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
Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7
My Fanfic Listings (LJ) | My Fanfic Listings (DreamW)
Chapter 6 Balance of Power
It was Merlin's first feast where he was not serving Arthur as his manservant and to his shock he found he had been given somewhere to sit. He was on the end of one of the lower tables, about as close as he could be to Arthur without actually sitting on the same table. According to Arthur, having him lurking about like a normal guard would make people nervous, so Uther had made arrangements to allow him to take part in the feast and talk to people.
One of the barons, the one who had brought the players with him, had already returned to his home with his retinue and whatever agreement had been made with Uther, but the other Baron, Cedric of somewhere or other that Merlin had missed, was still in residence and was leaving the next day. According to Arthur, Cedric drove a hard bargain and had also been very interested to see the outcome of Merlin's trial. With that all done that just left the feast and then Baron Cedric and his party up and leaving.
Merlin was up for a feast, especially since, firstly, he was actually a guest rather than serving at it for once and, secondly, he was beginning to feel completely well again. His shoulder made itself known every now and then, and his arm was not quite as strong as it should have been, but it was nothing he couldn't ignore. He was sat next to Gaius and opposite a woman called Eve who was someone's Aunt visiting from some town Merlin couldn't pronounce. She seemed to find him fascinating and kept asking him about love spells while he kept claiming ignorance even as she pointed out how useful they would be in finding Prince Arthur a wife. Merlin didn't actually follow her logic, but then he rarely did with the womenfolk.
The two tables down the other side of the hall were where Baron Cedric's people were, along with some of the knights. They seemed to be enjoying the feast as well. Merlin had the feeling Cedric, on the top table next to Uther, was not enjoying the feast as much and found him fascinating as well, but for very different reasons to Eve. There was definitely tension in the air every time the man looked in his direction, and there seemed to be a few others who agreed with him.
Uther was a strong king, of that there was no doubt, but Merlin couldn't help feeling that not everyone liked this decision. There were only a few, but he could still sense it. It was just something he was going to have to live with, after all Camelot was not used to dealing with such things as he when they did not involve the chopping block or a pyre.
As Merlin did his best to not look as if he was uncomfortable he saw Morgana suddenly stop talking to Cedric's lady wife and place her hand to her throat. He turned to look properly and realised that Morgana seemed to be in some pain.
"Gaius," he said, trying to be discrete about it; "there's something wrong with Morgana."
Gaius looked up as soon as he spoke and from the frown that immediately appeared on Gaius' face, Merlin did not think this was just nothing. He hurriedly moved off the bench to let Gaius out as it became clear Morgana was not recovering quickly. Unable to stop himself needing to find out what was going on, he followed Gaius towards Morgana as others began to notice that something was going on.
"What ails you, My Lady?" Gaius asked as Morgana began to breathe in small gasps.
"No air," was Morgana's breathless response.
"Are you choking?" Gaius asked, but Morgana immediately shook her head and pointed to her goblet.
Merlin waved his hand over it before Gaius could pick it up, but he felt nothing from it and just gave Gaius a little shake of his head. This was not magical and all he could do was leave Gaius to figure it out and the physician picked up the goblet and sniffed it.
"The wine does not smell right," Gaius said, lifting Morgana's chin and carefully looking her over.
"Poison?" Arthur asked and it was clear that Morgana's lips were beginning to turn blue.
Gaius simply nodded.
"I need to analyse this," Gaius said as Merlin just hovered, waiting to see if he could help.
"You have no time," the voice that joined the conversation was unexpected and caused the whole hall to fall silent.
Baron Cedric was on his feet and he was glaring at them all with righteous anger in his face.
"What is this?" Uther demanded, standing and looking at the guards who went to move.
"If one of your lackies touches me, the Lady Morgana will die," Cedric said firmly and Uther held up his hand. "The poison is very rare and very precise; she has mere minutes left and only the antidote will save her."
"Why have you done this?" Uther demanded, clearly at a loss.
Merlin knew from Arthur that the trade discussion had gone well, so he could understand the king's confusion.
"Because of him," Cedric replied and Merlin once again found himself the centre of attention. "He is the greatest threat to peace seen since the purge. I will see that threat removed."
"Merlin is my bodyguard," Arthur spoke up now, "nothing more. Camelot wishes nothing but peace."
"We have seen his power," Cedric responded and Merlin could see the conviction in the man, "I will not allow that risk. He must be bound and disposed of."
It was funny, Merlin did not feel fear for himself, only Morgana, that was until the baron threw a familiar leather bag onto the table.
"I had these borrowed for the purpose," Cedric said and Merlin went cold all over.
He had survived Uther's wrath and Uther's law, but it seemed the universe believed that was not enough.
"Either he allows those to be placed on his person, or we watch the Lady Morgana die," Cedric made his pronouncement loudly and giving no room for denial.
Merlin looked at Arthur and then Morgana; he could not just let Morgana die. There really was no question. He stepped forward and held out his arms.
"Then bind me," he said, knowing that he was likely sentencing himself to death; "before it is too late."
"Merlin no," Arthur said and Merlin felt his magic stir at Arthur's words, but he could not turn back from this.
"Would you rather she dies?" Merlin asked and Arthur could not answer that.
One of Cedric's men stepped forward and pulled the braces out of their case, opening the first and approaching Merlin. He had hoped never to see the cursed things again, but he held himself still as the man placed the first one on his arm. As soon as the man went to close it, Merlin felt his magic surge and he gasped as his power flared. The edge of the brace glowed where the man tried to push it closed.
"Surrender, Sorcerer," Cedric ordered him as the resistance became obvious.
"I'm trying," Merlin said, doing his best to make his magic obey him, but he couldn't stop it.
The brace snapped open again and fell to the floor as the man holding it dropped it as if it might bite him. It then glowed all over and began to lose form; it was basically melting and from the glow that came from the bag, Merlin was pretty sure it wasn't just the one on the floor. He hated to admit it, but his magic had just decided and there was nothing he could do about it. As the only offered solution turned into a pile of metal Arthur went into action. There was the sound of swords being drawn and Arthur went straight for Cedric. Arthur was all prince and all warrior and if Merlin hadn't been so very worried about Morgana he would have been very impressed indeed. He could see Arthur's sword at Cedric's throat and the man looked afraid.
"You will give me the antidote and you will give it to me now," Arthur's voice was icy cold.
"Never," the man replied, at least having enough conviction to stand up to Arthur.
Morgana was dying in Gwen's arms and Merlin knew he had caused this, but the braces were gone; he could not do what the man wanted. His magic was bound to Arthur and he knew for a fact that no other man could bind him, his magic would not allow it. In that moment he realised that he could no longer just be Merlin, he had to be Prince Arthur's bodyguard and he finally glimpsed how it must be for Arthur all the time.
"Sire," he said, taking on the same mantle as Arthur, voice just above freezing as he found part of himself he hadn't really been aware of, "let me."
Arthur turned to look at him then and, as their eyes met, Merlin tried to convey what he finally understood. His back was straight, his face was set and he knew exactly what he had to do.
"He wanted me, Sire," he said, letting his magic flow to the surface and knowing that his eyes would change to deep gold, "let him have me."
He saw the moment Arthur understood.
"Very well," Arthur said and took a step back.
In as casual a gesture as he could, Merlin held out his hand and with a word and a flick of his wrist he lifted Cedric into the air, letting the man just hang there.
"The antidote," he said simply and walked so that he was standing at Arthur's shoulder.
"I will die first," Cedric replied, still brave even as Merlin's magic held him in place, but Merlin could see the cracks.
He kept his face completely impassive, hiding anything he was feeling, but he let his eyes harden.
"How would you like to die?" Merlin asked and moved his fingers subtly, making Cedric sway in place. "The Lady Morgana is a light in this dark world, Baron, I will do anything to see her well."
He stressed the anything.
"I can peel the skin from your body inch by inch," he said, making an invisible wind glide down the side of Cedric's face, "and keep you alive, unable to scream through every moment. Or I can break each bone in your body one at a time, crushing them to dust as you hang there unable to move. If the Lady Morgana dies, so will you, but not for a very long time."
Merlin was not a vicious person at heart; he preferred life to death and joy to sorrow, but he could play a part when he needed to. This man, all of Camelot in fact, needed to know that he was no longer the same, no longer just the manservant of the prince. He had power and he was Arthur's man; now the enemies of Camelot would know that he was willing to use it. Looking Cedric directly in the eye he let his power squeeze just a little bit and he saw realisation dawn in the baron's face.
"My wife's hat," Cedric said, suddenly very willing to cooperate, "I secreted it there without her knowledge.
Arthur and two guards descended on the poor woman, who passed over her headgear as quickly as she could manage, while Merlin held Cedric exactly where he was.
"We have it," Arthur said, producing a small bottle. "Gaius, quickly!"
As Gaius took the vial and went to Morgana's side, Merlin finally began to release his hold on the now terrified baron. He knew Cedric wouldn't be the only one looking at him differently either, but he turned and gave Uther a deferential little bow before moving to Arthur's side as two guards took Cedric off his hands. Gaius, with Gwen's help, was carefully tipping the contents of the small bottle down Morgana's throat and he could feel the tension in Arthur as they waited.
Even as he watched he could see it beginning to work as the blue colour began to leave Morgana's lips and he saw her beginning to relax. As the pain lines began to vanish from Morgana's face he still felt the desire for revenge curling around inside him, but he quashed it easily; Morgana would be alright, that was all that mattered.
"The Lady Morgana needs rest," Gaius said after a few moments of checking and looked to Uther, who simply nodded.
Merlin could have used the same magic he had with Cedric to lift Morgana and move her, but he held back as Arthur went to help instead. He could only imagine he had looked something similar after the trial as Arthur lifted Morgana into his arms and went to follow Gaius to Morgana's rooms. It was all very human and just what the court needed and Merlin followed at a short distance.
There was nothing he could do now, well nothing Gaius could not do just as well and as Gaius and Gwen made Morgana comfortable in her rooms, he and Arthur hovered.
"Merlin," Arthur said in a low whisper when it finally looked as if Gaius was just fussing and Morgana was going to be fine, "do you really know how to strip a man's flesh bit by bit?"
Not quite how he had expected conversation to return.
"No," he replied honestly, "but I'm a quick learner when I need to be."
Arthur gave him a long appraising look then and finally nodded.
"I noticed that," was the short response and that was where the conversation ended because Morgana chose to wake up.
Merlin spent that evening helping Gaius while Arthur sat with Morgana as she recovered and they did not return to what was now, basically, their rooms until late. It had been a day full of revelations as far as Merlin was concerned, but Arthur seemed to have just taken everything in his stride. Apart from the one tiny exchange, it was too short to be called a conversation, Arthur had spoken to him very little about the incident.
Arthur did have a new manservant, but Arthur has shooed the young man off to bed hours before, so Merlin started to help Arthur undress without even thinking about it. It wasn't that Arthur couldn't dress and undress himself when he needed to, it was just comfortable for Merlin to do it and it felt far more normal than thinking about what had happened during the day.
He had removed Arthur's outer tunic and was about to kneel down and help Arthur remove his boots when Arthur's hand came up and cupped the side of his face. When he looked up, Arthur was regarding him with a very serious expression.
"Cedric tried to take you away from me today," Arthur said in a voice so low that Merlin could barely hear it.
"Morgana was the only one ever in danger," he replied, a little unsettled by the intensity in Arthur's eyes.
"That doesn't matter," Arthur told him, stroking the side of his face slowly with his thumb; "his aim was you and you would have let him have you if it would have saved Morgana."
It was almost an accusation, but not quite; they both knew they would sacrifice themselves for others, it was part of who they were and why they matched each other so well.
"I can never let that happen, Merlin," Arthur told him, voice suddenly intense, "I cannot lose you."
Arthur's other hand came up then and rested over his heart.
"I feel this too," were the words that made Merlin's breath catch in his throat.
He had seen Arthur looking at the dragon on his chest, but until now Arthur had never really spoken to him about it. It had been a silent reminder of what Merlin had done in pledging himself to Arthur, but to know it affected Arthur as well changed everything.
"I can never leave you," he said, knowing it in the depth of his being; "no matter what my head tells me, I can't do it, my magic won't let me. I didn't melt the braces deliberately my magic just did it; the only human being who can ever bind me is you."
"And I never will," Arthur said, bringing their heads together so their foreheads touched, "I am glad those wretched things are gone; no one will ever bind you again, Merlin, on that you have my pledge."
That meant more to Merlin than he could express, because he knew that Arthur would never break his word. Only Arthur could ever have asked that of him again and now he knew that moment would never come. It lightened the air between them and Merlin realised that he had been carrying a weight he hadn't even been aware of. He looked into Arthur's eyes seeing only sincerity there and he wanted to open his mouth and say "I love you", but he knew he didn't need to. Then the moment broke as Arthur smiled.
"I never knew you were such a good actor," Arthur told him, but did not increase the distance between them; "I almost believed you would do those things to Cedric."
A small voice at the back of Merlin's mind said: "I would have for you," but he just smiled back.
"I'm a bit slow," he said, turning it into a joke, "but I finally realised that I have to pretend to be less of an idiot."
That made Arthur's smile morph into a grin, but a fond one.
"Well pretended," Arthur said and then leant forward to kiss him lightly on the lips.
Merlin was pretty sure it was supposed to just be a quick peck before they finished getting ready for bed, but, almost without their conscious consent, it deepened and Merlin found himself winding his arms around Arthur. This was still so new, but it felt so right and right about then Merlin needed to know that his actions that day had not changed this. However, Merlin was unwilling to let Arthur lead everything this time.
Pulling back slightly he broke the kiss and looked into Arthur's eyes and then slowly lowered himself to his knees. They had touched each other in different ways since that first time, explored each other's bodies and each other's reactions, but there was something Merlin had been thinking about that he wanted to try. He had heard other men talk about how a mouth could be even more incredible than another body when applied to cock, although he had no first hand experience, and he wanted to be the one giving Arthur pleasure this time.
He was all too familiar with Arthur's clothes and it did not take him long to unfasten Arthur's tunic and move it out of the way before unlacing Arthur's breeches and carefully lowering them slightly. Arthur did not try to stop him or to help, but, where Arthur's hand was resting on his shoulder, he felt Arthur's fingers tighten a little as he pulled out Arthur's cock.
Arthur was already half hard given their kissing and as Arthur's cock twitched in his hand, becoming fuller as he watched, he felt himself smiling. That Arthur trusted him this much despite what he was and what Arthur had been taught all his life filled him with a joy he could not explain and desire caused his own body to throb as he licked his lips. Leaning forward, he darted out his tongue, tasting the very tip of Arthur's cock and recording the memory in his mind. It was not a taste that was quite like anything else and it occurred to him that he could become addicted to it very easily.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered his name with a reverence he didn't think he deserved, but it did encourage him and he opened his mouth, sliding his lips slowly over the head of Arthur's cock. "Oh god," was Arthur's moaned response.
Merlin sucked experimentally, after all he didn't really know what he was doing, and he took Arthur's low gasp as a positive response and tried again, running his tongue along the underside of the head as well. That time he actually saw Arthur's thighs tremble and he smiled around his prize. He was in control now and he liked that he could give Arthur as much pleasure as Arthur gave him.
His performance was not perfect, after all he was learning, but he used Arthur's reactions to tune himself to what Arthur liked and it took a while, but Arthur was grabbing onto his shoulders and barely standing on his own sooner than Merlin would have expected. He did not really want this to end, but he also wanted to see Arthur come undone, so he pushed Arthur on as well as he could. He sucked and hummed, a combination he had discovered made Arthur tremble from head to foot and unlike the first time when he had pulled back a little, this time he drove on.
"Merlin," Arthur spoke in a hoarse broken but urgent tone, "I'm ..."
Merlin didn't need telling, he knew what Arthur was about to do and he did not try and stop. He took as much of Arthur into his mouth as he could and employed his tongue firmly to the slit of Arthur's cock and then Arthur was shuddering and groaning and spilling his seed down Merlin's throat. Far from being repelled, Merlin was entranced and he suckled on Arthur's cock until there was nothing left and Arthur was begging wordlessly for him to stop. The connection between them was warm and happy and Merlin only pulled away reluctantly, coming to his feet as Arthur urged him to.
He did not kneel unless he had to, but he would kneel for Arthur any time Arthur wanted him to. Eye to eye he could see the emotion in Arthur's soul and it made him so happy.
"I love you," he said, forgetting himself in the moment and letting the words that always hid behind his smile escape.
What surprised him was that Arthur did not pull away as he had expected, shrugging off the womanly sentiment. Instead Arthur pulled him close and cupped the side of his face with one hand.
"You own the heart of a prince, Merlin," Arthur said in little more than a whisper, "keep it safe for me."
And Merlin smiled.
"Always, Sire," he said and accepted the gentle kiss Arthur placed on his lips.
Things had changed so much in scant weeks and Merlin was sure fate was playing with his life, but for the first time he didn't mind at all.
It wasn't until the next day that Merlin really came into contact with anyone else and then it became clear things had changed. He finally understood and he knew that this had to be, but he didn't really like the way people looked at him now. The servants who had shown fear before no longer seemed to feel that, but they showed him deference, almost as if he was noble born. With one act he had changed his own status in a way Uther had been unable to do.
He was no longer Merlin, Arthur's manservant and a bit of a fool, he wasn't even Merlin, the slightly inept sorcerer whom Uther had made Arthur's bodyguard, he was Merlin, Arthur's right hand and defender of Camelot.
Even the nobles appeared to look on him differently as he found out distinctly when he slipped into the council chamber to be with Arthur after having delivered a note from Arthur to Morgana. All eyes turned to look at him as he took up his usual position and he inclined his head as he was acknowledged. People had looked on him as a curiosity before, but now he knew they were looking at him as something far more useful. He was lowly born so they looked down on him, but he was no longer something to entertain them, he was a person.
"The trade routes through Cedric's lands are very important," one of the council members returned to the point he had clearly been making, "this could put those in jeopardy."
"And anything short of execution will put this kingdom in jeopardy," Uther responded shortly and Merlin thought they might have been talking about this for a while. "Cedric tried to kill one of my family and retribution must be seen to be taken."
"Morgana almost died," Arthur agreed with his father. "It would be seen as a great weakness if Camelot did not demand justice. Someone else would try again."
For once Uther and Arthur seemed to be on the same page and Merlin couldn't help but see their point.
"Could the debt not be repaid in tribute?" someone else suggested.
It was interesting how justice for powerful men was not meted out so quickly and finally, but Merlin could also appreciate the delicate nature of the situation.
"I will not have my family nor my rulings challenged," Uther said very firmly.
Merlin was pretty sure that if Uther had had his way, Cedric would be dead already, but that the king was controlling his wrath for the good of the kingdom. It could not be easy, Merlin was sure.
Another of the councillors jumped in with another idea, pretty much the same as the previous, just worded differently and Merlin settled in for the long haul. This was obviously going to go round and round for a while until Uther ran out of patience. He let his mind wander while watching the way both Uther and Arthur were reacting and he had no doubt one of them would put their foot down sooner or later. Arthur was very protective of Merlin and Morgana so he wouldn't have been shocked if Arthur was the first to decide that enough was enough.
Arthur could be all avenging warrior when he wanted to be and an execution was not a battle, but it was part of a political war. If this could have been settled with swords rather than an axe it would have been far easier, and then it hit him.
"Trial by combat," Merlin heard the words pop out of his mouth before he managed to stop them.
He was not here to speak, he was here to stand there and be a bodyguard, but, as ever, his mouth was ahead of him. Everyone in the room was suddenly looking at him. Uther did not look pleased.
"This crime..." Uther began to say.
"No, Father," Arhur stepped in quickly, "Merlin may be right. The punishment for what Cedric did should be the headsman's axe, we all know that, but this way gives us a far better outcome. It would allow Cedric to die with honour and for peace to remain between our people and his. We are not ready for war. This is a solution fitting to the very delicate situation in which we find ourselves, and Camelot will neither be seen as weak nor tyrannical."
Uther was looking at his son very carefully.
"And who would face Cedric on the tournament field?" Uther asked simply.
"I would," Arthur replied and Merlin didn't really like that part of the idea, but it made sense; Arthur was Camelot's champion. "I will be your champion and Morgana's."
The fact that he didn't count and the whole situation was really about him actually amused Merlin, but he had the sense to keep his mouth shut this time. He was well aware Arthur was his champion as well.
"Sirs," Uther said, looking at the rest of his council, "what say you about my son's chosen course?"
That was another thing that Merlin found amusing; the way a noble could take a servant's idea and decide it was their own.
"It is a very persuasive argument," was the first reply and there was a rumble of agreement from the rest.
No one was going to say outright that this was the only way to go about things, but it was clear where favour lay.
"Very well," Uther said after a few moment's thought, "for Camelot I will offer this traitor an honourable death. Have him brought here; if he accepts we will set the combat for tomorrow morning."
With Uther's command everyone leapt to do the king's bidding, but Merlin found himself the centre of the king's attention. Arthur may have successfully taken the trial by combat as his task, but it was clear to Merlin that Uther, at least, was very aware who had suggested it. Uther's gaze was very speculative, very unlike Uther in fact and Merlin hoped that he wasn't going to find himself in trouble again.
"Come, Merlin," Arthur said, walking past him, "I need to practice."
Merlin paused for just a moment under Uther's stare and then followed Arthur out of the room. One day he was going to learn to keep his mouth shut.
Given how Arthur looked in his armour, Merlin wasn't sure he would have had enough concentration to do any magic even if he had needed to, so it was a good thing he didn't need to. He was decked out in the plainest tunic he now owned, since Arthur had had the gall to have someone go through his wardrobe and steal all his old clothes. Arthur promised that they were still safe, for nostalgic purposes, but that he wasn't having them back until he could be trusted not to try and wear them every day. The plain tunic was not a protest to this treatment, even though Merlin had protested loudly, it was actually Arthur's idea.
Everyone was going to notice him, that much was for sure, but Merlin had agreed that it would be better if he was as unnoticeable as possible. He was in brown and blue and he still felt over dressed, but Arthur assured him his clothes looked functional. The bond mark was covered up mostly, but it could just be seen through the laced neck of his shirt, just in case people needed reminding.
A man was going to die today and, given the very delicate political situation, Merlin was happy to go along with anything Arthur asked of him, which was why he was standing by and watching Arthur's new manservant make sure Arthur's armour was in place, rather than doing it himself. He had an irrational need to check that everything was being done correctly himself, but, as Arthur had pointed out, it was no longer his place and it looked better if he just played bodyguard. No one could then claim Merlin had tampered with the armour in any way.
Arthur gave him a smile, but he found it difficult to smile back. He knew Arthur would be victorious, but he was still worried because this was all because of him. It was fear that had stared this and he only hoped that with the solution being implemented the whole situation would end.
"Go and help Gwen look after Morgana, Merlin," Arthur told him with a nod towards the stands, "I doubt very much there will be a magical attack between now and the start of the battle."
Even though Morgana was still weak, she had insisted on being at the combat and Merlin wanted to object, but he knew Arthur was trying to distract him.
"Given your history, Sire," he said, while bowing his head to acknowledge the command, "I would not be so sure."
Arthur gave him a very good raised eyebrow for that and he turned to go. He did not want to leave Arthur's side, but he made himself do it anyway. Arthur was fully capable of taking care of himself. In fact, Arthur was probably the person most capable of dealing with any physical threat that Merlin knew, but he was still allowed to worry.
Since Morgana was not well, she was already seated, where as Uther would make a grand entrance a little later, so Merlin went to stand with Gwen, where his friend was hovering behind her lady.
"Smile, Merlin," Morgana said, looking at him and smiling as if it was just any other day, "we must be seen to be confident in Arthur's abilities or the people will be nervous."
Something else that Merlin was coming to understand was that where servants could be invisible, nobles and those the population found interesting could not. Most people found him very interesting at the moment so people were always looking. Doing as he was told he smiled as if Morgana had just said something delightful.
"I have new respect for you, My Lady," he said, still smiling, "I do not know how you keep this up."
"Practice," Morgana replied and looked back out to where Arthur was making final checks on his armour.
Baron Cedric was on the other side of the field of battle, decked out in armour just as fine, but where Arthur's stance was strong and proud, Cedric did not look so confident. It was clear everyone knew what the outcome was supposed to be. Merlin glanced over at the second stand where Cedric's family were sitting and he could see the resignation in the man's wife. Only one person seemed to be clinging to hope and that was Cedric's twelve year old son. The boy would soon be a baron, and Merlin could wish it no other way, but Merlin also wished that the boy could have been spared seeing what had to happen.
There was a fanfare, everyone rose to their feet and Uther walked grandly to his throne. When the king sat so did every one else, except Merlin since he was standing behind Morgana and Gwen, and Arthur and Cedric came forward. Given quite how nervous he was feeling, Merlin tuned out the speech Uther gave about what was going on and just did his best to look calm and confident like Morgana had told him to.
"The sorcerer's power over human movement has been proven," were the words that made Merlin tune back in, "I demand he be removed."
"Baron," Uther said in a very cool, patronising tone, "you are in no position to demand anything."
"Would you deny me a fair trial?" Cedric returned and lifted his head in defiance.
Merlin realised that he was once again the centre of attention and wished that he could just disappear.
"If I may, Your Majesty," Arthur said, stepping in before things could escalate.
Uther was clearly annoyed, but nodded anyway.
"Merlin," Arthur spoke to him directly.
"Sire," Merlin replied and bowed slightly, playing his new role as well as he could.
"You are forbidden to interfere in anyway," Arthur told him even though they both knew he never would in the first place. "Unless a dragon or other mythical beast flies over that hill to endanger Camelot you are forbidden to act or speak. Do you understand?"
"Completely, Sire," Merlin replied and bowed again.
Then he looked at Cedric. To challenge him now would be to question Arthur's honour and it seemed Cedric was not that stupid.
"Prepare yourselves," Uther commanded and both Arthur and Cedric put on their helmets and hefted their shields.
It was time for the fighting to start.
"Begin," was the only word Uther spoke and then both men moved into action.
Merlin had lost count how many times he had seen Arthur fight, well actually he hadn't, he had every single time committed to memory, but he wasn't admitting that to anyone. Arthur was all power and grace and Merlin let his eyes follow every move. It was clear from the beginning that Arthur was the stronger fighter, but Cedric was on trial for his life and the man fought well. So well in fact that it was hard for Merlin to remain silent as he watched the fight to the death.
It was exciting and more than a little arousing to see Arthur in all his battle-trained glory and Merlin had no outlet for it. All he could do was grip the back of Morgana's seat and watch, silent and still as Arthur fought for the honour of Camelot. His thoughts ran more along the line of dragging Arthur off the field and into a quiet spot to get him out of his armour more than doing anything to help the battle along, however, and he was more than a little glad that his tunic covered the front of his trousers. The longer the battle went on the harder it was to keep still.
Arthur was a flurry of movement and where Cedric was clearly tiring, Arthur looked as if he could keep fighting all day. Merlin wanted to shout and to cheer along with the rest of the spectators, but he knew that at the first word out of his mouth someone would accuse him of helping Arthur. He could do nothing except stand there and watch the magnificent display of skill. How anyone could ever think Arthur needed help, let alone wanted it, was beyond him.
Having seen enough tournaments to know what to look for, he knew the moment Arthur saw an opening. Arthur whirled, a blur of silver and red, bringing his sword down and around and slicing into the back of Cedric's leg, right where there was no protection at all and the Baron went down. However, the man was not completely beaten and as Arthur's sword returned for the killing blow, Cedric's own came up and blocked it before the man fell over sideways onto the ground.
It had not been the one sided battle everyone had been expecting, but the hush that came over the crowd showed that they all knew it was over. Arthur had his sword raised, waiting, and Cedric tried to stand, to meet his death like a man, but it became all too clear, all too quickly that Cedric was unable to regain his feet. Merlin held his breath as he watched Arthur slowly lower his sword, look to the stands and then back at Cedric. The man was done, that much was clear and all it would take was one blow.
"You are defeated, Baron," Arthur said in a firm and loud voice that carried all across the field of combat to those watching.
"End it," was all Cedric said, holding his head up bravely.
Merlin had thought the man a coward with the way he had used Morgana to cover his own plans, but his opinion was changing, as it seemed was Arthur's. It dawned on Merlin then, just how afraid of him Cedric had to have been to use such tactics.
Arthur raised his sword and pointed it at Cedric's neck and then Arthur did something that renewed every hope and dream Merlin had for his prince. Rather than draw back for the killing blow, Arthur simply nicked Cedric's neck and stood back.
"Remember, Baron," Arthur said in the same proud, sure tone, "today you died for your crime against my family. Build yourself another life carefully."
Out of the corner of his eye Merlin saw Cedric's wife collapse in tears, clutching her son to her, but he never took his gaze off of Arthur. The crowd cheered as Arthur turned his back on his defeated opponent and walked to stand in front of his father.
"I request permission to leave the field, Your Majesty," Arthur said formally, bowing to his father as King rather than parent.
Uther's face was as cold and impassive as ever, but Merlin could tell that the king was pleased. Camelot was victorious and he had no doubt that Uther realised the kingdom now had a real hold over Cedric.
"Honour is satisfied," Uther replied, equally as formally; "you have made proud the name of Camelot. Permission is given."
Then and only then did Arthur spare him a glance and as Arthur bowed and went to walk away, Merlin hurried to follow his master. He had every intention of shooing away Arthur's new manservant and giving Arthur a rub down himself. There was no way he was letting someone else touch Arthur, not after such an arousing battle.
On to Part 7