to Morgana for allowing me to borrow your services."

Gwen clearly didn't know where to put herself and Merlin grinned at Arthur's antics until she turned back to him, where he tried to make the grin into a smile.

"Thanks, Gwen," he said and meant it completely, "you've kept me sane."

"I will see you again soon," she told him and then bent down and gave him a quick peck on the forehead.

Then Gwen scurried to leave the room.

"No kiss for me?" Arthur said just as Gwen was about to escape and the poor girl all but fled.

"That was mean," Merlin said, but couldn't help laughing, just a little.

"Gwen knows I don't mean it," Arthur replied and returned to his chair; "very sensible girl is Gwen."

That much was true; Gwen was the sweetest, most sensible woman Merlin knew and since living in Camelot he knew quite a few.

"Thank you for arranging for her to be here," he said, letting the amusement fade; "it was good to talk to someone else again."

"So I'm not good enough anymore?" Arthur said in a very superior tone.

"There's only so much anyone can talk about swords and fighting, sorry, Arthur," he responded and Arthur threw a grape at him from the fruit bowl, which he caught and popped into his mouth.

"I think maybe I should have left you where you were," was Arthur's off hand comeback.

That made Merlin's mind focus back on what was really going on and the last trace of humour trickled away.

"I didn't exactly expect to end up here," he said honestly; "actually I didn't expect anything."

"Leaping without looking can get a man killed, Merlin," Arthur said, but it was only half a rebuke. "Why did you do it?"

It was only fair that he think about the answer to that question, because, when it came down to it, it was rather important.

"Because it needed to be done," he replied eventually, after realising he didn't have a rational explanation. "I've been having bad dreams," he admitted as the pattern fell into place in his head, "mostly not too bad, more unsettled and I knew something was missing. This is what was missing."

He looked down at his chest, even though the mark was covered. Igraine's words came back to him and he knew this is what she had meant, but he also remembered Gaius' request not to mention her to Arthur, so he put her to the back of his mind for a conversation at a later date.

"I was told my destiny by one who knows such things," he said, thinking about it some more, "but yesterday I felt it like I have never felt it before. That's why I did it."

Arthur was looking at him almost as if he did not believe what he was saying, but slowly Arthur's expression softened and Arthur nodded.

"You really believe I will be a great king one day, don't you?" Arthur said, looking at the apple in his hands as if it was incredibly interesting.

"Yes," Merlin replied simply.

They fell into silence and Merlin found himself staring at his hands and just waiting; it was not the most comfortable of moments.

"Then I suppose I must do my very best to live up to your expectations," Arthur finally said and when Merlin looked up he could tell Arthur was trying to lighten the mood again.

"I can help you work on that," he replied, going along with the attempt.

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, standing and walking to the other side of the bed, "because you are the epitome of all that is good and right."

Merlin laughed as Arthur threw himself onto the other half of the bed and then bit into the apple.

"Glad you noticed," he said and began to relax again.

That gained him a noise of derision from Arthur as his prince chewed on his apple.

"I thought about having a cot brought up here for you to sleep on," Arthur said after they lay side by side for a while in companionable silence, "but I didn't want to clutter the room, but just so you know, if you steal the covers you're sleeping on the floor."

Merlin just smiled to himself at that; Arthur really was a terrible liar and it made him feel warm inside that Arthur was willing to share his bed. It wasn't as if they hadn't shared sleeping space before, but this was different; this was in Arthur's room in the castle and it made Merlin very happy.

"I could just float if it's easier," he said in a mischievous mood.

Arthur actually looked startled for a second, but soon realised he was joking.

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said in a very derogatory tone, "because you're clearly suicidal now."

Merlin just laughed; he'd have Arthur acclimatised to the whole magic thing in no time.

====

"There is still time to leave," Arthur said, looking at the braces and collar on the table.

"I can't," Merlin replied, eyeing the objects with just as much trepidation, "and even if I could I wouldn't. I could never dishonour you like that."

The time had come; his fate could no longer be put off and he didn't know what was going to happen. Uther had not visited him since he had been moved to Arthur's rooms and he could not guess what the king was planning. At times when they had spoken he had thought maybe he had seen reason in Uther, but when it came to magic, Uther was not known as a reasonable man. There was too much history, too much pain there and Merlin did not know if he would survive the day.

"Your father has gone to great lengths if he is just going to chop off my head anyway," he pointed out, trying to look on the bright side.

Arthur's eyes did not waver from where they were staring at the bindings. Arthur had fetched them himself only a little while before and they had been sitting on Arthur's table every since.

"He promised me you would have a fair hearing," Arthur replied, not sounding all that hopeful; "he would not go back on that, but I would rather you were away from here, safe. My father has funny ideas of what is fair when it comes to sorcery."

That much was true; Merlin had seen the results, but he could not run. They had avoided the subject of Uther and what Uther intended for Merlin while Merlin recovered, all but pretending they were just friends, but now Merlin had his strength back and the reprieve was over.

"Let's get on with it," he decided, since the conversation was getting them nowhere, "it would not do to be late today."

Arthur looked at him then, clearly not wanting this to go on, but they both knew there was no other way.

When it came down to it there were very few things Merlin feared. His magic had always protected him and it had never let him down, but the bindings were something that took that away. They left him defenceless and virtually helpless and even though he had been unconscious when they were last used, his body remembered them and his magic remembered them. He could not help the tremble that ran through him as Arthur picked up the collar.

Merlin had shown himself to be such a powerful sorcerer that there could be no hearing with him unfettered. The court would not believe it any other way and so the bindings were necessary. Gaius had offered to help him with this, but he had known that there was only one person he could bear to allow to bind him in such a way and that was Arthur.

The bindings were so beautifully made; they looked like fine jewellery rather than the bonds they were and Merlin tried to focus on that as Arthur brought the collar towards him. Every instinct in his body bade him to shy away, to run, but he did not.

As Arthur fastened the collar around his neck he couldn't help the small groan that escaped his mouth as he felt himself cut off from, what was to him, life. He tried to stand tall, but his body felt suddenly heavy and his shoulder, that Gaius had told him was healing remarkably quickly, stabbed with pain, and he grabbed at it instinctively.

"I can't do this," Arthur said, reaching out to steady him.

"You must," he replied, looking into his friend's eyes and not trying to hide his fear, but showing his resolution as well; "you are the only one who can."

It was awful, the worst moment of his life that he could remember as first one brace and then the second was slipped into place. It was like the world around him died in his senses and it was the most terrible thing. Nothing could have prepared him for it and the wave of weakness that ran through him caused him to sway in place. Only Arthur held him and stopped him falling as he tried to adjust to the worst feeling he had ever known.

"Sling," he said as his shoulder screamed in pain, but it was nothing compared to how his instincts were screaming.

He felt so completely wrong and only Arthur being there stopped him panicking. For Arthur he could bear this, but only for Arthur.

There was a knocking on the door and Merlin knew it was time. In minutes his life could be forfeit or he could be free, but all he could bring himself to wish for was the bindings to be gone.

"I will not let him hurt you," Arthur whispered in his ear and then Arthur was gone from his side to open the door.

He did not want Arthur to endanger his own life or to do anything ridiculously heroic to save him, but he could not deny that those words gave him strength.

====

It felt like the life was being dragged out of Merlin with every step and given Gaius' theories about him and magic and the fact that he was currently cut off from it completely, he supposed it was. His shoulder ached and he wasn't sure he would have been able to lift the arm without the sling looped around his neck anymore. He felt about ninety.

Putting one foot in front of the other was so hard that he didn't even notice how many people were in the room until he came to a halt in the centre and looked up. Uther was sat on his throne directly in front of him with Arthur stood by his side, but there was barely any space around the rest of the room. It seemed every noble in Camelot wanted to see the sorcerer for whom the crown prince would challenge his father. Merlin had to fight the urge to laugh like a mad thing and he wondered if his execution would gain an even bigger crowd as his thoughts turned maudlin.

"Merlin Emrys," Uther said almost as soon as he lifted his head, "you stand accused of being a sorcerer, what say you?"

For a moment he stood there and then he dragged in a breath.

"It's true," he said and a murmur went round the whole room.

It seemed that even though half the people there had seen the truth at the feast, they hadn't expected him to just come out and admit it.

"When did you first perform magic?" was Uther's next question; quite an odd one as far as Merlin was concerned, since he knew that Uther already knew the answer.

He wasn't quite sure where this was going, but that wasn't exactly a new feeling these days.

"I don't remember," he said honestly and another murmur followed his answer.

"Have you broken the law of the land so many times that you cannot remember when you first did it?" Uther asked, almost sounding angry, but not quite to Merlin, since he was very well versed with seeing the king angry.

Merlin frowned; he was confused. Clearly Uther was up to something, but Merlin wasn't sure what.

"No, Sire," he said, playing along for now, "I do not remember because I was too young. My mother told me I could not yet talk the first time I did something unnatural."

That caused more of a murmuring and Uther hushed it with a look. When he glanced away from the king, Merlin saw that Arthur's face was cold and shuttered, but there was something in Arthur's eyes, something that had not been there before. Merlin couldn't quite decide what it was.

"You claim to have been able to perform magic since you were born?" Uther sounded incredulous, but he knew for a fact that Uther knew all this and had come to believe it, or at least come to believe that Merlin himself believed it.

"Yes, Sire," Merlin said and decided that trying to work things out might be a bad idea and that just answering the questions would be better.

Uther sat back on his throne, looking at him as if considering something. Merlin stood there under the scrutiny and tried not to sway as the bindings weighed heavily on his arms and neck.

"You have committed the crime of sorcery," Uther said eventually, "and do not try to deny it, yet it cannot be avoided that you have only been witnessed to use magic in defence of your Prince and your King. If I were to pardon you for your crimes, would you swear never to use magic again?"

That confused Merlin even more; Uther knew that was impossible.

"No, Sire," he said, since he could not lie about this, "I would not."

Much more noise greeted this statement. Never had a sorcerer been offered clemency in Camelot's court and yet Merlin was refusing it.

"I cannot swear that oath, Your Majesty," he added since Uther did not jump straight in, "if I do not use magic it uses me."

Uther did a very good impression of suspicious.

"You claim you have to use magic?" Uther asked him.

"Yes, Sire," he replied, since Uther seemed to want him to speak the truth, "when I try not to use it strange things happen around me; unpredictable things."

This time Uther's silence did not go on as long.

"Then the bindings?" Uther said and Merlin shivered, looking down at the ornate braces on his wrists.

He did not want to die, but some things were worse.

"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty," he said, looking the King directly in the eye, "but I would rather die quickly than slowly and these, without a doubt, will kill me as surely as the headman's axe."

Almost as if talking about them increased their potency he swayed in place as standing became more difficult. Uther stood up at that and walked towards him, then round him and then sat down again. It felt like a mummers play or something equally as ridiculous, but there was no way out, so all Merlin could do was stand there.

"Tell me," Uther said shortly, "how many ways have you used your magic in defence of Camelot?"

That definitely wasn't a question he had been expecting in front of the whole court.

"I'm not sure," he said honestly since he didn't keep count.

"Then recount them all," Uther said, as kingly as ever.

That just about astounded Merlin and he thought he probably looked vaguely fishlike for a little while until he gathered his scattered wits back into his head.

"Yes, Sire," he said, since it was about all he could manage for a moment or two as he tried to think.

In the end he decided to start at the beginning, so he began with the debacle that had caused him to become Arthur's manservant in the first place. He spoke slowly and as clearly as he could, revealing everything that did not endanger another person and he was glad that only Gaius had known about his sorcery, because he didn't have to lie much. He only had to omit Gaius and he knew that the King was already aware of his mentor's involvement. He went through every time he had used his magic, from bringing the snakes out of Valiant's shield through his defeat of Nimueh with everything in between and beyond. Uther already knew it all, but for some reason the king wanted the court to know as well and so he told them all.

"The last time was when everyone saw it," he finally came to the end of his tale, his voice rough with use, but feeling strangely light now that it was all in the open, "Sire," he remembered to tag on at the last moment.

His head was beginning to spin as the bindings took their toll on his system and he really wished he could sit down.

"You seem to be a formidable sorcerer," Uther said, the last word filled with derision that didn't quite seem to be in the king's eyes, "why do you meddle in the affairs of Camelot."

"For Arthur," Merlin said simply, because that was his whole reasoning.

He had been doing so before, but he had never truly admitted it to himself until he took the oath; he lived for Arthur and Arthur alone.

"And what do you seek from my son in return?" Uther really did sound like a protective father then.

"Only that he live," was his next reply. "One day he will be the greatest king this land has ever seen and someone has to make sure he gets there."

Now Uther laughed as if he did not believe a word of it.

"And are we supposed to just take your word?" Uther asked in a harsh tone. "You stand before me, a self confessed sorcerer who has been hiding in our midst for months, and you expect me to believe you?"

"Arthur has my oath," Merlin replied, finally beginning to see where this was leading, but still unsure how it would end.

"An oath can be broken," Uther pointed out.

"Not this one," Merlin said, momentarily sure of himself.

"And why is that?" Uther gave him his cue.

Lifting his hand he pulled down the collar of his shirt so that the magical brand over his heart was visible. His magic might have been low, but the golden Pendragon crest with its ornate 'A' still glittered under his skin.

"I sealed it with magic," he told an enrapt court.

It was almost over, Merlin could feel it and he was quite surprised how long it had gone on. He really didn't know what game Uther was playing. The truth was now out, almost the whole truth, but he didn't know why. He was pretty sure that having everyone know how many times he had saved Arthur or Camelot was not going to make everyone a whole lot happier when he was put to death, and the knowledge of the oath made it even more complicated.

No one spoke and everyone present was virtually still as Uther sat there and just looked at him. He could almost see the weight of rule on the king's shoulders and he could see quite how difficult this whole situation was for a man walking a fine line.

"Merlin Emrys," Uther spoke grandly, just as he had done at the beginning and Merlin knew this was it, "it is my judgement that you are guilty of the crime of sorcery..."

The murmuring rose and so did the pace of Merlin's heart.

"...however," Uther added in a tone that demanded silence from the whole of the court, "I have studied you and I find that you are unique."

Not quite how Merlin had expected the King to start his sentence.

"A man such as you has never been seen in these lands before," Uther continued and Merlin felt as if this speech had been rehearsed a great deal. "When invited into a human soul, magic corrupts it," Merlin didn't believe that, and he wasn't really sure Uther believed it as totally as the king once had, but he was not about to argue the point right then, "and you were born with it, yet I can see no corruption."

That was even more of a surprise than Uther's opening gambit. The whole thing was not what Merlin had thought would happen at all.

"You did not seek magic," Uther was clearly choosing his words carefully, "it sought you, and you have used it to protect Camelot and her people even though you knew, should others find out, you would be put to death. You have pledged yourself to the crown prince rather than trying to run and hide and you stand here now, bound and helpless when you could have long since escaped."

As Uther looked him in the eye he had the first inkling that the king might actually understand him. It was strange to think that he, never overly good with words that didn't get him into trouble, might actually have reached a man who had never been swayed by anything else. It was almost too much to ask for.

"Because of all of these things I now make a judgement as unique as I find you," Uther continued, words spoken with complete confidence.

Merlin realised he was holding his breath. Would he be banished rather than put to death? It was an option, but one Uther had never before taken with any other sorcerer.

"Merlin Emrys," Uther said, looking him straight in the eye, "I pardon you for all past acts of magic and for all future acts of magic which you may do in the service of your Prince and this kingdom. Further more you will no longer be Arthur's manservant; you will be his bodyguard from all things magical that may try to harm him. You and you alone may study the arts which are forbidden to all others, but only under the watchful eye of my trusted physician, Gaius. Should you ever work magic against Camelot your life will be instantly forfeit. This is my judgement."

To say that he couldn't have been more shocked would have been putting it mildly and Merlin couldn't begin to hide it. He might actually have said something, but at that moment his legs decided that enough was enough and buckled underneath him. He went slamming to his knees and barely managed to stop himself going face first into the floor.

"Remove the bindings," Uther's voice was as commanding as Merlin had ever heard it.

People moved and low talking began and Merlin was not overly shocked when Arthur made it to his side first. He found himself pulled against a very strong muscled chest, Arthur's warm embrace holding him up. When he managed to lift his head and look into Arthur's face, he could tell that Arthur was as amazed as he was.

"Hold still while we get these off," Arthur told him, seeming to need something to say even though Merlin had no intention of moving.

He nodded anyway, not trusting himself to say anything sensible. His thoughts were spinning, as was the room and he really couldn't care less if he was making a spectacle out of himself. The first brace came off easily and he felt the hairs all over his skin stand up as the barrier to magic was partially removed. It was like feeling the energy in the air before a storm came and Merlin suspected this might be just as violent. It made him very glad he had been unconscious and inside the room in the west tower the last time the bindings had been removed.

The second brace came off with a click and he drew in a sharp breath as his skin prickled all over. If felt like the first tingling when a dead limb began to come back to life and he curled his fingers into Arthur's shirt, preparing himself for what was coming next. The moment the clasp on the collar was undone he knew about it as the ambient magic in the room crashed into him, filling the hole in his reserves that he had used while being cut off from it.

He buried his face in Arthur's shoulder with a small cry, clinging on tightly as pain flared through every part of his body. He felt his flesh coming back to life and it hurt. The only comfort he had was Arthur holding him close, supporting him as he shook, readjusting to the power flowing through him. Having been deprived of what it needed it now felt as if his body was ready to explode as magic leapt at him from all directions, and it seemed to go on for ever.

It energised him in a way nothing else could, but he was physically and mentally exhausted and when it finally ebbed away all he could do was slump in Arthur's arms. He could quite honestly say that it was an experience he never, ever wanted to repeat, well if he'd had the strength to put two words together that was. He felt like a wine jug that had been emptied out, broken, put back together again badly, overfilled and then had started leaking all over the table. His head was swirling with so many things that he wasn't even sure he could have said something remotely comprehensible if his life had depended on it.

"With your leave, Father," Arthur said as Merlin tried to bring himself under control, "I will take Merlin to his new rooms."

Merlin didn't hear a reply, but there must have been some sort of affirmation from the King, because the next thing he knew he was being lifted. He wanted to protest that he didn't need to be carried like a girl, but since he couldn't even manage that it was rather a moot point. He was still so dazed that it didn't occur to him what Arthur had said until they were out of court and in a corridor somewhere.

"New rooms?" he managed to put the words together and was quite proud of himself for the achievement.

"You wouldn't be much of a bodyguard if you were over the other side of the castle would you," Arthur pointed out and sounded like he was talking to an idiot which made Merlin feel incredibly warm inside. "The Prince's bodyguard always has the rooms next to his. I haven't needed one in a very long time, but it seems my father believes that I do now."

"You'd get yourself killed in five minutes without me," Merlin was amazed as he managed to make a joke.

Arthur gave a derisive snort at that.

"Go to sleep, Merlin," Arthur told him and he could just see the smile curling at the sides of Arthur's mouth as he looked up at his friend through his fringe, "you're clearly delusional."

There was a reply on the tip of his tongue, but it just seemed like far too much effort to actually say it, so for once in his life he closed his eyes and tried to do as he was told. The gentle lope of Arthur's walk and Arthur's strong arms holding him made him feel safe and warm and he found himself drifting off. So much had changed in so little time that he could not bring himself to think about it and he escaped into the quiet of sleep.

On to Part 5
Tags: category: slash, ch_story: to you i pledge, fandom: merlin, ficfest: big bang, fictype: 30kwds up, fictype: chaptered, genre: fantasy, pairing: me - merlin/arthur, rating: r to nc17
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