Arthur had been the one to give Merlin the orders that had incited Uther’s displeasure, and he should have been the one facing the lash, not his servant. His decision had been a mistake; such a stupid, stupid mistake. Although it was Merlin facing the punishment, Merlin whose hands were bound and head bowed, Merlin wasn’t the one at fault.
However, Arthur’s father hadn’t seen it that way, not entirely. A punishment was given, but instead of Arthur facing the lash and Merlin escaping unscathed for his master’s folly, it was Merlin facing the lash…and Arthur wielding it.
The rope encircling Merlin’s wrists bit into his skin, tethering him to the wooden frame of the viewing platform. All his clothing except a threadbare pair of trousers had been removed before he was escorted atop it, and goosebumps appeared on his flesh in the chilly morning air as he shivered.
Arthur took a deep breath as he held the new, untried lash in a tight grip, his knuckles turning white. He’d never been the one wielding the lash, and from the public punishments he’d seen when he was younger, he only had the faintest idea of what to do. He didn’t know how to hold the tool, how to wield it to draw blood or simply cause pain, where not to hit to prevent further injury. It wasn’t his responsibility to directly administer punishment, so he’d never been trained in how to use a lash, or flogger, or any other tool of punishment, effectively.
For all that Merlin had been issued a light punishment, a mere fifteen lashes compared to the average fifty, it was all the worse for having the lashing performed by someone who in all honesty, did not know what he was doing.
Arthur glanced at his father, who was overseeing the spectacle, and Uther nodded. He took a deep breath, and stepped close to Merlin. As he ostensibly checked his servant’s bindings, he hissed in Merlin’s ear, “I’ll be as quick and as gentle as I can, Merlin. I’m so s–”
“Just,” Merlin’s words faltered briefly as he interrupted his master, “just do it.”
Arthur couldn’t stop himself from reaching out, checking himself at the last moment to keep from caressing the back of Merlin’s neck in a futile attempt at comfort. It should have been him up there, not Merlin, but for all that he was one of the court’s bravest knights, he was too much of a coward to take his place.
Having assured that the ropes were secure, Arthur turned and walked back several paces, steeling himself with each step he took. The lash was a leaden weight in his hand as he took a deep breath, doing his best to ignore the whispers of the onlookers who came to gape as Prince Arthur himself administered a lashing to his personal servant.
The first strike came as a shock to Arthur, having not even registered that he’d struck until the first slap of leather hitting bare flesh sounded throughout the air. There was a prominent red mark where the lash had impacted with Merlin’s back. Arthur forced himself to swallow past a lump in his throat.
“You have to,” Arthur choked on his words, “you have to count, Merlin.”
Arthur could hear Merlin take in a deep shuddery breath, before he clearly said, “One.”
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, his focus shrinking to only Merlin’s back and the lash Arthur gripped in his hand. Everything else seemed to fade away..
The next strike came as less of a surprise, crossing the previous mark on Merlin’s back and drawing out a hiss of pain.
The following impact was on the opposite side of Merlin’s back, away from the other two marks, but this one hit hard enough to draw blood.
Arthur wasn’t sure if it was his own or Merlin’s hitched breath he heard as he’d drawn blood. Arthur had drawn Merlin’s blood. He didn’t know how to make it gentle without drawing out the punishment or how to make it quick without causing undue pain, without his father taking note and increasing the number. He didn’t even know how to find a medium between the two.
The next hit the hardest, worse than any of the previous strikes, drawing a shock of blood and a cut-off yelp from Merlin.
The next strike crossed the two bleeding wounds, causing Arthur to flinch as Merlin jerked sharply, his knees giving out beneath him. The only thing keeping the servant upright were the ropes that dug deeply into his wrists, leaving him hanging. Arthur could almost feel Uther’s eyes boring into his back, greedily drinking in both his and Merlin’s pain. At that moment he couldn’t help but hate his father, just a little.
Arthur struck out again, flinching at the high-pitched keen that it drew out of Merlin’s throat as his back arched sharply.
It was a shock as drops of rain started to fall heavily from the previously cloudless sky while Arthur mentally prepared himself for his next move. The rain only served to make things worse as it made the ground slippery and beat upon Merlin’s open wounds without mercy, but Arthur forced himself to ignore Merlin’s whimpers and how the rain made the lash more difficult for him to hold and decreased his ability to see where he was aiming.
Arthur stifled his own moan at the suffering he could hear in Merlin’s voice. For all that Merlin could have been punished with fifty lashes or worse, the rain only made the lashing even crueler than the fifteen assigned already were.
The next strike that fell across Merlin’s back barely made the servant twitch, which only served to make Arthur worry.
Merlin’s voice was slurred from pain and the cold, and pink water trickled down his arms from where his bindings bit into his wrists. His entire body was limp.
Arthur couldn’t see Merlin’s face, but he sounded like he was almost unconscious. He warred with himself on continuing at the same pace and trying to prevent more damage, or hurrying through and getting it over with.
He couldn’t see how he had used to take such amusement out of the public floggings and lashings. It was different when he was the one with the tool in his hand, when he knew and actually cared about the one feeling each strike of the lash.
If he was in Merlin’s place, would he have fared any better? Merlin was a servant, a peasant, used to hard work and even harder living. Would he, as a royal, despite his training as a knight, have lasted this long without screaming even once?
As Arthur prepared himself to strike again, he thought he heard Merlin say something else, but couldn’t hear him over the heavy thudding of the rain.
When the lash next hit Merlin’s back, drawing only a soft moan and no other response, Arthur realized with dread that Merlin was unconscious. He couldn’t count off the lashes anymore, but it was likely that he, being the closest person, was the only one who could really tell. As it was, after the rain had started, he could only barely hear Merlin counting off and the rain had made it difficult to see Merlin’s responses.
But Arthur had to keep going, because Merlin’s back would be checked by more than just Gaius, and if anyone saw less than fifteen lashes on his back, then they would both face heavier punishments.
The fourteenth strike failed to rouse Merlin from consciousness, as did the fifteenth.
Then the punishment was finally done, and Arthur could stop. He lowered the arm wielding the lash and let it fall from his numb fingers. Guards hurried forward from where they had been watching and roughly removed Merlin from the ropes, letting him fall to the ground, the impact drawing a harsh scream out of him.
Arthur forced himself to stay as Merlin was picked up from the ground and hurried off to Gaius, looking at the puddles of water, mud, and blood that had pooled where Merlin had been tied. Glancing up, Arthur found his father gone. When he finally left to check on Merlin, he left the lash forgotten on the ground.
Arthur rarely left Merlin’s side while he was unconscious, his servant stretched out on his stomach with his wounds covered only in a salve to help them heal, as they were too tender to place bandages over.
When Merlin finally awoke, Arthur had just come back while Gaius had rushed out for a quick errand and was the only one around to keep him calm when he started to thrash about wildly.
“Shhh, it’s alright. I’m here,” Arthur said softly, feeling as if he was gentling an untamed horse rather than his alarmed servant.
“Arthur,” Merlin croaked, turning his head to the side so he could better see the other man’s face. The rest of his body seemed to scream in pain, so he didn’t even try to move any more than that. “Did I scream?”
“Once,” Arthur replied, wincing as he remembered the sight of Merlin’s limp body falling to the ground. Even the memory made him feel wretched.
“I don’t blame you. I’m not angry with you. Please, Arthur, don’t feel bad. After all this, I can’t stand to see you suffer anymore.”
It was Arthur’s fault. It was all his fault, and he wasn’t the one with horrible wounds on his back, with wrists rubbed raw by the ropes he’d hung from. He hadn’t been the one to be injured, but Merlin had. What Arthur felt couldn’t compare to how Merlin had to have suffered, was still suffering.
“Merlin,” Arthur said hoarsely, “I hurt you.” He had sworn to protect his people, and how could he do that when he inflicted injuries on his own servant?
“I’m so sorry. Tell me what to do, Merlin. I’ll do anything, anything.” Arthur would do anything to try to fix what he had done, even though he knew that what had happened could never be fixed, not completely. There would still be the memories, still be the scars, both mental and physical.
Merlin’s eyes closed, and Arthur’s chest ached at the sadness he had briefly seen in those eyes. He carefully picked up one of Merlin’s hands, doing his best to avoid causing further pain to his injured wrist, and gently brushed his lips against Merlin’s knuckles before he intertwined his fingers with Merlin’s.
Merlin let out a deep sigh, a light smile curving his lips. He gently opened his eyes to look at Arthur. “I am sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur could hear a million apologies in just those four words. Apologies for things Merlin had done, for things Merlin had not done, for things that haven’t happened yet, and for things that Arthur did not know of. Apologies for putting Arthur in the position that he had.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Arthur replied, gently brushing a lock of hair from Merlin’s forehead with his free hand.
Merlin simply smiled sadly and closed his eyes as Arthur stayed awake, wondering exactly what it was that Merlin wasn’t telling him, yet knowing that whatever it was, didn’t matter.
He would never let another lash touch Merlin’s back ever again.