Merlin paced around his newest acquisition. The newest slave, the newest addition to his "harem," as Morgana called it. Certainly he didn't need a new one, but...
But it was either buy him, or let him get beaten to death for trying to run. Merlin wasn't that cruel.
Well. He didn't doubt that the new slave wished he had been killed; they usually said as much. And this one, he was a fighter. Merlin wondered if the soft ropes they had used to tie his wrists behind his back were enough, or if he should have insisted his legs be tied too.
No matter: between his own magic and Gwaine assisting him, they'd be able to subdue the new slave should he try something stupid. Gwaine was already doing a good job keeping him immobile, with a simple hand on the slave's bare back forcing him to stay on his knees.
"What's your name?" he asked, and wasn't surprised at all when the slave only spit in response.
"His name is Arthur," Gwaine supplied, "and he said he's royalty. A princess."
The words caused Arthur to struggle harder to throw Gwaine's weight off him. "Prince! I'm Prince Arthur Pendragon of Camelot!"
Merlin watched for a moment as Gwaine shifted his weight enough to keep Arthur in place, and considered how much credence he could lend to Arthur's claim. There hadn't been any news of Uther Pendragon going on the warpath though, and if his only son had been kidnapped, surely there would have been war with Escetia and Mercia, in the very least. Not that any of the five kingdoms acknowledged Uther's right to the crown.
Whether the slave was Arthur Pendragon or not, he was certainly not a prince while in Nimueh's lands.
"Just Arthur, then." Merlin cupped Arthur's chin and forced him to look up. "We're going to get you washed up. And I want you to know -- you're mine now. I'm going to take good care of you, so please forget about trying to escape or any such nonsense."
Merlin turned his gaze to Gwaine. "Take him to the bathing room. I'll join you shortly."
Arthur struggled as Gwaine dragged him off. They'd need more muscle to subdue Arthur properly. Merlin informed Elyan to prepare the tools he would need, then collected Percival to help get Arthur cleaned up.
The bathing room used for the slaves was designed to handle unwilling participants. Gwaine had kicked Arthur to the floor and was keeping him there with most of his body mass. It looked like he might have been saying something to Arthur -- Merlin didn't particularly care, because he trusted that Gwaine knew how to handle a new, resistant slave. After all, Gwaine had helped with Elyan and Lancelot, and had helped calm both Percival and Leon. No reason to think he wouldn't be just as effective with Arthur.
"Percival, help Gwaine get Arthur attached to the hook," Merlin ordered. He thought he saw Arthur's eyes widen in fear; his struggling did seem to increase, but between Gwaine and Percival, he had no chance. Within moments Arthur's wrists were manacled and hooked through the chain hanging from the ceiling.
Arthur gave halfhearted attempts to kick, but he had no leverage: his feet barely touched the ground. Percival stepped behind Arthur and grabbed his hips to keep Arthur from flailing too much.
Next to Arthur was a large basin filled with water, and several buckets aligned in front of it. "Strip his breeches off, Gwaine. And smallclothes, if he has any."
Merlin filled two of the buckets with water from the basin -- he considered using his magic but decided he would save up his displays of power for when it would make more of an impact. He did warm it a bit, just enough that it wouldn't chill Arthur.
"Looks like he's been beaten," Gwaine said, pointing towards Arthur's rear. Merlin stepped around to get a closer look: Arthur's flank was covered in thick welts, as from a cane. His lip curled in disgust; a sorcerer had no need to leave a lasting mark on a slave. That was downright cruelty.
"Percival, keep him still, as you're doing. I'm going to wash him now."
Arthur flinched away from the first touch of the washcloth, though after that Percival kept him steady. Merlin took his time, going over every last inch of skin. He scrubbed off the dirt caked around Arthur's wounds, and took his time soothing the various bruises. Arthur's curses died off after some time had passed, and Merlin looked up to see Arthur biting his lip and clearly attempting to hold back any noises.
He gently ran his fingers down the inside of Arthur's thigh, and marveled at how it trembled. Arthur was a sensitive one.
Halfway through the washing, Merlin saw Elyan enter the room with his kit. He moved silently, despite the tools he was carrying -- it had taken a while to get him to perfect that. These days, almost nobody heard Elyan come into a room.
Merlin motioned for Gwaine to help Elyan, then turned his attention back to Arthur.
"Lift his leg up."
Percival quickly hoisted Arthur's leg. The movement startled Arthur and he struggled before remembering how helpless he was. Merlin smiled at the few cut-off cries, and began scrubbing Arthur's feet.
"I like it when my slaves are clean," Merlin said. "Just more pleasant for all of us."
Arthur's toes curled inward, as if trying to ward off the washcloth. A quick stroke along the arch of his foot had his toes curling in the other direction and elicited another one of those choked noises. It would be fun getting Arthur to voice himself properly, Merlin thought.
He let the washcloth travel up the inside of Arthur's thigh, over Percival's fingers and right to his cock. Here Arthur struggled more violently, but Percival was an old hand at keeping people immobile. There was really no way for Arthur to escape this, and the sooner he realized it, the better for him.
"The other leg now," Merlin said, and they repeated the process. This time, he lingered more thoroughly on the spots that seemed particularly sensitive: his heel, under the knee, just under his rump. It was gratifying to see that Arthur's body, at least, knew what felt good -- his cock twitched and started growing, becoming half hard from those touches.
"Lift both legs," Merlin ordered. Arthur's eyes widened in fear; Percival lifted him up and held his legs splayed outward. Merlin had a clear view of Arthur's hole. Gwaine had made his way back and was similarly staring -- he liked looking at the newcomers, assessing them. Merlin kissed his cheek briefly, on a whim, and delighted at how that brought a smile to Gwaine's face.
Arthur looked at them both with disgust written across his face. It would have soured Merlin's mood, once, but he had gained a lot of experience since the early days.
"I'm going to do a simple washing this time," Merlin said, "though in the future we might have to be more thorough." He dipped the washcloth into the water and brought it up to Arthur's thighs.
"You sick bastard," Arthur hissed. His hands clenched around air, gripping for leverage that wasn't there. Gwaine snorted and patted his stomach, pressing him further against Percival.
It didn't matter that Arthur closed his eyes and tried to ignore Merlin; he just took his time, gently scrubbing at Arthur's hole. He used his other hand to lift Arthur's cock out of the way, taking care to give as little stimulation as possible. Even the slightest brush against Arthur's balls had his cock twitching though -- Arthur was going to be a lot of fun to work with. His face was flushed red, and it didn't matter whether that was in anger or shame.
"All right, let him down," Merlin said, and Gwaine and Percival worked quickly to get Arthur unhooked and kneeling on the floor.
Arthur tried, of course he tried, to dislodge Percival's grip. His elbow rammed into Percival's stomach, hard enough to get Percival to gasp, but Gwaine was right there, forcing Arthur down. The scene reminded Merlin a lot of how Elyan had been when he'd first arrived, and he had to smile.
"One more step, and then we'll be done. Next time, I hope you'll be more cooperative. I reward those who play well." Without more of a warning, Merlin upended one of the buckets over Arthur and doused him with the mostly chilled water. Arthur yelped in surprise, but Gwaine and Percival didn't even flinch away when the water splashed their bare feet.
Elyan didn't need any prompting to bring the hairbrush and the towel. Arthur's hair was short and easy to untangle; Merlin gave Arthur's scalp a quick petting once he was done. He let Gwaine and Percival dry him off, amused at some of the words Arthur threw at them. He was creative in his cursing, at least.
Elyan had started a fire and placed the branding iron inside the stove, letting it heat. In front of the stove was a table, with straps at each corner. Merlin could already visualize it... no, better to do it quickly, lest he get distracted.
"Bring him here."
It took all three of them -- Elyan, Gwaine, and Percival -- to get Arthur strapped to the table. He struggled and kicked, spat on Elyan's face and called Gwaine a whore. "You don't have to do this," Arthur cried. "He can't force you!"
And then Gwaine stood near Arthur's head so he could look straight down at him, smiled, and said, "He doesn't have to force us. We want to follow him."
If there were some way to capture images, to trap that expression on Arthur forever, Merlin would do it. The disbelief, the disgust, the despair, all of it rolled up into one, reflecting back at Gwaine's content smile. He ran his hand through Gwaine's hair and kissed his forehead. "You're so good," he whispered, low enough that Arthur couldn't hear.
His hand lingered shortly over Gwaine's chest, tracing the ridged mark through the thin shirt he wore.
But today was about Arthur, not Gwaine. Percival handed Merlin the salves he would need, and he got to work.
"Don't touch me," Arthur protested, but it was weak now. He was eyeing the stove, unconsciously moving his body away from it.
The salves had a touch of magic in them, specially prepared with Gaius's help. Merlin had been so proud of himself, to have accomplished such a simple task with his own magic. It had been a bit of an ordeal, but getting his magic to obey was its own reward.
He rubbed the salve onto Arthur's skin, right by the jut of his hipbone. Arthur flinched; Percival quickly pressed his arm across Arthur's waist, to keep him in place. It also kept Arthur from being able to see what was happening, though whether that was a blessing or a curse for him, Merlin wasn't sure.
The first salve was to strip off any hair on the region -- the smoother the surface, the better -- and the second layer was to numb the flesh, just a bit. The pain would still be excruciating, but the skin would take the mark a lot better.
"What are you doing?" Arthur demanded. "Why is it--"
"Relax," Merlin soothed, running a hand reassuringly down Arthur's thigh. "This is to make it heal properly."
"What? Make what heal?" Panic was rising in Arthur's voice; he seemed to be trying to struggle, but the fastenings and Percival were preventing movement. His breathing was getting shallower, coming in short bursts, and the heaving of his chest was making Percival's arm on his waist rise minutely.
"There's really nothing to worry about," Merlin said. "This is just to show the world who you belong to."
Elyan brought the heated branding iron over. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, until Merlin nodded at him to continue. Arthur caught sight of it, and immediately all of his struggling stilled.
"There's a good boy." Merlin kept his hand on Arthur's thigh as Elyan brought the branding iron down on his skin. Arthur screamed, and if he weren't as secured as he was he probably would have been convulsing in pain.
It was only a few moments before Elyan pulled the branding iron away and set it into a bucket filled with water. Steam rose from the bucket, hissing in time with Arthur's sobs.
When Arthur's sobbing died down, Percival pulled away. Merlin could see the tears streaking down Arthur's face, his expression completely broken. It wouldn't last, Merlin knew. There would be defiance yet. But for now, Merlin was pleased. He stepped close enough to kiss Arthur's forehead and wipe the tears away. "That's good. You're fine now. It's over."
The last salve Merlin applied would ensure the new mark stayed beautiful. It was cool, a good contrast to the hot brand, and Arthur's body seemed to understand. Merlin let his magic flow gently, as he had practiced, so that it mingled with the burn and stayed under Arthur's skin.
This pattern, this knot of dragons, would mark Arthur for life. He would never be able to leave Merlin.
And in a few weeks, Arthur wouldn't want to anyway.