There were voices in the hall again. Laughter. Arthur pressed his ear to the door to try and catch more of what was being said, but the voices were too far away, footsteps clacking farther away until they were gone again.
Arthur had slept in, as he normally did, because there wasn't anything worth getting up for. It was easier to just sleep until he couldn’t anymore. He’d woken up feeling like his head was too full of sleep and so then he’d have to get up and move around to shake it out and make room for new sleep. He'd been having the same dream he normally did—of walls and books and snatches of voices in the hall, but he didn’t worry about it. What else was there to dream about?
He woke up to the smell of straw (itchy and constant) linen—musky and familiar, and the chamber pot in the corner—acrid and foul. First meal was on the floor. It was on the same tray it was always on- a flimsy wooden thing that slipped through the iron slot in the door easily. got up. He walked two paces to retrieve it. He sat at his small table. He ate. Alone. He used to…but now he ate alone. One chair. One small table. One tiny bed.
The maid, when she comes, will not talk to him. She will knock on the door. Arthur will slide his chamber pot, his bed linens, his dirty, smelly clothing through the slot. They come once every three sleeps with clean linens, a clean chamber pot, clean clothing and leave Arthur to put the linens on the bed (square and neat as he always has), the clothing on his body, and the chamber pot in its customary corner, all just as his brother taught him. Sometimes they would slide a bucket of cold water, a brush and a cloth under the slot, and he will scrub himself raw and aching, then scrub the floors spotless, and then slide the dirty water back under the door. He no longer stares at the water and remembers how they used to play. He just takes off his clothing and rubs himself clean, head bent, having to reach his back by himself. There’s nothing he can do about his hair. It is greasy, heavy and tangled down his back. He uses it as a pillow sometimes.
The only other thing to look forward to is the talking in the halls. Sometimes he hears people in the halls. They talk. People forgot about him. He presses himself to the door to listen. He knows his Majesty remarried. He knows his Majesty has a new, better son—not his brother, not his brother, because his brother had stayed down here with Arthur even though it was dark and quiet, because he loved Arthur. The new son never visits. He might not even know Arthur is alone down here. He has a little brother, now, whom he can’t do anything about. He can’t protect him, or show him things, or hold him tight at night.
But then, his new little brother hadn’t killed his mother. He had a mother. And he grew up, and was now old enough to sleep with three or four maidservants a week, which meant that Arthur was old enough to sleep with six or seven maidservant a week, but he didn’t get to sleep with anyone at all. Arthur knew what sex was, well, he sort of knew, because his older brother had told him. Sometimes, he could hear groaning outside his door. One time he saw— through the thin slats of his door— the shadowy embrace of two servants in the middle of what he assumed to be sex. He didn’t quite know what was involved, but he’d tried to piece it together, and then it made him hard. His brother had explained about that, of course, so Arthur hadn’t been scared or anything, he hadn’t worried, he’d known. Of course. He knew people snuck away to have sex, and it was always a man and woman and since Arthur didn’t have anyone like a woman, he had to trick his pecker into thinking his hand was one. His pecker was really stupid. He knew you had to sneak away to have sex, so he hid in his fort. It was nice having something to himself.
Except now he had everything to himself and he didn’t want it. He wanted someone to share it with. It had been two birthdays since his brother had…gone…and now Arthur felt a little less like gouging the pain from his stomach, a little less like lying in bed and never moving again. He’d spent long enough doing both of those, seamless dark days in bed with no energy to move. And then, one day, he did, and so he’d gotten up and puttered around.
There was something in him that was thick and immovable that refused to let him to just lie down and starve. He got up, even though it hurt to move, and he couldn’t think of anything beyond that it hurt to move. He sat down. He ate.
And he kept on living.
What Arthur knew for certain was that he would never have sex. He didn’t deserve to, not really, because he would likely hurt whomever he touched. His Majesty had told him often enough that he was such a crime against mankind that he had killed the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world— his own mother. When he was younger his Majesty had come down and yelled at Arthur about his mother, but his big brother had put his hands on Arthur’s shoulders and promised it would be okay, clutching him close afterwards. He’d buried his head in his brother’s shirt each and every time, wanting just for his Majesty to let him be.
He would keep Arthur company in the dark. He loved Arthur so much that he’d stayed in the dark with him, because he knew Arthur couldn’t go out. He said he knew Arthur wouldn’t hurt him. Mother had been an accident—and hadn’t even been his mother, so it was fine. Arthur was his blood. It was fine. He’d protect Arthur. It was fine— someday, when they figured out how to be dead, she would explain. Arthur had dug his nails into the floor and lost himself in his brother’s words until he realized his Majesty was gone and he could fall on his side, his knees aching from being on the floor, and…and his big brother would stay. He’d pick Arthur up and put him to bed, press his lips to Arthur’s temple and tell him to sleep well. Arthur would clutch his big brother’s hand because he was all Arthur had. All he ever, ever had.
Now, though, when his Majesty stands outside his door and reminds him of what kind of beast he is, he doesn’t reply that he already knows that. He knows what kind of monster he is, and if he could figure out a way to be dead himself, he would. It was right that Arthur was locked up. It was right that no one talked to him. It was right that he was kept near The Dragon; they were both monsters. He wished, though, often wished, that his Majesty had not granted him this kindness. Would not keep him in here alone; he should be alone, he was dangerous—but he didn’t like it.
He got by.
After he finished eating he slipped the tray under the door, turned and looked around his room, them began the only other thing to do at length besides sleep—exercise. So Arthur stretched, did his push ups, reached up to the bar above his bed and performed his pull-ups, jumped down to do his sit-ups and jumping jacks. He did all the things he was told to do to stay healthy, all the exercises his brother had made into a game and a contest. He didn’t know why anyone would want him healthy, not anymore, but he did it because he was told to, because what else is there for him to do? He talked to himself; he desperately listened for snatches of songs. Very, very rarely he heard whole stories from a traveling bard who had, a few times, practiced outside his door, and Arthur would want to beg for him to come back and tell him another. He and his brother used to pass the story between them like their meals, taking sips and expanding the tales, letting them grow massive an unwieldy between them.
Now he repeated it as best he could, running his fingers on the door as he told himself his new story.
Other than exercise and sleep he only had a few options for entertainment. He paced. He talked to himself. He curled up in his blanket and made up stories, he remembered to himself about days that had been slightly more eventful. He jerked off if he felt inclined. He ate. He sat and looked around. He counted to ten.
His room was a bed, a table, a chair and a door. There was no light, but there was nothing for him to see. Light flicked from out in the hallway sometimes. He liked to watch it on the wall; making shadows he could make stories about (One time there was a blob, next to the first blob, that flickered).
He wanted to know how someone became dead. When someone became dead they went away forever. Arthur wanted to go away forever. He didn’t know how.
And then, much more infrequently, there had been Arthur’s mouse. He loved his mouse. Arthur had been so enchanted by it: that it had moved in careful, scurrying movements. That it had eaten with such feverish fascination. Once he’d known it was there he'd put out food for it, hoping it would stay longer. It had: taking his bread and nibbling at it. Eventually the mouse had scurried away again and Arthur had felt sad for its loss. But it had come back and he kept feeding it, hoping to make a friend. Over more than ten sleeps it had taken bits of his sheets to make a nest in the wall. He'd heard it squeaking and shuffling around and he always made sure it had food so it would come to him more.
His mouse had been with him for a very long time. He did not know how long, everything was the same and he could only count to ten. It had been with him less time then Arthur had been alive, and it had come after his brother.
Sometimes he could hold two sets of ten in his head, but that was all he had generally managed. He could hold as many tens as his fingers and toes could. He didn’t want to think about when he’d had four sets of ten. He didn’t like thinking about things. He liked to exercise until he fell asleep, get up and do it again. Sometimes he liked to remember. Just... not about before his mouse. He was fine with remembering his mouse. That was nice.
He had some landmarks to recall, curled up in his blanket. Once the mouse had scurried into his hands, because Arthur kept feeding it, had fed it for so long and had always been there so it had grown accustomed to him. Arthur didn’t make loud noises, he didn’t move too quickly, and he’d done everything he could not to frighten the mouse.
First the mouse had sniffed his fingers, so Arthur had held very still, so very, very still. He had wanted to memorize that moment. He’d wanted to forever remember what it had been like; shaking and hopeful, to have another person look up at him and crawl gently, gently into his hands. Arthur still hadn't moved, but he'd been able to feel the mouse's pulse beating against the palm of his hand, and he'd wanted to bang on the door at all those voices, at Big Gruff and Tiny Shrill and Loud Whisperer and tell them about how he’d gotten a mouse to sit in his hand like it had been the safest place in the world.
He hadn't though; he'd just sat, and sat, and sat, until the mouse had run away again. Afterwards he had stared at his hand, relishing the exact way the mouse had felt against his skin; its fur and the tiny claws of its feet, its breathing like the quick flicker of torchlight. He'd been overjoyed, because something had changed. He’d had a mouse, and he’d had a secret. The mouse might come again. He hoped it did. It was the only thing he knew— other then the voices outside his room— that did not run on a schedule. He had some control over the mouse; he could leave food out so that it might come. He had no control over the voices outside his door or what they would say.
Now, however, was the time for exercise. He took off his shirt—didn’t want to ruin it with sweat in the tight cloistered heat of his room—then did pull-ups on a bar worn smooth from the many times he'd wrapped his hands around it, pulled his chin up, lowered his body down until his world narrowed further to the tug and ache of his muscles. He could control his body. He did know that much. He might have been a monster who’d killed his own mother, but he knew his own muscles and bones. He knew the ache of his body when he worked, and he could control that. He understood that.
His mother had died to give him a body, and his Majesty had let him keep it, and his brother had shown him how to use it: so he used it, willed control over it, stretched as far as he could, and when something caught, when something hurt, he worked until it didn’t, worked at the stretch. He couldn’t show anyone, there was no one to impress but himself, and he didn’t know if other people were born better, born so they didn’t hurt.
Maybe he only hurt because he was a monster.
His brother had called the people outside their door “ghosts.” Arthur hadn’t realized they were other people—people like him and his brother, until he was much older, and in his head he kept calling them ghosts, because they weren’t real. Not like he was, with elbows he could feel and the hair heavy and dragging down his back. Not the way his brother was—grunting in exertion as they did push ups and sweated and stank and scrubbing Arthur’s back for him when the wash-bucket came.
They'd listened for the ghosts—it had been one of their main past-times, stomachs down on the floor and listening to the hole at the bottom of their door for voices. They'd caught snatches and bits: catching up sentences and acting out the scenes they thought they heard. Marching like guards, or weeping like prisoners. They'd often played guard and prisoner, or knight and horse (Arthur had made his brother be the horse).
The only thing his brother couldn’t make into a game was his Majesty’s visits. He’d put his hands on Arthur’s shoulders and hold tight, comforting, and then when his Majesty was finished he held Arthur in the corner. When it was Arthur’s birthday, Arthur’s brother was chained to the wall and had to watch as Arthur got his birthday presents, shouting and trying to help him. Arthur never blamed his brother for anything, he was a viable part of Arthur, as if he’d been cleaved off him like an arm, and fashioned into another, bigger, person.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur’s brother would whisper in the dark after his Majesty was done with him, “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Sing,” Arthur would command, head on his brother’s chest and his brother would take a deep breath: “Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross…”
Sometimes Arthur missed him so much he didn’t even bother getting up all day.
One day, after he’d eaten and he’d done all the sit-ups he could manage in any direction, and all the leg-lifts he could stand, he’d heard something outside his door. He’d pushed himself up and crawled to door, pressing his ear to the iron slat. He heard someone walking, talking to himself—a low murmur. Arthur leaned closer until he got a crick in his back trying to listen, to identify the voice. It was a new voice—none of the usual suspects— a low, male voice. The man was tall, because his voice was higher up than his Majesty, Arthur would guess. Uneducated, as he sounded more like the servants than his Majesty. Thin, judging from the way his voice resonated, but Arthur wasn’t wholly sure.
"Bloody bleeding voice in the middle of the night got..." The voice trucked along and continued down the hall. The night? Was it night? Arthur didn’t know the concepts between night and day. He’d heard about them, stumbled over the words, but he knew night was when the guards started gambling—when people hushed and snuck down here to have sex in the torchlight. The day was when his Majesty could sometimes come and tell Arthur he deserved to die.
The man was going towards The Dragon. The Dragon was the only thing down the hall from Arthur’s cell, as far as Arthur knew. Sometimes he could hear The Dragon roar or rage when it is displeased by something. Arthur was always aware of The Dragon. He could feel the slow steady scratch of it digging, he sometimes felt the walls tremble and he had no idea what it was doing. It never talks to him though, so they sit in the dark in mutual silence.
Save for that day, that day The Dragon talked. Arthur could hear it talk: a booming, giant voice that made him shrink in on himself. He couldn’t hear what The Dragon was saying, but the creature’s voice was expansive and commanding— a voice that did things rather than asking. Arthur let the iron slat clang back down and sat next to the door.
The man was talking to the Dragon. No one talked to The Dragon. No one. Just like no one talked to Arthur. His Majesty sometimes talked at Arthur, but Arthur never responded. Arthur tended to just stare at the door in shame as he knelt. It used to happen all the time when he was a child: his Majesty would rail at him and make sure he knew that he was a beast best kept locked away. Now he had no time for Arthur, and Arthur missed him. At least when he’d hated Arthur he’d remembered he was there.
Sometimes Arthur worried that people would forget he was down there and the food (and his mouse) would leave.
Maybe that would be best.
The Dragon was laughing— a terrifying, shuddering noise that Arthur felt in the walls and down in his bones. He hugged his knees, and closed his eyes—not that the dark changed—because this had never happened before. He didn't know much about The Dragon; he wasn't even sure what The Dragons were other then some kind of unnatural beasts like Arthur. He did know it was huge because of the sound it made. He knew it was chained because of the constant jangling of metal.
The scream of metal against rock screeched down the hall and Arthur covered his ears because the sounds were too much for ears tuned to the feather-light heartbeat of a mouse. Then it was silent again. Arthur pressed himself back to the slot and listened. Soft, carefully footsteps padded up the staircase and shuffled down the hall. He waited for them to go past him, but they stopped. He peered through the slot and saw a pair of brown boots, tied together with cord and stitched together from scraps of leather. Peasant boots. Arthur knew boots. He was well-versed in the art of peering at shoes.
"Um...hello?" The man said, shuffling closer, the firelight from his torch playing over the tops of his feet. "Arthur? Is that your name? Arthur? You in there? If you’re not I’m going to feel like an idiot just talking to a door. The Dragon said you were and…uh…well I’m not sure if you can understand me actually…”
Arthur pressed against the wall, didn't know what to do: the man had talked to The Dragon, and now he was talking to him. The slot clicked closed and after a moment of shuffling the voice came much closer to the ground. The man was crouched in front of the slot.
"Arthur? I know you're in there, I can hear you breathing. Uh...my name is Merlin? I just...um. I came to say hello? You don't have to say anything, I guess, I mean if you're not supposed to, but um...do you mind if I come around a bit? It's sort of funny; I'm not sure-um. So there's this Dragon under the castle, right next to you, right? And he was calling my name in my sleep, and so I came down here and he told me about you. He said you've been down here awhile and…well, the rest of it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, honestly, but I don’t really like when people are locked up for no reason, you know?"
A hand wiggled through the slot and held itself out. Arthur stared at it. It was bigger than the maid's quick and harsh hands that he caught glimpses of shoving things through the slot, but they were slenderer than Arthur's. Arthur stared at it.
"Oh, I guess you don’t shake hands a lot. Well, for one, you shake it. My hand, with your hand? It’s called a handshake. To say hello?"
"Why?" Arthur croaked, his voice rusty and underused in his throat. He never tended to do more than whisper to himself in case the mouse came around. He didn't think he'd said the word wholly right, but Merlin's hand went flat on the ground.
"Why what?" Merlin asked.
"Why shake?" Arthur cleared his throat, coughing into his fist.
"Uh...it’s just something men do. You know, to make sure the other isn't hiding a dagger up their sleeve. Only, you know, metaphorically."
Arthur didn't know what Merlin was on about, but he gently reached forward and picked Merlin's hand up by the thumb and waggled it from side to side. Merlin laughed and groped around, clutching Arthur's hand and briskly jangling it up-down. Merlin let go and Arthur stared at his hand, because Merlin had not only talked to him, he'd touched him. No one touched him, not anymore. His brother used to hold him all the time, used to hug him and wrestle and lie with him in bed and tell stories. Now he was alone.
Arthur felt his hand buzzing a little when Merlin's hand withdrew through the slot.
"Sorry if I woke you up, I had to come down at night, since the dragon woke me up. I'll let you get back to sleep, okay? I uh...I'll be back? If you like? I have to go to work during the day, I'm Gaius' new assistant and he has me running errands all over the castle and I'm going to have to start brewing, and I've made jam with my mum, so I don't really look forward to standing in front of a hot fire and cauldron and stirring for several hours, but a job is a job, right? It gives mum a bit of leeway, though Gaius can't cook for the life of him. He fed me porridge for dinner, can you believe it?"
Arthur didn't respond, not knowing half of what Merlin was talking about, and stunned that he was talking to him, chatting with him, like they were friends. Like the people in the hallways did.
"Uh, right, you're probably tired. Sorry, I'll try and come earlier next time, eh? You have a good night, Arthur. Okay?"
Arthur made a quiet noise, but Merlin didn't hear him. Merlin patted the heavy metal door, and then his footsteps padded away. Arthur put his hands to the door and felt the familiar lines of metal and bolts. He pressed his ear closer to better hear Merlin’s footsteps. Arthur wanted to yell for him to come back, because soon enough Merlin would learn that he shouldn't speak to Arthur and that he especially shouldn't touch him. And then Arthur would be alone again, so he wanted Merlin to come back and talk to him as long as he could before he learned better. It was selfish. He didn’t yell out.
He crouched in front of the door and stroked it, his hand still warm and feeling the illicit press of Merlin's skin against his own. It had been so long…and it felt different now. Merlin’s hand was…it was different. It was different than his brother’s had been. Lighter.
The mouse squeaked sometimes. The bed creaked sometimes. There were voices in the hall. Sometimes he clapped his hands to hear the sound. Sometimes he clapped his hands until they hurt too much to clap anymore. Sometimes he hummed. Sometimes he told himself stories in a harsh whisper. Sometimes he worked so hard all he could hear was the pound of it in his ears. Sometimes his Majesty yelled at him.
"Merlin," he whispered, looking at his hand. He didn’t move, instead he whirled the scene in his head over and over, reenacting it to himself, telling himself a story about how Merlin had talked to him, talked to him and touched his hand. He was like a storybook character. An exciting name, Merlin. So different from all the things that had made up Arthur’s life before now. And he was so tired of being alone.
Maybe he only hurt people who loved him. Maybe Merlin could come by and be fine. He’d heard stories about friends and wanted one.
Arthur scuttled to his bed and pulled the scratchy wool blankets around himself. He usually exercised much longer, until he could do no more, and then did more anyways, because otherwise he could only sit in his room and stare into the dark. When he was younger he used to play in his fort, imagining his mum had come back and said it had all been a mistake, and his Majesty would unlock his door, and his brother would say he knew it, that he believed in Arthur, and they would all walk out of the dark into...
That never happened. He'd resigned himself to the fact that when people died they did not come back. When you were a monster, you were a monster forever. He didn’t know what dying was; he just knew killing someone was the most wretched thing a man could do— so wretched that he was locked away down here. His Majesty threatened him with death and Arthur didn't know why when Arthur killed someone it was bad, but his Majesty could kill him with no problem. He didn't think about that. He was a monster.
He stared at his hand. He twitched his fingers open and closed. Merlin's hand had been warmer than his, dry and bony. It had been hotter than his brother’s, so much warmer than anything he’d ever touched before, because everything in here was the same temperature.
Arthur could remember what Merlin's knuckles had felt like under his thumb, the clasp of his fingers around his palm, and then the firm jarring of the shake. Arthur rubbed his fingers together and said Merlin's name again. And again. He said it again quietly, and then louder, jumping at the sound of his voice and curling the blankets more firmly around him.
He hoped Merlin came by tomorrow. Of course he would. He was going to be Arthur’s friend. Arthur closed his hand into a fist and curled up on his bed, not tired, but unwilling to continue his exercises. He didn’t want to blank out the feeling in his hand.
He eventually got up for second meal, just as he always did. He put a crumbling crust of bread out for the mouse, and kept most of it for himself, since he was bigger than a mouse. He drank the water, ate his apple, and his thin, waxy slice of cheese. He chewed on his bitter, leafy greens, ate the dry hunk of meat. They tasted the same as they always did. It was the same as it always was. He pushed the tray out again and then, feeling so full of energy he could shake apart, went back to exercising.
Uther does not want to admit it; he’s gotten so good at not admitting it that he has very nearly fooled himself—it’s been twenty-one years, after all, he’s had plenty of time to trick himself into believing his version of reality. He thinks that Igraine was perfect: the singular gorgeous being of his dreams. That their love was the strongest, purest form of human affection. That Arthur was born naturally, that he merely asked for a bit of help from Nimueh, not a miracle. He thinks he asked for a blessing, to show that he had nothing against the human members of the magical populous—just the monsters. He didn’t know what he was asking for, he thinks, he thinks Nimueh didn’t warn him. He remembers clearly putting his hands to his wife’s belly and kissing the swollen flesh, feeling for the fresh kicks of his baby boy. Of his beautiful, strong, unstoppable heir, to lead his kingdom into further glory.
He thinks he was betrayed, that Nimueh made Arthur a demon who sucked the life from his wife. He thinks that this is how he knew all magic users were monsters. That he had to kill all of them—even the ones that looked human. He got rid of his son, but was too in love with his wife—his beautiful, perfect wife, to have her baby slain with the rest of the monsters in the courtyard, thrown into the pyre still living, gagged and bound, tossed like kindling as smoke rose thick and black. He watched the fires, of course, as his almost-would-be-son was nursed by a stranger’s breast and not his mother’s.
He thinks he's being merciful when he entombs Arthur down below, he thinks he is doing a kindness. He has been cursed, what should have been a healthy, normal human boy was a golden-eyed, ruddy-faced worm. He should have been thrown on the fire before he could gain power, but Uther could not dishonor Igraine that way. Her body was enshrined and it is far away from where Arthur is left, squalling. If he lives then Uther might redeem him. If not then it is fate.
The truth? Igraine was nothing more than an excuse.
But you knew that.
Merlin came back every day between first and second meal. He couldn't ever stay long, but he always came. Arthur would sit close to his side of the door and press his palms against the cold iron. He listened to Merlin describe his day. Arthur didn't know why Merlin kept visiting him. Arthur could barely croak out five words in a conversation, and he really wasn't worth talking to, but Merlin came anyways. Never predictably. Arthur would go through his routine and at some point he'd hear the soft pad of leather shoes and he'd stop what he was doing to press against the door, hoping it was Merlin.
Sometimes it was not and he'd back away, returning to his exercises, or lightly dozing, or eating, or staring up at the dark with his trousers off and remembering how Merlin's hand felt around his own. He kept the hand Merlin had shook fisted tightly on his chest, his other rubbing himself. That was different then when he normally did it, and better, because at some point he realized he could imagine Merlin’s hand touching him other places like…like his neck, or his hair or…or…anywhere. Obviously two men couldn’t do anything, that would be silly, but he liked the idea of Merlin being around. Of having a room with Merlin and touching himself in a fort with Merlin on the other side. He felt on fire, and he jerked off far more than he normally did, and it was only the fact that it hurt when he tried too many times in one day that stopped him from doing little else.
At first Arthur had his reservations, not knowing what Merlin wanted with him of all people (surely there were more interesting people for Merlin to talk to? Out there?), but Merlin kept coming and kept just...talking. To him. And so Arthur would listen, even if the words made no sense, he’d listen to the way Merlin’s tongue clicked. Merlin talked about an endless arrangement of things, things about what he did for Gaius, about what the weather was like (Arthur had no concept of rain, and the idea that water fell from above made him try pouring his water over his head and blink upwards in the dark.) Merlin told him gossip; Merlin told him what people had worn that day. There was no reason or sense to what Merlin said, but Arthur listened.
“Here,” Merlin said, one day, pushing his hand through the slot. He generally started their meeting by putting his hand through the slot in the door and letting Arthur practice shaking his hand, and each meeting ended with another handshake. Arthur craved those moments more than he craved his next breath of air after jumping in place for ages. Arthur looked down and took whatever was in Merlin’s hand from him.
“I did some carving today, you remember? Carving? And I thought I’d make you something. It’s a snake. I made all the links, see? And strung them on some twine, so that it wiggled? See? I made these for the children in my village. Not that I think you’re a child, I just thought…well, if I had nothing to do…I mean…did you ever have toys? Just um… things?”
Arthur took the wooden object and waggled it back and forth in his hand. He bent to look at it in the light. It was long and thin, with a curved, smooth head, filling out to a curved body and a tapering tail. It waggled back and forth and Merlin reached in and gently guided it over the floor, making hissing noises. “I’m a ssssnake,” Merlin said, “I eatssss thingsss and ssssslide around doing sssnake thingssss.”
Arthur didn’t know what was going on, but he knew the difference in Merlin’s voice, the sizzle of the fricative “s” from between his teeth and he barked out a sound that popped harsh out of his mouth. Merlin paused and his laugh was much smoother, much more polished. “Yeah, well, you know. You can do what you like with him. Or her. It was just a thought I had.”
Arthur had clutched the toy and didn’t know what to say, but Merlin took the issue out of his hands by going back to talking. When he eventually left Arthur sat on his bed and made the snake slither, whipping it back and forth and hissing quietly to himself. He kept the snake on his pillow so he wouldn’t lose it and the mouse wouldn’t abscond with it.
Merlin kept coming, he didn't seem to mind that Arthur never said anything other than a word or two to let Merlin know he was still there, he'd just keep going, until Arthur's head was clotted with words he didn't know, and ideas he'd never had. Arthur had asked, when Merlin had been describing someone's green dress, he'd asked...
"Green?" He’d been letting his snake waggle back and forth on his thigh when the word caught his fancy and he’d needed to know.
Merlin had paused in his rambling and cleared his throat, "ah, what?"
"Green?" Arthur had asked.
"Oh, green. It's a color? You know grass?"
"Oh, I suppose...wait, ah, is it dark? In there? All the time?"
"Yes," Arthur had said.
"So you haven't seen colors, have you? Oh, uh, green is a color, colors are like the... they're like textures but for your eyes. You know how some things are soft and some things are scratchy? That's sort of like colors. Or they're tastes, too, maybe. Like sweet or sour? And people have their own favorite colors, right? I'm pretty fond of blue, myself. Oh here!"
Merlin shuffled around and then the slat at the bottom of the door opened and fabric stuck through. "See that? That's blue."
He was holding the torch down so Arthur could see the flickering in-and-out color.
"That's the color of the sky. Well, sort of. That color, but you know, lighter. I suppose this more the color of the ocean."
"Ocean?" Arthur asked, petting the scratchy warm fabric. Arthur looked over the color as Merlin explained what he meant until Arthur felt salt in his mouth and tasted blue with his eyes and Merlin, when he did leave, left the scarf, which Arthur wrapped around his hands over and over, and realized Merlin had now given him two things and Arthur had nothing to give in return.
He hadn't seen the mouse for more than ten meals, and he found he really didn't mind, because Merlin came, and Merlin had given him a toy and had given him a scarf that smelled like so many, many things that Arthur had no name for. He tied the scarf around his wrist, so it would always be there, and spent some of his long hours rolling the snake back and forth, running his fingers over the segmented bits of smooth wood and trying to digest Merlin’s words in his head into stories he could tell his mouse, should it decide to come back. He hoped it would, he still liked his mouse, even if he sort of had Merlin and Merlin gave him things.
The best thing, though, that Merlin gave him was a candle. He showed Arthur how to light it—told him to be careful around his sheets and straw, and he flicked the fire onto the candle. Arthur had stared at the fire then—more amazed—at his room. When Merlin left he peered into each and every corner, looking at the stones, and his blankets, at his clothing, and the mouse house, at his table, and when Merlin came back he asked the colors of everything he had (white, brown, grey). He couldn’t hold the candle for long, it flickered and hurt his eyes, but he kept it tucked away, wrapped up in case his mouse wanted to eat it.
It became so Arthur actually looked forward to waking up. He still exercised, he still played with his snake, and investigated his tiny cell with his candle, and he still went through his routine, but he had Merlin's visit. Merlin’s visit was something to look forward to. It would be randomly slotted into his day, sometimes for the barest glimpse of a hello, sometimes for entire...entire... for ages, but they all felt short. When Merlin left he was left alone again, but then he’d have time to muddle out all that he was learning. His head was no longer packed with sleep, no, but with words.
"Arthur, I will get you out of there," Merlin promised, suddenly, "I would have already but...I just need a little more time. I need to make sure I can keep you somewhere safe and I can’t…I can’t get through the door. I’ll figure it out, I promise."
Arthur had never considered that Merlin might want to get him out of his cell. He had never before considered going out as a possibility, not really. It was a story he and his brother told themselves often enough, because outside was an adventure, but they never put any effort into escaping. It was an idea. Most children dream of flying. Arthur and his brother dreamed out getting of their room.
It was odd enough that Merlin talked to him, that he brought him treats in the form of textures, colors, flavors, that his fingers would brush Arthur's as he handed him nuts, berries, breads, meats, cheeses—things so savory that saliva dripped from Arthur's mouth. It was odd enough that Merlin shook his hand and explained to Arthur the things outside his door, even if Merlin’s explanations also needed to be explained. They’d gotten drunk once, Merlin telling rambling stories about his home and passing a wine skein through the slot. The liquid had been bitter and burned, but he'd kept drinking because he liked how soft and quiet Merlin's voice was, and if they drank together, Merlin would stay. Arthur had then fallen into the sleepy dizzy happy feeling of drunkenness and had laughed at the sound of Merlin’s words cozying up together, the wine making his vowels so affectionate Arthur couldn’t detangle them from one another. Merlin had laughed too and Arthur had wanted to take the sound and put it in a box and keep it to himself, like all the secrets he had now.
"Why?" Arthur had asked; because, really, why would anyone want to talk to him so badly that they'd open the door? No one opened the door, the door couldn’t be opened, he thought. It was a taunt; other doors were wood and creaked as people entered and exited them, but Arthur’s was silent, iron and stationary. It might as well have been another wall. Did Merlin... did Merlin want to touch him more? Maybe? Arthur wouldn’t mind that.
Not for the first time Arthur wondered what The Dragon had told Merlin to keep him coming back.
"No one deserves to live like this, Arthur.” Merlin had said quietly, voice thick and determined, “you didn't do anything wrong. I'm going to get you out of here. I'll show you the sky, and grass, and velvet. I'll get you whole sheets of velvet to roll around in, and furs and sunbeams, and anything you want. Really, anything…I promise. I'll make this right again."
When Merlin left Arthur had taken his snake, his scarf, and his candle and rolled them around, trying to think of what…of why…of how…and finally it occurred to him that Merlin simply didn’t know. He thought Arthur was a normal person locked in here. Merlin thought Arthur was just another person, another person like Merlin. The only difference between them, to Merlin, was that Arthur just happened to be locked inside a room. Merlin didn't know what Arthur had done. Merlin had no idea what kind of beast Arthur was; if Merlin found out he would hate Arthur, and Arthur would go back to his routine of exercising and wondering if the mouse might visit. The mouse was not as good as Merlin. He didn’t want to be alone again. Eventually the candle would burn down to nothing, eventually the scarf would wear away to nothing, eventually the snake would break and Arthur would have nothing. Again.
It was much worse having things then losing them, he’d discovered, than not having them at all.
Arthur still talked to his brother; sometimes he forgot he was gone, and sometime he thought if he talked enough then his brother would find his way back to him. He sat on the edge of his bed, slouching and with his hands hanging between his knees, and he’d talk. He was still waiting for his brother’s hand on the back of his neck, even though it never came.
He told his brother about Merlin, imagining the slick tear of his brother chewing on his nails, the click of his teeth as he tugged at loose skin on the cuticles, the fidgeting brush of fabric as he moved. Sometimes Arthur still found nail clippings—sharp, hard things that he swept into a pile by the door. Sometimes he got rid of them in the chamberpot, because he worried they’d keep growing and they’d impale and kill him, or there would just keep being more and he’d drown in the sharp, painful jabs of his room filled with his brother’s nail clippings. They’d joked about it, shoving each other, just as they joked about shit and piss and vomit, snot and farts, sweat and sneezes, and later come, joked about every weird thing their bodies did until it was just…normal. Now Arthur was worried.
He was worried about a lot of things, because his brother used to be here, and now he was not, and he might had died, and he might have gotten lost in the shadows, or this might be the longest game of hide-and-seek they’ve ever played. Arthur doesn’t really know.
“His name is Merlin,” Arthur said, but if his brother has been listening, he would know that. “He wants to get me out of here.” And his brother would know that too.
“Please come back. I need you.” His brother knows that too—and either he didn’t care, or couldn’t do anything about it—but in Arthur’s head there is no distinction.
Then, suddenly, someone else visited, and it was not a good visit. Merlin’s visits were precious things, the maid’s visits were routine things, but his Majesty’s visits were to be feared, now that he had to face them alone. Arthur had been sitting on bed, rubbing Merlin's scarf with his palm, like he would if the mouse would sit with him long enough. He was feeling good, Merlin had stopped by shortly after first meal and given Arthur a small apple, which Arthur had eaten—core and all. He hadn’t been able to stay long, but Arthur could still taste fruit on his lips. His mouse had crept out and gleefully run off with a rind of waxy cheese after letting Arthur waggle a finger between its ears. He was coming down from a fierce bought of exercise, and wondering if he wanted to take a nap or maybe jerk off a bit, then close his eyes and faithfully recount the day to his brother, who maybe would have forgiven Arthur by now and let Arthur tell him about his day.
He didn’t think his brother would trust Merlin. He would say Merlin was too good to be true, that he was a trap. His brother had often worried about these things, since he was older and had seen things. Arthur just wanted a friend. He didn’t see what was bad about friends. He’d had to make up all his friends.
Then his heart quickened in his chest and he sat up, quickly gathering his prizes. Arthur recognized the jangle and clank of his Majesty’s walking, a sound that was his earliest memory and burned into his mind from repetition. Though his Majesty had not visited for so long Arthur had expected he'd been forgotten, he was there now. Arthur quietly scrambled to hide the things away; as long as the things were hidden it would be fine. his Majesty didn't need to know about Merlin. No one needed to know about Merlin. Arthur needed to protect Merlin.
Satisfied that the scarf, snake, candle and kindling kit were hidden he knelt in the place he always knelt, so much so his knees had worn dents in the stone, and bent his head. The door would not open, of course it wouldn’t but maybe his Majesty could see through the iron right into Arthur and he had to behave. He absolutely had to behave.
The jangling stopped and he listened to his Majesty’s breath. Merlin's breath was more fluttery and quick, probably because he was always on the verge of saying something, whereas his Majesty's breathing sounded, always, like he was just about to take that final breath before shouting. He did not shout at Arthur; Arthur was not worth shouting at.
"Do you know what day it is?" his Majesty asked, hoarse and quiet. Arthur clutched his thigh muscles, trying to control his breathing. He had not known the day, he never knew the day, they blurred in and out of each other into a monotonous stretch of dark, however there was only one day that mattered in all the days he sat down there, here, waiting. There was only one day that his Majesty marked with any importance. Arthur hoped Merlin would stay away. Merlin had already come that day. He’d brought an apple. He wouldn’t come again. Merlin would be fine. Merlin would be safe.
"My birthday, sire," Arthur said, because though all days and nights passed the same for him and the only thing he looked forward to was Merlin (who said he'd sneak something called "pie" to Arthur so he could try it-Arthur had wondered if that was another color, but had worried he'd sound stupid. He didn't want Merlin to think him stupid. He might stop coming by.) There was only one day that mattered to his Majesty, who let Arthur live only to do this. This one-day.
"Your birthday," his Majesty said, "and once again you must pay the price for your continued survival." A thud meant his Majesty had rested his hand on the door, “I have let you live Arthur, and I had hoped that containing you would burn the taint from you. That one day you’d be able to join me in the light, but you continue to be sullied.”
Arthur stared at the floor, shaking. He used to, long ago, dream of a day when he would no longer be a monster, but it never happened. He didn't like his birthday. He didn't like it at all. On his birthday he and his brother had used to hide in the corner, his brother holding him and swearing, swearing to protect him.
"If you were a man instead of an unnatural beast you would be of age today. Had you spared your mother we would have celebrated today," his Majesty continued. “Had you been… had merely locking you away been enough. You look—“
He trailed off, then cleared his throat and announced: "So this year we will do something special." Arthur looked away from the door. He didn’t want to do something special he didn’t—
His mouse was out. It was chewing on a bit of bread. It was out and chewing and it was In the Open; his Majesty was going to open the door, and... and give Arthur a present. He was going to give Arthur a present while his mouse was out. Arthur hated presents. They always hurt. He wanted Merlin. No! He had to protect Merlin, Merlin had to stay away. He had to protect his mouse. He had to protect his mouse and he had to protect Merlin. Merlin was safe; Merlin was away—but his mouse.
The locks on the door clanked open, creaking and groaning with the sheer wrongness of what they were doing, of the fact that they were being forced wide when they spent forever clasped shut. The door was opening, the door was opening and his mouse was right there. Arthur panicked. He snatched up the mouse as the door creaked a bit wider. The door was opening. The mouse struggled in his hands, not used to Arthur grabbing. Arthur had always touched the mouse on the mouse’s own terms. Now he grabbed and clutched down. The mouse let out a tiny pained, betrayed noise as the door readied itself to fling wide. He ended up stuffing his mouse down his shirt. Hopefully it would be over soon. Hopefully he could protect it long enough to help it escape. He could do this. He had to do this.
The door reluctantly crept further and further into the room, until it slammed against the wall. Arthur closed his eyes, bowed his head. his Majesty came in, the door shining wide with flickering light, but Arthur did not look upon the face of his Majesty. He was not allowed. He wouldn’t…it would be over soon.
"You get to come out today, Arthur." his Majesty murmured, quiet and almost mimicking the tone Merlin used—soothing and pleasant, save it wasn’t, it couldn’t be, it wasn’t, "Do you know why?"
Out? They were...they didn't go out. Arthur never went out. Not once. Not ever. his Majesty only came in once a…a…year and Arthur dreaded the event. Arthur did not go out. It was bad enough the door opened, but to, he had to, but the…
"No, sire," Arthur whispered. He felt the mouse struggled against his belly, clawing at the skin, and Arthur curled in on himself.
"There have been rumors of late, rumors of a Prince under the castle that will cease famine, stop wars, and unite all the kingdoms of this land together. There are stories—though I have tried to quash them—of a prince who will bring magic into my Kingdom and undo all the work I have struggled for. You are tainted still; these stories tell me that locking you away was not enough to leach this sickness from your bones. No, they tell stories about you. I have tried, Arthur, to cure you—though only death ever could—and I will try again today. Today I will bleed you of this disease as if it was a pox and you will either be clean of the taint, or you will be dead.”
"Where are we going, sire?" Arthur asked, trying not to shake. He would not shake. He was strong. He exercised. He was strong and he wouldn't be afraid. Where could they be going? Where they going to a different room? What other rooms were there? The...the kitchens? Merlin talked about the kitchens...The Dragon? Where... His mouse scrabbled at his belly, trying to find purchase to escape.
"Outside," his Majesty said, "to show the people how I treat magic in my kingdom. You may still be good. You may one day still be good.”
Arthur wanted nothing more than to be good, he just needed to know how. He realized there was light, painful burning light scrambling at his eyes. He turned to look around his room. maybe his brother would come out now, maybe… But he was nowhere. His little room was illuminated and it was just…him. That was his bed, and his table, and his chair and his chamberpot, and that was it. That was all he had. He could see footprints in the stone, and long scrapes from how he pushed the chair in and out each day, and the mattress sagged and…his brother was gone. Really, actually gone.
his Majesty grabbed Arthur by the shirt collar and yanked him up, knocking the mouse loose to find it’s placement again. Arthur followed, not looking up and looking out the hall, at the same rock wall he had seen glimpses of for years. Now it was there, full-bodied and craggy and Arthur couldn't look. He'd wanted to go out for...for as long as he had wanted anything, but...he wanted to be good…but….
The hand tugged and he followed. He let his feet move, he followed the arm, followed his Majesty—no concept of anything, any of this. When he feet stepped on rock his soles had not memorized he looked and he could...he could see all the way down the hall. It stretched beyond, and on and on, dark and endless. Arthur stopped moving, even when the tug stretched. He looked.
He looked at his Majesty for the first time. He knew his voice, he knew his footsteps, he knew how he breathed but he had not seen his face. He was dressed in the black of shadows and...and other colors. The color of torchlight, only darker, thicker and richer, like...like... Arthur shook. His clothing was thick and heavy, sweeping around him like its own room, its own being, moving a beat behind his Majesty.
his Majesty turned and looked at Arthur, looked at Arthur looking at him.
"You will turn your eyes down," the crippled, wrinkled-bed-sheet man commanded, sweeping in...in...Arthur didn't know, couldn't describe. Dressed in dark, and his skin matted and wrinkled like wet cloth. Arthur had his own expectations of what his Majesty looked like, shadowy and huge and booming forth like the crash of The Dragon’s bellowing voice, but he wasn’t…He wasn’t.
He wanted his brother. He wanted someone there. He wanted his brother to protect him. He didn’t want to go out. Merlin had to stay away though. Arthur could protect Merlin.
Arthur looked down and walked. There weren’t enough walls, and then they went up and Arthur didn't understand how the floor stacked upwards. He got tangled in his own hair, his beard, his clothing, and they just kept walking, there was...there light. It hurt his eyes, like pressing, pressing too hard. his Majesty just walked faster. Sounds of... voices!voices!voices! Scalding light.
Arthur wanted to run back to his cell, lock the door and curl up in his bedcovers and never leave, to go back to the quiet and the dark and the...
"Arthur," a voice whispered, the shattering of a pot, and Arthur turned.
Blue eyes. Like the scarf. Only...more. That must be the sky, Arthur thought, distantly, almost as if he were a stranger in his own head.
Arthur shook his head at the man. The ground changed, the light got brighter, too bright, brighter than anything he could… the smells, the smells…