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Pride of the Fallen

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It happens after he (accidentally!) causes Morgana to fall down the stairs. Look, okay, he brought her back, and she didn’t need to know. But she has this look like…like she does know. Time and again, he catches her smirking at him as if she’s reading every single one of his secrets, and figuring out which one would be the best to tell, and to whom. He tells himself he’s just being paranoid, he tells himself that it’s the guilt talking.

But is it, though?

She seems to be spending rather a lot of time with Arthur. And that, by itself, is cause for worry. She could be doing— anything. Good gods, she could be killing him, for crying out loud! He usually seems fine, and Merlin usually makes it before anything can happen, but it only takes one time. One time, to be too late. One time, and Arthur is dead, and for the love of Camelot, the gods, and every single living soul in the kingdom, Merlin cannot let that happen.

So, every time she leans in to whisper in Arthur’s ear, Merlin leans in to listen. Every time she slips into Arthur’s chambers, Merlin finds a reason to be there, as well. It works really, really well, for the first couple of weeks.

Until it doesn’t.

It doesn’t happen all at once, no. It’s a slow process— an exasperated sigh here, a scowl there, nothing too unusual, until it seems…well, it seems like Arthur can’t even stand to be around him, to be honest. There are eyes on his back, constantly, while he’s working. Their conversation has dwindled down to almost nothing, and every time Merlin teases him, the prince glares, actually glares back at him as if Merlin just killed his dog or something.

And the questions. Arthur didn’t used to be so damn…perceptive. He would believe whatever he was told; it had never actually dawned on him to check the tavern, first of all. But now, oh, now he was, supposedly. Now he was actively looking for his servant, and, well, obviously, it’s not like Merlin could tell the man where he went, not without telling him the secret he’s been protecting since he was a baby, that is.

It would be a whole lot easier to deal with if he didn’t feel constantly under watch. Even off duty, he feels the eyes on his back. He’s tried telling Gaius, but his guardian merely tells him that he’s stressed. He is stressed, that much is true, but if Gaius saw what Merlin saw, knew what Merlin knew…

Still, Arthur and Merlin grow further and further apart.

Arthur and Morgana grow closer and closer together. Which, honestly, weirds Merlin out, now that he knows of— The Thing. The sibling thing. But, there’s no way for Arthur to know, as he wasn’t there. And…there’s no way for Morgana to know, as she was unconscious— right? So while it’s weird, and while Merlin hates it for more than just that reason, it…sorta makes sense? 

Pretend he didn’t think that.

And still, it gets worse. At least, Merlin thinks it does. Arthur has always been a physical person, yes, and Merlin is used to gentle shoves and a hand pulling him back by his shirt. What he isn’t used to, is a hand around his wrist so hard that it leaves a gods forsaken bruise. What he isn’t used to, is being bodily shoved to the side, and, on one occasion, a much-harder-than-usual smack to the back of his head when he broke something, completely on accident.

Part of him wants to ask what the hell is going on.

Part of him is terrified. 

The biggest part of him, is willing to stick this out. Because, well, it could be worse.

And oh, how right he was. Right enough that he should’ve gotten out when he could. 

 


 

“Where are you going.”

As per usual nowadays, it comes out as a demand, rather than a question. Merlin, finished with his chores, fed up, and ready to go home and sleep, turns to him, eyes narrowed, and spits,

“Home. I’m done for the day.”

Bad idea.

“Did I say you were done?”

“No, but—,”

“Then you’re not done.” Arthur regards him, his normally kind and inviting eyes narrowed into slits, as if— as if he were the wolf, and Merlin were the hapless dear.

Oh, gods, Merlin, never again use that analogy.

“I’m sorry.” Merlin says, fighting hard to keep his voice level. “Is there anything else you need, My Lord? ” Again, a horrible idea, but he really can’t resist. Arthur doesn’t respond immediately, but his lips curve into an even deeper frown for a moment, and his eyes narrow even further. He’d almost look ridiculous if he wasn’t so terrifyingly unpredictable.

“So where do you head off to, after you’re dismissed?” Arthur questions.

That’s certainly out of the blue…

“Home, to Gaius…” Merlin answers, warily. “We sit down to supper, and usually I go to bed right after.”

“Mmhm…and you study as well, correct? Gaius has taken it upon himself to teach you how to read?”

“Yes…”

Why does he feel as if he’s on trial?

“What do you study?”

“Well— his life’s work, mostly. Anatomy, medicine…”

“No old texts?”

“I’m sure some of them are quite old…? Gaius is no spring chicken, after all.” That was the wrong answer. Clearing his throat, Merlin continues with, “So, anyway, what does it matter? I know I work for you and all, but I hardly think that my private life is any of your business, and I was, originally, supposed to be Gaius’ apprentice, so…”

Going by the glare he receives, Merlin decides it best to stop talking.

“So you don’t study out of this, then?”

The book— correction, Merlin’s book, the one he received from Gaius— is slammed onto the table with such ferocity that the boy can’t help but flinch. Okay, don’t panic, just play dumb.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life.”

“Oh? Then how come Morgana found it in your room?”

Play dumb!

“I…don’t know. Maybe someone— planted it there? Obviously someone who doesn’t like me! I mean, what would I need with a book like— like that? What even is that? I don’t even know what it is!”

Smooth.

Arthur stands, and it’s a swift, deadly, snakelike motion. Again, Merlin finds himself flinching, and wondering why he’s furthest from the door. Should he try to make a run for it? He should try to make a run for it.

He doesn’t trust that look in Arthur’s eye. Not one bit. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, or why he’s as frightened of Arthur as he is in the moment, but something in him tells him that he should get out of here as soon as he’s able.

Arthur takes a step forward, Merlin takes a step back. His heart pounds a tattoo in his chest— and he feels not unlike a frightened doe before a hunter.

Oh, but that’s rather sick, isn’t it? Again, with the deer analogies. Is gallows humour really appropriate in this situation?

They continue this strange dance of theirs until Merlin’s back hits the wall. Every instinct in him tells him to flee, get out of there, now, even if you have to use your magic, just go, because this— this isn’t right. It’s more than just off, it’s wrong. Everything about this is wrong. And Arthur’s face is close, too close, and even the smell of his breath tells Merlin that he’s not safe, this is wrong, it’s all wrong, it’s—

“Arthur?” his voice shakes, and he feels as if he’s about to cry. But no— no he can’t. He’s not a child. He’s a big boy now, and a warlock to boot. He won’t cry about the monster under the bed, even as it stares him in the face, smirking cruelly and caging him in with his arms. “My…my Lord?”

As if that’ll make it any better.

“What are you doing?”

“You see, Merlin.” it's far from the first time that the prince has put annoying emphasis on the first half of Merlin's name, but something in Arthur’s voice has Merlin shivering. And not in the good way, either. “I know something you don’t know.”

“And what’s that, then?”

The door opens. And Merlin really doesn’t need to see her smirking at him right now. 

“Finally.” Morgana is muttering. “I’ve been waiting for weeks. Have you told him yet, or are you just taunting the poor boy?” Merlin half expects her pupils to narrow into slits, as she regards him. 

“I was just waiting for you, Sister Dear.”

Told him…Sister Dear…oh good gods. So they know, then. How in the hell do they know?

“Told me…” he swallows. “Told me what?”

He’s not liking where this is going. Not one bit. 

“The funny thing about being in a deep sleep, Merlin.” Morgana starts, and the poise with which she says it is bothersome. “Is that you can still hear everything that goes on around you. And let me tell you, I heard some particularly troublesome conversations.”

“Such as…?”

He just had to ask.

“Father’s adultery, for one."

Has he mentioned just how bad Arthur’s breath smells? Which shouldn’t be on his list of concerns right now, but the man is right there in his personal space.

“You see, I would thank you for healing the ailment that you caused, but— oh, Arthur, would you back up, please? I can’t see his face.” well, at least Merlin can breathe, now. “But seeing as how you could’ve told me a whole lot sooner,” she continues. “Like, say, when I first came into my powers and thought I was going mad? Oh, no, I remember now. You poisoned me, instead.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” he repeats, choosing to ignore that last bit, and how Arthur hardly seems surprised by it. “You must have dreamt it was me.”

“Still going with that, then?” Arthur sighs. “I knew you were an idiot, but I thought you’d at least own up to this.”

“There’s nothing to own up to.”

Arthur and Morgana share an amused glance, as if unable to believe that Merlin could be such a dolt, and oh good gods, they’ve proof, don’t they? Not just the book, which, aside from their word against his, is the only thing they have to show the king.

So, he’s screwed anyway. Arthur gives the word to Uther and there’s a pyre with Merlin’s name on it.

“So I take it you’ve never attempted to scry before?” Morgana asks.

“It’s actually rather entertaining.” Arthur murmurs, and Merlin doesn’t have time to unpack that, even if he wished to. Really, the only thing that sticks out in his mind is,

“You spied on me?”

But really, should he be so surprised? Morgana, at least, he expected this from. In fact, she’s giving him a look that says the same exact thing he’s thinking. The only thing he should be concerned with is how utterly screwed he is.

“Well, we needed to be sure.” Morgana responds, voice sickly sweet. “We have plans, after all, and we needed to know if you’d be of use, or not. And, well, you will be.”

Oh gods

“And how will I be of use, exactly?”

“Because you’re going to kill the king.” Arthur says. “Obviously.”

Wait a minute.

“And if I refuse?”

“Don’t be dense. It’s him or you, Merlin. What’s it to be?”

A very good question. Is it selfish of him to put his own life over the king’s? Surely, if he refuses, they’ll merely get him killed, and kill Uther anyway. And besides, it’s not as if he’d be doing the world a disservice, by killing such a terrible person. Maybe…maybe with Arthur or Morgana on the throne, Camelot will be a safer place for magic users. Morgana has her faults, yes, and she’s kind of a bitch, yes, but at least she understands the plight of the Gifted.

But still… kill him? He can’t…he refuses to take a human life, even if it’s Uther’s.

“Why don’t you just kill him yourself?” He questions.

“Because then who would we pin it on?” Morgana huffs. “And besides, I don’t like to get my hands dirty. And this is a new dress."

“So, basically, what I’m hearing is, I’m dying either way?”

“Essentially.”

Fuck.

“…what would you have me do?”

 


 

The handle of the dagger is cold against Merlin’s already sweaty palm. He grips it tighter, as it slips in his hand, and steps lightly, aware of every sound his boots make against the stone floor. He’s not alone, either. He can feel two pairs of eyes boring into his back as the Pendragon siblings escort him to Uther’s chambers. The castle is quiet, and, save for the three of them and a handful of guards, nobody seems to be awake.

It’s been quiet, and thus, there is nobody guarding Uther’s door. Nobody to witness, save for his children, who ordered his death, and Merlin, who’s carrying out the sentence. With a shaking hand, he quietly opens the door, and, after seeing that neither Arthur nor Morgana are going to follow him in, gently shuts it behind him.

Slowly, dreamlike, he takes a step forward. And then another, and then another, until he’s standing over the sleeping monarch. As he looks down at Uther’s face, at the man who’s so awful during the day, he’s hit with a crippling sense of nausea. He’s about to commit high treason, after all, but it’s more than that. The man is asleep, and unaware of the danger which presents itself. 

How in the world did everything get so messed up?

Trembling now, he raises his arm, and presses the edge of the blade to the king’s neck, and oh, gods, he can’t do this. He can’t, he—,

“Merlin?” it comes out as a groan, slurred with sleep, and oh gods, he’s awake.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin whimpers. “I’m so sorry.”

“What the hell are you—?”

In one swift motion, the deed is done. And that’s it, he’s done it.

The King is dead.

Oh, gods, there’s so much blood. Miles and miles of red, and Merlin’s the one that put it there. It’s on his hands, it’s on the sheets, it’s on his shirt, on his face, it’s everywhere, he— he has to get out of here, this instant. If he doesn’t get out of here, the red will consume him, and he will no longer be Merlin, but a part of this sea of crimson, and there will be no escape for him.

He dashes out of the room, dropping the dagger with a resounding clang on his way out, sprinting past the smirking faces and down through the courtyard and out of the front gates. There’s no turning back, he’s done this, and the king is dead, and he can’t do anything other than accept what’s coming to him. He’s damned, and Morgana is damned, and Arthur is damned, and everything is fucked. They’ve gone past the point of no return.

He doesn’t know how long he runs for, but here, in the midst of the trees, is where he stops and vomits up what little contents his stomach possesses. But it doesn’t stop. He doesn’t stop heaving until his stomach is sore, until he’s sure there’s no more bile left for him to expel. He’s crying, he realizes, although he’s not sure how long he has been. But when his retching stops, his sobs continue, and the tears don’t stop coming.

Heavily, he falls to the ground, and tries to wipe his blood soaked hands on the grass. It’s an absentminded action, and he doesn’t realise how desperate his motions are until he looks down, and his hands are covered, not only in blood, but pieces of grass and flecks of dirt. Oh, he is so fucked.

He feels like he’s going to vomit again.

It occurs to him that he should speak to the Dragon. Standing, he reaches for that Inner Voice, and shouts the familiar words, and half-sprints, half-stumbles to the clearing.

He arrives first, as usual, and paces back and forth as he waits. He’s about to swipe his hands through his hair, when he catches sight of the crimson that still stain them. With a weak cry, he yanks his neckerchief off and wipes them as clean as they can be.

He can hear the familiar beat of wings before he can see the Great Dragon. He says nothing as Kilgharrah descends, and lands with a grace that never seems possible.

“What has happened?” to his credit, Kilgharrah sounds actually concerned for his well being, which doesn’t happen often.

“I did something.” Merlin croaks. “I did something awful.”

“Tell me.”

“I…you were right. I should’ve let Morgana die.” Merlin starts. “She’s twisted her way into Arthur’s head. He’s— he’s different. You should’ve seen him. I was afraid of him, I was terrified.” he admits. “They…they had me kill Uther, and I know I shouldn’t have! I should’ve just let them kill me, instead, and gods damn it! I’m fucked either way! I don’t know what to do, I— should I run? But where can I run to where they won’t find me?”

“Easy, Young Warlock.” Kilgharrah soothes. “It is not all that it seems.”

How!? ” Merlin demands. “Uther is dead, and I killed him! There’s blood on my hands, actual, real life blood! How do you mean to tell me that it isn’t what it seems!?”

Kilgharrah’s eyes narrow as they do when he’s appraising Merlin, or as they do when he thinks the boy is a great idiot. It could very well be both.

“Come.” he says at last, and gestures to his back with his great head.

After a moment’s hesitation, Merlin climbs up to Kilgharrah’s scaly back. He swears he hears the warning bells in the distance, and good gods that just makes everything that much more real. He can’t even enjoy their flight, worried that they’ll be seen and shot down, or something.

They don’t go too terribly far, and Merlin is grateful when he sees a body of water in the distance. He’s sliding off Kilgharrah’s back the moment he lands near the shore, and dipping his hands in the icy water, uncaring of the temperature. The blood washes off easily enough, and he moves on to clean his face in silence. Sitting by the water, he dips his dirtied neckerchief into the stream, and wrings out as much blood as he can.

It’s silent between the pair for several moments, until quietly, Kilgharrah says,

“There has been a change. A big one. I felt it some time ago.”

“Oh, yeah? When?”

“When you healed the witch.”

“Oh, perfect. So this is all my fault.”

“That is not what I am saying.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I am saying that the impossible has happened. Your destiny has changed, Merlin. To what extent, I am not sure.”

“Oh, wonderful, my inescapable destiny has changed! Great, and what is it supposed to be now? To die by Arthur’s hand?” 

Kilgharrah says nothing, merely stares at him. If Merlin didn’t know any better, he’d almost think that the dragon looked sympathetic. 

“Time will tell.” he murmurs. “Come, it is time to return.”

“…Can we stay here just a while longer? I’m not ready to go back yet.”

“Of course.”

 


 

It’s nearly dawn by the time Merlin trudges back towards the palace. Most everyone is still asleep, but there’s a tenseness in the air, one that Merlin’s sure isn’t just him. It’s not until he hears a shout in the distance, that he realises.

They’re looking for him.

“There he is!”

He remains in place as the guards advance on him, and raises his hands in surrender. Might as well admit his guilt.

“Have you found him?” Arthur sounds out of breath. He must’ve been running.

“Yes, Sire.”

“Good. Put him in the dungeons.”

Figures. At least from there he can get himself out before he’s inevitably sentenced to death.

He keeps his eyes trained on the ground as he’s frogmarched down to his cell. He should’ve supposed Gaius would be watching, but he’s not entirely sure he’d be able to handle looking the man in the eye. Even just catching a glimpse of him, Merlin feels his eyes mist over, and his chin wobbles with the effort to keep his composure. He hadn’t thought of that, really, of how to explain this to Gaius. There would be no time for goodbyes, he supposes. If he’s leaving, he has to leave quickly, and there’s no telling what he’d say or do if he stopped for Gaius, for the only man he’s ever known as a father.

He stumbles through the threshold of the cell, and keeps his back turned as the door clangs shut. He doesn’t even turn as he hears the lock click into place, and moves only to sit against the wall, head in his surprisingly steady hands. There’s a presence still standing by the entrance, and Merlin just wishes they’d go away

“Merlin, I just have to ask…” Leon starts, and Merlin glances over, eyes heavy. “Why? What the hell has the king ever done to you?”

Merlin can’t answer, can barely even look at him. Instead, he pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, staring straight ahead of himself at the stone wall. It’s silent for some time, Leon staring at him in calculating disbelief and Merlin refusing to acknowledge his existence. 

“Leon. Leave us.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

Again, Merlin refuses to look as Morgana enters his cell. He doesn’t even look as he hears her rattle what seems to be a link of chain. She scoffs, and when she kneels before him, she’s smirking as if this entire situation is a big joke to her.

“You were very useful.” she murmurs. “Thank you.”

He doesn’t need to hear this right now, and he certainly doesn’t wish to hear her gloat. He doesn’t even want to look at her right now, so rather than humour her, he turns his head to stare at the wan light of the dawn streaming in through the tiny window. 

Bad idea, it seems. The next thing he feels is sharp nails digging into his cheek, as Morgana fiercely grips his chin to turn his head, hissing,

Look at me.”

There’s such a contrast in their facial expressions, he thinks. He can feel himself snarling, lips curling and nose crinkling as he glares at her. And while her eyes are filled with malice, she’s grinning at him, a sick and twisted thing, as if his torment is amusing to her. As he attempts to yank himself out of her grasp, her nails dig in further, and he can visualise the blood pooling beneath the surface of his pale skin. 

“You’ve got what you wanted, Morgana.” he says, hoarsely. “Now let me be.”

“So grumpy.” she sighs. “Sending me away without seeing the gift I’ve gotten you. How very rude of you, Merlin.” her tone has him sick to his stomach, and he can’t quite pinpoint why he hates it so, only that it makes his skin crawl. “They’re very pretty, I think you’ll like them.” he has no time to ask her what she means, before he feels the cool metal of shackles clamping around his wrists.

They’re unusual, he sees. The cuffs are thinner than he’s used to, etched with runes and inlaid with stones, a thin link of chain attaching them together. If he didn’t know any better, he’d almost think them attractive. 

“They’re designed to inhibit magic.” Morgana reports. “So you don’t get any ideas.”

They’re what now? Merlin’s disbelief must show, because Morgana laughs at him, and cradles his cheek in her palm. The funny-not-haha thing is that, two years ago, he longed for something like this, would’ve loved the soft touch of a lover from the woman before him. But now, it makes him physically ill, has him recoiling like it physically burns to be touched by her.

“We can’t have you running away, now, can we?” she coos, her tone taking on that sickly sweet quality yet again. He looks into those eyes of emerald, he searches for the girl he used to know, but she’s dead and gone. He’d poisoned her, all those months ago, and now…now there’s no trace of her. In her place is this…this monster, one that well and truly terrifies Merlin down to his core. 

“Please,” he whispers, and curses his voice for trembling so. “Just leave me alone.” she coos at him again, features contorting in mock sympathy, before she pats his cheek and stands, breezing out of his cell and away from the dungeons. 

If it weren’t for the sunlight streaming in, Merlin would have no way of telling how much time has passed. The longer he waits, the more his discomfort grows. Why the hell is this taking so long? Planting more evidence, are they?

He feels like he should pray, or something. He was never much one for prayer, to be honest. He’d always felt as if the gods were making a mockery of him, in recent years, like they laugh at him every time he prays to them, because what’s the point? Here’s your inescapable destiny, boy, don’t ask for our guidance!

But right now, he could use a bit of guidance. 

Only he can’t concentrate, and every time the words come to his lips, the shackles around his wrists burn him. It’s nothing too severe, but he daren’t try to use his magic to test just how much they could hurt him. 

He doesn’t look up, when his cell unlocks yet again. He’s sure this time it’s final, that the guards will bring him to the courtroom where Prince— no, King now— Arthur will sentence him to the gallows. He doesn’t want to look upon the face that condemns him. But when a soft and familiar voice speaks his name, he’s scrambling to stand up, to run over to Gaius and hug him one last time.

“Merlin…” Gaius murmurs, and good gods does he sound so confused. “What the hell is going on?”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he’s all but throwing himself at his guardian. It’s awkward, and Merlin has to throw the chain over Gaius’ head, but that doesn’t matter, because as he buries his face in the physician’s shoulder, he feels safe for the first time in days.

“It’s so messed up.” he finds himself sobbing. “Gaius, it’s all so messed up.”

Gaius doesn’t answer either, not at first, but wraps soothing arms around his ward. This time, Merlin doesn’t mind being comforted like a child, with soft hushes and a reassuring embrace. This time, he doesn’t mind that he’d been so afraid, because here is the grownup to make it all go away.

Oh, but…he can’t make it all go away, can he?

Regardless, Merlin is ever so glad for his presence. 

“I’ve been so worried.” Gaius tells him as they part. “They found that dagger in your room, and—,”

“‘Course they did.” Merlin huffs. “Of bloody course they did.” he lets out a mirthless chuckle, and runs his hands through his hair. 

“Merlin?”

“Not that it matters.”

“Merlin.”

“Hmm?”

“What are those?”

The question slams him back into reality. The reality where he can’t use his magic and everything is messed up and there’s no way to fix it. And good gods is he sick of crying, but as Gaius grabs hold of his arms, as he inspects the shackles, as his jaw drops in horror and recognition, tears are something that, though annoying, can’t be helped. 

“It’s all so messed up.” he repeats, voice nothing but a hoarse whisper, as he looks anywhere but Gaius’ eyes. “Apparently, Morgana could still hear us while she was asleep. I…don’t know how, I don’t know if she’s enchanted him or what, but she’s twisted Arthur. I can hardly recognize him, Gaius.”

Gaius stares at him for a long time, and says nothing. The unfortunate thing, is that Merlin can practically see the wheels turning in his head, and before he can say anything to discourage the man from taking action, Gaius says,

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this, my boy.”

“No, don’t.” Merlin pleads. “I…this isn’t something you can take care of. I committed treason, Gaius, I— murdered Uther. There is no taking care of this, unless you want to end up like this.”

But what’s terrifying, is that he knows Gaius would do it. He knows Gaius would give his life up before Merlin’s. 

“Please, just, don’t.”

“…alright.”

Oh, but why does that feel like a lie?

 


 

It’s nearly evening by the time a guard comes to collect Merlin and escort him to the courtroom. It occurs to him, as he stumbles up the stairs, that he hasn’t slept in almost two days. Pity, that. Well, he’d always suffered from sleeplessness anyway, until arriving in Camelot, where he found that a simple sleeping draught, similar to the one prescribed to Mogana, helped him sleep just fine. So really, it’s nothing he’s unused to.

Not that it matters, given that he’s dying either way.

Not even his knees cracking on the floor as he’s forced to his knees jars him back to the real world. Everything is garbled and warped, like he’s underwater, and it’s not just because he’s tired. This is it, he realises. This is what it feels like to give up, completely. 

His eyelids are heavy as he looks upon the Disturbed Duo. Through his haze, he reckons that if nothing else, at least they’re convincing actors. Arthur looks…tired, shocked, disconsolate. Morgana’s eyes are red from crying, and if he looks close enough, he can see that she still is, and dabbing her wet face every now and then with a handkerchief. And perhaps it’s because he knows the truth, but all Merlin can think is,

Oh, please.

The courtroom seems fuller than normal. Makes sense, given that the king was just murdered in cold blood. Dare he look around? He expected Leon to be staring at him in the way he is, all confusion and something that doesn’t quite look like loathing, but it’s close. But, and here’s the bit that breaks his heart, Gwen is there, eyes shining with unshed tears, silently asking him how he could ever do something so terrible.

He decides it best to look at the Mad Ones, even if he hates them.

“You know what you are charged with?” Arthur asks, and his voice is clear and strong as usual, but there’s a hint of a tremor that, if the situation were different, Merlin might actually congratulate him for.

“Yes, I do.” Merlin answers, voice barely above a whisper.

“The evidence is certainly stacked against you. The bloody dagger was found in your room, and you were witnessed running from the palace. That in mind, how do you plead?”

Guilty.

“It was me.”

Funny, Merlin was going to say those words, but it wasn’t his voice.

“I was the one who killed the king.” Gaius steps forward, and Merlin, unblinking, opens his mouth to protest, but the look on Gaius’ face stuns him into silence “I snuck into his chambers and cut his throat as he slept, and I hid the knife in Merlin’s chamber in hopes nobody would find it.”

He sounds entirely too calm. He doesn’t even glance Merlin’s way, at his horrified expression. He remains level.

There’s that smirk on Morgana again. Arthur looks like he wants to but, to his credit, remains steadfast, playing the part of the grieving son.

“Gaius, what are you talking about? We know it was Merlin, there’s no need to protect him. In fact, I encourage you not to. He’s been lying to you, Gaius. Did you know he has magic? He’s been manipulating you the entire time. Clearly, he wanted revenge on the king.”

The collective gasp is a bit dramatic. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Gwen covering her mouth, eyes wider than he’s seen them thus far. Leon looks entirely too shocked, or maybe not quite shocked enough, Merlin can’t tell. But none of that is what he focuses on.

Take the out, he pleads silently, as if Gaius could hear him, take the out!

“No, Sire, I knew.” Gaius reports, still infuriatingly calm.

“Stop it.” Merlin warns.

“I knew that Uther would eventually find out.”

“Gaius—,”

“I’m sorry, Merlin.” and he does look really, truly sorry. “I only wanted to protect you.”

It’s horribly, horribly silent for several long, painful moments.

“Gaius, I…I don’t know what to say.” Arthur murmurs. “It’s with a heavy heart, that I must charge you with high treason. Take him away.”

It almost seems to happen in slow motion, and for a while, Merlin can’t find it within himself to even move.

“No!” the outburst is sudden, but expected. The moment he’s up off his feet, Leon’s arms are around his middle, holding him back with all his might. “Gaius, stop it! It was me! Tell them!”

Gaius says nothing. And he does not look at Merlin, not even as he’s dragged away.

The courtroom of hushed whispers is dismissed, and when Leon is sure that Merlin isn’t going to try anything, he slowly and carefully lets go. He stands there, staring at the door in disbelief, and tenses when a hand claps on his shoulder.

“I…Merlin, I’m sorry.” Leon murmurs. 

“Don’t.” he hisses back.

The hand leaves his shoulder, but the presence behind him remains for several seconds, before a sigh escapes the knight and he’s taking his leave with everyone else. It’s Gwen that catches his eye on her way out, and he can’t quite decipher that look on her face. It looks like something between…pity, and fear. Fear of him, or for him, he can’t tell.

When it’s only the three of them left in the room, he rounds on Arthur and Morgana with such anger he didn’t know he possessed. Not that it matters, as he doesn’t have his magic.

“What the hell are you playing at!?” he’s demanding. “You— Gaius is innocent. He knew nothing.”

Matching smirks from the siblings answer him. He shudders.

“This…” he murmurs, staring in disbelief. “This was your plan all along. You knew he’d lie to protect me! You knew he would! You wretched— !” he doesn’t know what he was going to do as he lunged forward, but seeing as how Morgana’s eyes flash gold, and he’s forced to his knees with a push of magic, apparently he didn’t have to make up his mind about it. 

“Gaius is a pawn.” Arthur is explaining. “Dispensable.”

“Is that what I am then, am I?” Merlin grunts. 

“No.” Morgana laughs, and her next words curl around him like smoke, clogging his senses and stealing the breath from his lungs: “You’re a dog, darling. Go fetch.”

“You’re despicable.” he spits.

“Oh, how you flatter me so.” her shoes produce a rather menacing sound as they click on the floor, slowly, calculatingly, as she steps toward him. “And besides…” again, he finds himself recoiling from her touch as she uses her finger to tilt his chin. “It’d be an awful shame if you died. Right, Arthur? He is rather pretty.” She laughs as he jerks away, but that’s not even the worst part, is it? He’s come to expect this out of her, but he’s still not used to Arthur looking at him in such a way.

The predatory gaze is back with a vengeance, and Merlin feels the bile crawling its way up his throat again.

How in the hell is he meant to get through this?

 


 

Gwen is troubled.

No, scratch that, Gwen is outright disturbed. She’s known Morgana for a long time, long enough to know that she hasn’t been the same since she’s come back. She’s a convincing actress, Gwen will give her that. But there are moments, when she thinks nobody’s watching, and someone else, someone different from the kind girl that Gwen once called friend, will poke her way through. 

Everything seemed to fall into place much too easily during Merlin’s trial. It’s not just Morgana, she thinks, but Arthur, too. Something is different about them. Morgana’s tears seemed just a little too sorrowful, to the point where it seemed…fake. And Arthur, what the hell was that? Nobody in the entire kingdom got as much of the benefit of the doubt from the prince (king now, she supposes) as he gave Merlin. Oh, and her favourite part was where Morgana’s tears just suddenly stopped. She can’t have been the only one who noticed that. 

She runs to catch up with Leon in the corridor, thankful when he stops to acknowledge her.

“Alright, Gwen?”

“Is that a serious question?”

“Alright, good point. What’s the matter?”

“Do you…” she sighs in frustration, and scratches at her scalp with both hands. “Did you believe any of that?”

“Not a word.” he answers, honestly and quietly. “Merlin would never do something like that, and neither would Gaius. At least not without just cause.”

“Exactly.” she answers. “I…everything is so messed up, right now.”

“I know.” Leon murmurs. “But Gwen, can you do me a favour?”

“Anything.”

“Play along.” her shock must be evident, because he looks around, hurriedly, and ushers her into a servant’s corridor. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but we have to be…vigilant. I don’t trust Morgana as far as I can throw her and…I don’t know what’s happening with Arthur but he isn’t right.”

“Then why are you—?”

“Listen, Gwen, we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s best that, for now, we don’t arouse suspicion until we know for certain. I…I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

She can’t help but glare after him, in confusion, unsure of whether or not he’s acting on behalf of his friends or in self-interest. 

She flinches when she hears the courtroom door open, and, although she’s in the servant’s corridor and away from view, she finds herself hiding, regardless. She daren’t peek out, but she can’t help it, really, as the jangling sound of chains draws nearer. She remains as still as physically possible for her, holding her breath as the three come into view. And, gods , does her heart go out to Merlin.

This has…got to be the worst she’s seen him. His pale face is gaunt and weary, eyes hollow and sunken in, not that she can see much, as he shuffles forward with his head bowed. His hair sticks up in all different directions, as if he’s been running his hands through it restlessly, all night. Vaguely, she wonders when the last time he slept was.

Arthur and Morgana are no more than two steps behind him, and she stares at them as they pass, horrified to find that they both seem positively gleeful at the plight of their friend. Suddenly aware that she could easily be caught staring, she tears her eyes away and presses herself against the wall behind her. 

Is there a word stronger than disturbed?

 


 

Merlin is unsure whether or not it’s cruel that they allow him to see Gaius the next morning. 

He hadn’t slept a wink the night before. No sleeping draught to help him this time.

Or ever again.

He’s shaking by the time Arthur’s done escorting him to the dungeons. This clearly does not go unnoticed by the former, who openly rolls his eyes and all but shoves him into Gaius’ cell. 

“You have five minutes.”

There would never be enough time in the world, Merlin thinks. He supposes he should be grateful for even a couple of minutes. He can see the gallows through the window, and he’s sure Gaius can, too. The shadow must have loomed over him, in the night.

This time, as they embrace, there is no feeling of safety, or of comfort. That’s all gone, now, and it’s never coming back. Merlin can recall a moment like this before, with the Witchfinder, but it’s real this time. There will be no planting evidence, there will be no running around the citadel with Gwen, trying to save an old man’s life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that Merlin can do.

And oh, gods, does it hurt. There’s a physical ache in his chest, and that could be the heartbreak, or the gut wrenching sobs that come seemingly from out of nowhere.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” he sobs, and he finds himself repeating it over and over again, unable to form any other words except variations of those three.

“Listen to me, Merlin.” Gaius murmurs, pulling back (again, it’s awkward as he has to duck under the chain of the shackles that have yet to be removed) and setting his hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “No matter what happens, I need you to be strong, okay?”

Part of him detests being treated like a five year-old.

Part of him doesn’t want to be strong.

Mostly, he wants to be safe.

Instead of saying all this, he merely nods his head, not trusting himself to speak.

Entirely too soon, rough hands are dragging him away, no matter how hard he fights. And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s all over. He thinks maybe there’s got to be something he can do, but there isn’t, is there? Arthur and Morgana wish it, so it is. And there’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the siblings don’t take their eyes off of him. A similar thing happened the night before; Merlin had been kept under watch, and, although he didn’t sleep and his captors did, he daren’t try anything with those shackles locked about his wrists.

He doesn’t wish to watch; he’d like to do anything but. However, it seems he hasn’t got a choice. The beating of the drums syncs with the pounding in his skull, and he tries to match his breathing to it, to do something other than pant like, as Morgana would say, a dog, but that seems to be in vain.

Everything is in vain.

He’s vaguely aware that he’s babbling, making a scene, begging them not to do this. But it doesn’t matter what he says, or how he pleads.

The order is still given.

They can hear him all the way back in Ealdor, he’s certain, as anguished screams rip themselves from his core, and Gaius hangs lifeless by the gallows.