Every single inch of Arthur’s body ached. His left knee throbbed painfully, his back was a single mass of seized, tight, painful muscle and his ribs screamed in agony with every breath he took. His head swam and he couldn’t even open his eyes, lest he lose the contents of his stomach. He felt as if he had been dropped from a height by a huge stone gargoyle which, oddly enough, he had been. He heard an enormous crash and felt something hard, several somethings actually, hitting his side at force. He didn’t know what it was, and struggled to open his eyes, but they felt as heavy as the portcullis protecting the gates of the citadel and remained stubbornly closed.
He felt, more than heard, someone’s harsh breathing as they flung themselves down at his side. Hot pants of air blew across his face as hands reached out to check for a pulse. It was Merlin. Somehow, Arthur was not surprised, though he did not want him there. Merlin should have been safe and secure in the castle. Okay, so he was supposed to be in the dungeons, but right now, they were probably the safest place to be. He wanted to scream at the other man to move, to run and escape from the gargoyle which surely still circled him from above.
Stupidly loyal Merlin. He was going to be killed and Arthur would never forgive himself. He tried to move again, open his mouth to warn him... anything. But all he could manage was to move his head, and even that was more of a flop rather than deliberate movement.
He felt Merlin’s hands on him, warm and sure as he felt for a heartbeat, as if the pulse in his neck were not enough assurance for his manservant. Arthur imagined he could feel the heat of Merlin’s skin seep through his chainmail, warming him. Despite his skinny frame, Merlin was always so warm...
The unnatural stillness of the courtyard was shattered by the arrival of another. Arthur could feel the footsteps before he heard them, felt them echo and shudder across the stone courtyard as if the earth itself resonated with each footfall.
“Who would have thought it?” the familiar voice boomed out across the empty courtyard. Cedric. Though there was a lazy arrogance in the drawl that had not been there before, Arthur still recognised it. Merlin had been right about him. “You, a sorcerer,” his former servant continued.
Cedric’s words sank in, and Arthur was confused. There were only two of them there, besides Cedric, and since he certainly wasn’t a magic practitioner...
The idea of Merlin as a sorcerer was laughable.
But Merlin wasn’t denying it...
“I won’t let you hurt him!”
Arthur heard the stress and worry in his tone, but ignored it in favour of the words he spoke. His manservant wasn’t denying it. The fact that he was threatening the powerful spirit that possessed Cedric spoke volumes.
He couldn’t believe it. Merlin, his stupid, clumsy, idiotic manservant was a sorcerer. He tried again to move, attempting to raise and arm to grip his sword, but he could barely move his hand. He heard Cedric speak again, his tone mocking as if the very idea was ludicrous. Merlin stood, taking his delicious warmth with him, and Arthur cursed the automatic wave of want that flowed through him.
Merlin had lied to him, practicing the dark arts, probably biding his time to figure out how to kill them all. He heard his fathers’ words echo in his head; how magic corrupts the mind and soul and only lead to pain and death. He tried to take a breath to calm himself, but his ribs protested too much and he gagged from the pain. Through the haze of agony, he missed what was being said between the two sorcerers and had to use all his strength of will to focus back in on the conversation. If they were to plot together, he needed to know their plans.
Ok, so he wouldn’t be able to move to do anything about said plans, but stranger things had happened.
“...treats you like a slave.”
A stab of guilt shot trough Arthur as he recognised the truth in those words, but he pushed it aside. He waited for Merlin to agree, as he never had any qualms about saying it to Arthur’s face.
To Arthur’s eternal surprise, that was not his answer.
“That’s not true,” he replied defensively.
“He casts you aside without a moment’s thought,” Cedric argued. Even Arthur had to disagree with that one. He was of the opinion that he gave entirely too much thought to his manservant that was necessary. Princes should not obsess about the colour of their manservant’s eyes, or the fullness of their lips...
“That doesn’t matter,” Merlin retorted.
“But it must hurt ...so much,” Cedric cajoled. “To be so put upon, so overlooked when all the while you have such power ...”
Surely if he had the power that Cedric was alluding to, he would have used it to get what he wanted by now. Besides, Merlin was so inept, Arthur was surprised he hadn’t blown himself up by now.
“That’s the way it has to be.”
Arthur was taken aback by show of loyalty from Merlin.
“Does it?” Cedric asked. “You’re young, Merlin. Look inside yourself. You have yet to discover your true power. I can help you. Think Merlin ... To have the world appreciate your greatness. To have Arthur know you for what you are ...”
“That can never be.”
Even from where he lay, Arthur could hear the uncertainty in Merlin’s tone. This was it. Merlin would show his true self, would grasp the opportunity in front of him. Arthur’s father had been right about sorcerers.
“It can,” Cedric continued to convince Merlin “if you join me. Together, we can rule over this land. Arthur will tremble at your voice. He will kneel at your feet.”
Arthur gulped painfully, carefully ignoring the fact that he, on occasion and in some very weak moments, had in fact trembled at Merlin’s voice, at the way he said his name, so trusting and full of affection.
“I don’t want that.”
Merlin’s voice was quiet, but certain and strong enough to reach across the courtyard to where he lay. Again, Arthur was surprised. Surely he would want payback for some of his duties? For the opportunity to force Arthur to serve him?
“You would rather be a servant?” Cedric was just as incredulous.
“Better to serve a good man than to rule with an evil one.”
His voice had gained volume and strength now, certain of his course. Arthur’s heart thudded painfully in his chest. Merlin had the chance to take everything he could ever want ...to have things that thousands would kill for. And he gave it up, to serve him? To stay by his side?
Cedric seemed incensed by his reply, his anger and impatience showing through.
“So be it,” he snarled. “If you will not join me, I will become you and your power will be harness to my will...”
Arthur heard Cedric gasping for breath before something, or someone, hit the ground loudly. Arthur tried, once again, to rise, managing to lift his shoulders and arm to grab his sword, but the effort and the pain in his chest sent him reeling backwards. His head hit the stone courtyard with a thump and the darkness once again claimed him.
When Arthur once again gained consciousness, he was lying on something infinitely softer than cobblestone. He recognised the feel and comfort of his own bed, and was relieved to find he could open his eyes. He squinted against the bright light of the room; and looked blearily up at the canopy, eyes watering, until he could open them without wincing. His face pulled as his did so, and he reached a tentative hand, once again relieved he could do so, to prod at the spectacular bruise that bloomed across his face. His back and shoulders protested the movement of his arm, and his entire torso was stiff and sore, but he could move again. His ribs still hurt abominably, but there was nothing he could do about that. His chest was already tightly bound, his ribs probably cracked or broken, and Arthur moved very gingerly to the side of the bed. His movement caused a flurry of motion from the direction of the window.
Morgana and Gwen stood there, side by side, talking quietly until Arthur’s movement disturbed them. Gwen rushed to his side to help him and Morgana followed, coming to a stop in front of him. She looked down at him with her usual sneer, but did he see a hint of relief in her eyes?
“Still alive then,” she commented dryly.
“Apparently.” His voice was rough and scratchy and he gratefully drank from the cup that Gwen pressed to his lips. He coughed as the cool water slid down his throat, and his ribs flared up; he gasped in pain; and Gwen babbled apologies beside him.
“Peace, Gwen,” he assured her once he caught his breath. “I’m alright.”
“Are you certain, sire?” she worried. “I could fetch Gaius again ...”
“No need. I am fine,” he said, only wobbling a small amount as he stood. The room spun for a second before righting itself. His knee wobbled before he locked it and managed to push himself away from where he had been leaning against the wall. Morgana huffed at him from where she stood, obviously unimpressed with his strength of will.
“You have two cracked ribs,” she informed him tartly. “You also wrenched your knee and had a pretty hard knock on your head. I was hoping it would knock some sense into you ...”
“Leave it Morgana,” he warned. “I don’t need this today.”
“What were you thinking Arthur? Facing those things alone” she began, but Arthur held up his hand.
“Please Morgana,” he begged. “You can rail at me tomorrow. Just, give me today.”
He must have looked terrible, because she looked into his eyes, before nodding sharply and sweeping from the room, calling Gwen with her.
“I’ll send someone up with some breakfast, Your Highness,” she assured him before following her mistress.
“Wait, where’s Merlin?” he called out as she left.
“With Gaius, Sire,” she replied before dropping into a curtsey and leaving.
As the door closed with a click, the memory of last night’s events came flooding back and he staggered and groped his way towards his table near the window. He sank down into the chair, grateful for the unyielding surface as the memories rolled over him.
Merlin was a sorcerer.
Part of him screamed to deny it. The other part of himself berated him for being so stupid. How could he not have seen this? Merlin was clumsy and inept and undoubtedly the worse manservant in Pendragon history, but he somehow always came through for Arthur when it counted. Ever since the beginning of their acquaintance, Merlin had known what was going on. He knew about the monsters and sorcerers alike that tried to kill him, and his excuses for some of the scrapes he got himself into were pitiful. Arthur knew there was no way Merlin would have been able to knock him out with simply a lump of wood ...
All this begged the question of why he had never tried anything himself? As his father was fond of saying, to know the heart of one sorcerer is to know the heart of all. And Arthur had met his fair share of them, especially in the past few years. But yet, Merlin stayed and cleaned his socks?
It just didn’t make sense.
“Better to serve a good man than to rule with an evil one.”
Merlin’s words from the night before rang in his head. His defence of Arthur’s actions and his certainty that his faith was not misplaced was humbling.
Merlin, the man who could apparently defeat an evil, possessing spirit, who had such power that the spirit risked all to take over his body, who allowed Arthur to put him in the dungeons even though he could use his magic to leave at any time ...
The man who swore to serve him until the day he died.
His oath held a greater meaning, now that he knew the truth. He could have ruled over Arthur, but Merlin chose to be his manservant, of all things. Just to be near him.
Making a decision, Arthur stood, wincing painfully at the pull of his ribs. He spied his armour in one corner of the room, piled where someone had dumped it in their haste to attend to his wounds.
A slow grin crept over Arthur’s face.
If Merlin wanted to serve him, he better give him something to do. He had lied to him, after all. A little payback was necessary.
The thought of informing his father never even once crossed Arthur’s mind.