He sat on his throne, listening intently to his father’s speech to his counsel. Whenever he could, he listened. From the moment he could understand that he was to be in his father’s role soon, he’d listened in everything he had to say, taking note. Morgana sometimes teased him for it, but one night when she’d had far too much wine she’d confessed she new he was going to be a far better king than Uther, and go down in history.
Just thinking about it, he blushed and refocused his attention back on the talks they were having. No matter how much he was determined to pick up as much as he could, he could hardly kid himself that far lying villages food distribution was interesting. Mistakenly, he caught Morgana’s eye and looked immediately up to the ceiling to stop himself from laughing at the look in her eyes. Across the room, Leon started to snicker, and excused himself.
His father turned to him disdainfully and he apologised. Before he could leave, however, four guards stormed into the room, breaking up the circle of counselors. Between them they carried two men brutally. No, one was barely his age!
“What is this?” His father demanded, eyes wild.
Arthur knew what was about to happen, had see it a million times before. But there was something different this time. Maybe it was the way the younger boy stood there, almost crouched on bird-like legs, looking rather like a deer caught by a crossbow. He looked up at Arthur through his eyelashes, and there was a look in his eyes that pleaded him for help.
“We caught them in the lower town. They were practising sorcery, Sire,”
“What were they doing?” Uther glared down at the man, who was straggly, with greasy black hair and a tousled beard. “As much as I have no doubt,” He emphasised the last two words, eyes flashing dangerously, “that this man is a sorcerer, there has to be some charge.”
The man glared back up at Uther, his chin jutting out proudly. Arthur almost felt that it was mighty stupid of the man to look so proud as he was help on the floor by knights of a kingdom set on his destruction. “He was carrying a magical artifact, sire. Here it is,” Sir Edwin passed him a necklace as if it was molten hot.
“Gaius?” Uther said, calling the old man over to him, who seemed to snap out of a trance, staring at the pair as if he’d seen a ghost. “Is this magical?”
Looking intently at it, Gaius swallowed before answering, “No, sire, I do not believe this is magical.”
Uther looked dangerously at the man, and Sir Edwin haisened to correct him, “He was creating light with it, and he let it bleed over the man in front of him. Sire, I saw it with my own eyes,”
“Sir Edwin, I believe you as I have previous run ins with this repulsive sorcerer. Usually, Gaius,” He turned to the man, making a slightly apologetic face at him, “I would believe you. But as you know, this man, this, this, repulsive man, this rat, I know him.” Arthur tried to shy away, he was almost scared of his father when he began to rant like this. Even Gwen, Morgana’s serving girl, had turned into Morgana’s protective arm. She was looking at Uther with a furious look. “He ruined my life, so I am going to end him. Tomorrow, a first light, you will burn at the stake.” Although it was exactly as he expected the trial to go, he was still shocked at the rapid sentencing. “And you,” Uther rounded on the boy, and for some reason Arthur felt a protective instinct over him, wanting to jump out of his throne and throw his arms in front of him. “You will rot in our cells until I decide what to do with you. You can know you mentor will die tomorrow morning. You can probably feel the life drain out of him, you feral creature!” He smacked him across the face, knocking the feeble boy to the ground.
“Father!” he jumped up, not knowing why or caring for the consequences, “Please just sentence them and be done with it. I understand they are cruel, merciless sorcerers, but you can be done with it without hurting them. Please father?”
“You fail to understand the strength it takes to run a country. But this trial is done now. Geoffrey, bring me out a death notice. Sir Edwin, take this man down to the dungeons. Sir Thomas, you know where to take the boy. Quickly.” He swept out of the room, leaving everyone else to ether follow him or look around at each other awkwardly. Leon stepped out from behind the door, and after a few significant looks between him and Morgana, they both left the room. Waiting two minutes, he followed them, nodding at Gaius as he left.
“So how are we going to rescue him?”
It was the first time he’d properly gone completely against his father, and he didn’t like any part of it. Not the thrumming of his guilty heart against his ribs. Not the darkness and seclusion of the disgusting old tunnels whose ceilings looked like they could collapse and bury him alive in a second.
He had never felt less like a prince, wearing Gwen’s brother’s clothes and holding an iron lantern that had burnt his fingers when he’d first picked it up. He now held it in a rag. Slowly, he edged closer to where he could hear guards playing dice. Although it was in a distance, he felt he couldn’t be too careful. Hoping to the gods that Leon and Morgana’s distraction would work, he hung back.
When they went quiet, and there was a clattering of a man falling down. Then the quiet sound of tapping followed by a whistle. He breathed in deeply and walked down the passage. Along the walls were prisoners in cells carved into rock. They were all either heavily asleep or dead, except three at the end. In one there was a rotting carcass stinking out the tunnel and he pulled his shirt over his nose, attempting to mask the smell. Then a woman, stark naked, crouched and scrabbling at the straw strewn floor as if she was set on building a tunnel. She was skeltal, and she seemed to be in a trance. Next to her, there was a barely touched plate that was more mould than edible food.
He wanted to vomit. Surely his father be so cruel, he couldn’t know about this. But even as he thought this, something didn’t add up and he couldn’t convince himself that his father was ignorant, that he had no idea of the horrors that he inflicted upon these poor people daily. They didn’t even resemble something human anymore. He really was this cruel. If he didn’t have a mission, someone to save, he could fall to the floor and curl until he died, such was the weight of his father’s betrayal.
Instead of looking into detail of one, he glanced quickly, looking for the individual form of the boy. Right at the end, shackled up new looking chains, was the boy. Arthur’s hand shook as he took the keys out of his jacket. A rattling noise echoed around the chamber and he tried to quiet it down. The guards above may be asleep, but if they woke up he would be dead.
As the door opened silently, the boy looked up, slight hope glittering in his otherwise dull eyes. Once Arthur got closer, he saw they were a beautiful deep orange brown in the lamplight.
The boy followed his eyes fearfully as he draw nearer, and he crouched in front of him. Arthur couldn’t help wondering what horrors he had been subjected to in the three days he had been here to make him that fearful of anyone to walk through the door. He put his hands up in a surrender to show he meant no harm and the boy’s eyes relaxed slightly. In his nerves, his father’s voice came to him, ‘Do not ever trust a sorcerer. They will destroy and mutilate you from within.’
Ignoring it, he took the boys hand and gently turned them over to release the chains. Holding his breath, he turned the key and the shackles dropped to the floor. This seemed to spur more life into the boy, he eagerly presented his other hand to Arthur. Casing him a smile to push away his father’s voice, he unlocked the last one.
Above the cells, up hundreds of stairs, the alarm bell started to peel. Exchanging a panicked look with the boy, he draped the boys arm over his shoulder and ran out of the room, back down the passageway, just before the yells of the guards started to be heard in the cell block. They had to walk like crabs down a particularly thin bit of passage, but this ensured the knights could not reach them. An hour later and they were spat out just outside the lower town. Guards patrolled the streets, strewn with sawdust and horse shit. They ducked into some shadows, and he nearly held him up. He turned to face the boy properly, who has taking big breaths of clean air. “Where will you go? Who are you? Why did your father seem to know mine?”
Looking slightly overwhelmed and tense, the boy opened his mouth, “I-I’m Merlin,” his voice had a slight lilt to it, and it was scratchy with misuse. “Gaius,” he said, then collapsed into Arthur’s arms. His back wounds had reopened, and fresh blood drenched his blue shirt a darker, glistening red.
The lantern went out as it hit the floor, and there was a clang. There was a shout and Arthur panicked, picking up Merlin and cradling him as he jogged away.
He knew of another passage, a bit deeper into the woods, that led to Morgana’s chambers. These hadn’t been touched since the Du Bois family fled a burning Camelot. Walking through them, he remembered Geoffrey’s story. His mother’s family had pulled Camelot for several generations, until his father and grandfather had taken over it. On a cold, winter’s eve, they’d attacked, killing the best knights known to the Du Bois family. As soon as the word reached the citadel of the attack, the Queen had fled with her Children, leaving his Uncles Tristan and Agrivaine, and her husband behind to defend the castle. They’d gone through here, running down and out into the woods. Apparently sneaking behind the camp of soldiers.
Then his grandfather had been killed, ran through in a last push to keep the castle by a final knight. Two weeks later, his father had held his uncles and the king hostage, demanding Ygraine for the men’s life. When she refused, he killed her father, and had her kidnapped. All this he’d read in one of Geoffrey’s books that he had stolen, the man being terrified to say anything of this had his father found out about him.
Another few weeks and they’d been married.
When he was younger he’d found it romantic, his hero father doing all he could for true love. But now, as he trapessed through the damp passages, the memory of who his father treated prisoners burnt into his mind, he knew it was just another mockery of the Du Bois family.
Next to him, Merlin stirred, something different than the automatic rise and fall of his chest. The passage had become far more inclined and he found himself willing Merlin to wake up so he didn’t have to carry his weight. When he rounded a corner and saw a crack of light from above him, he nearly cried in relief. Set into the walls were iron ruts. He set Merlin down on the ground tenderly, and the boy seemed to cling on to him.
He climbed them and peaking through a small gap. Behind it, he saw two partially obscured figures. One he recognised immediately as Morgana, which confirmed that he had gotten the correct tunnel.
When Gwen walked past the gap he looked through and she seemed to be pacing, her footsteps echoing into the passage. “Gwen, he’ll be fine. Worse case is, Arthur spends a night in the gaol.”
“But you know he’s always scared down there. He tries to act tough but it scares him. The dark. It doesn’t sound like him, but I had to bring him food when he was locked in the dungeons for the night. He was terrified.”
Not wanting to eavesdrop anymore, he knocked and whispered, “It’s Arthur! I’ve got him! Let me in!” They both nearly jumped out of their skin and rushed to the door. A click and he was looking at their beaming but worried faces.
“Well done! Where is he?”
“Down here! Help me get him up?” When he looked back down at Merlin, his eyes were open and looking at his properly with a kind of reverence that settled in her stomach. “You’re awake,”
“You saved me?” He said in his cracked and water-deprived voice.
He jumped back down and Morgana looked over the 4 foot ledge. “You’re ill,” he felt his burning forehead, “Come on, let’s get you water and food,”
In five minutes, he was laying on Morgana’s bed, the curtains drawn around them should anyone arrive unannounced. Arthur sat next to Merlin propping him up as Morgana help pouring water down his throat. Gwen had gone down to get broth and bread as if for Morgana.
There was a knock at the door and they looked at each other. This couldn’t be Gwen.
When Morgana answered, Arthur stayed out of sight of the door.
“Morgana. We’re looking for Arthur. He disappeared. I assume you heard the bell?” He felt like he’d been doused in cold water, his father was at the door.
“Uther. Arthur is right here. I was frightened by the bell so he stayed instead of going to find out the cause. Why was it going off?” As soon as his name was mentioned, he walked towards the door to face him. He thought how amazing she was, lying to Uther’s face.
“Hello, father,” trying to sound as casual as Morgana did, he set a small smile to Uther.
“Ah, Arthur. You weren’t in your chambers and the guards stationed near it had been knocked out. But you’re ok.”
“I’m ever so sorry I scared you. Might I be permitted to stay with Morgana for a while. She’s rather shaken.” He asked, imitating the ernest way Morgana spoke to Uther.
“Of course. I’ll have bedding delivered up here soon enough and you can stay the night. It’ll be good for both of you.” Arthur thanked him and he walked off, ordering bedclothes be delivered by a young servant polishing brass in the corridor.
The door shut and they returned to the ailing boy, who was warmer than before, and shaking now. There was a wound on his leg that was bleeding over the sheets. “How do we stop this?”
“We need to bind it,” She went to the closet and pulled out a sleeping shirt. “I’ve already got blood on this, bind it with this.”
“Why were you bleeding?” When Morgana glared at him, he gave it up and wrapped Merlin’s wound up the way Gaius had taught him to do first aid. “Can we tell Gaius?”
“Arthur. Are you as mad as a march hair?” She asked incredulously, and he was prevented from answering this by a knock at the door at the door, and Gwen’s small voice asking to be let in.
“There’s bedding out there? Why?” She said as she came in. Balancing two trays of food for them all and a meaty broth.
“Oh, good, I’ll bring it in, Gwen.” Morgana left Arthur still holding a semi-conscious Merlin, who was being helped to eat by Gwen. He shuddered and Arthur wiped a dribble of broth that he’d struggled to swallow from his chin.
“Are you sure we can’t tell Gaius? I’m sure he’d understand. Geoffrey told me stories of before the purge, Gaius was a magic user. He gave it up but he might still be sympathetic. Plus when I asked where I should take him, he said Gaius.”
Although Morgana seemed to immediately dismiss him, but Gwen considered him for a moment, “You know I’m sure he would. Plus, we can’t keep him alive without making Uther suspicious. We don’t know enough.”
“Think about it, Morgana-”
There was another knock at the door and they hid Merlin before going to open it. Gaius stood on the other side of the door, his medical pack in his room. “Uther sent me. Said the Lady Morgana was feeling scared and likely to have nightmares.”
Before Morgana could protest, Arthur dragged him in with a finger at his lips. Morgana shot him a dangerous look but he ignored her, pulling the man over to where Gwen was sponging Merlin’s forehead. “Oh, Merlin!” He gasped and Arthur looked confusedly at him.
“You know him?”
“The man, his wife is my sister’s daughter. I’m his great uncle. That’s why I lied to your father. But it didn’t do anything.” He looked sadly at the boy, who’s eyes were struggling to focus on Gaius. Then he jumped into action, cleaning the wound as he spoke. Arthur took his place behind Merlin. “How did you get him out?”
“I-I don’t even know. It just… happened.”
“Well I’ll see what I can do for him,”