DISCLAIMER: Still don't own Merlin.
A/N: Here's the finale! Thank you so much for your support and reviews! Hope you guys enjoyed it! Please review!
"What?" Arthur shouted, making both knights wince. Fear raced through him. How could this have happened? How had it ever come to this – Merlin beaten at the order of Arthur's own father, about to be executed; Morgana the one responsible and happy about it… and the possibility of Merlin with magic? Nothing made sense anymore. The people Arthur thought he knew were showing their true colors and it scared him – truly, it did. And now his closest friend, accused of sorcery by a woman he thought he could trust with his life, about to be executed… No. That was not an option. "Where?"
"The courtyard, sire," Leon informed him with a dip of his head. "Since it's late, no one will be about and it will be done quietly. I don't think he wants to get the word out about Merlin's death because everyone knows how loyal he is to you, Arthur, and a lot of people like him."
"No," Arthur disagreed with the knight's theory, fire in his eyes. "He's just being a coward. He doesn't want to have to face me after what he's done. Thank you for telling me," the prince went on gravely. He dipped his head at Sirs Leon and Evan before running as fast as he could toward the courtyard, praying wildly that he wouldn't be too late to save Merlin.
Morgana had told him that he'd have to make a decision – Merlin or her – and Arthur was a bit surprised at how easy that choice had been. Morgana had made a mistake in trying to get Merlin tortured and killed for revenge. Poison or no poison, magic or no magic, Arthur simplyrefused to believe that his best friend was an evil sorcerer. And he was not going to let his father kill his servant and friend when he could do something to stop it.
He was done flitting between what others said and wanted – this time, Arthur Pendragon was going to do what was right, damn the consequences.
Merlin was in a haze of pain, not sure if anything that he thought was happening was actually real. Maybe everything he thought he saw was a hallucination, spawning from the whip and the agony it had wrought on his body. Even though his torturer had stopped whipping him a while ago, every time he took a breath he could feel the whip hitting him all over again.
At one point, he thought he saw Arthur, maybe even said his name, but that couldn't have happened. After all, Arthur had been there when Merlin was arrested for sorcery. Why would Arthur come to see him? Through his pain, he wondered if maybe Arthur didn't believe the accusations, or didn't care. Merlin thought that Arthur wasn't quite ready to know yet, but what if he was? Maybe Arthur had come to see him. Merlin just didn't know.
One thing he did know was if he wasn't hallucinating right now, he was in big trouble. Uther, along with several guards, had stormed into his cell a little while ago. Uther had grabbed his hair, pulling his head back as far as the shackle around Merlin's neck would allow, and said something about dealing with the problem immediately, since he wasn't going to talk. Merlin tried to tell the king, once more, that he wasn't an evil sorcerer, but all that came out was a whimper and a few disjointed syllables. Then he was unchained from the wall and dragged out of the room.
He was pretty sure that this was happening, that it wasn't just one big hallucination, because the guards' hands on his upper arms and wrists felt pretty darn real and the pain shooting across his bloody back with every forced step was too intense to be a dream. Other than what he was feeling directly, the sights and sounds as he was marched out of the dungeons, through some empty corridors, and toward the courtyard were surreal. He felt almost disjointed from reality.
When they reached the courtyard, Merlin realized what 'reality' was. The yard was empty, only Merlin, Uther, and some guards – and the platform and noose that had apparently been constructed earlier in the day just for him. Fear gripped him. Uther was going to kill him now? But… but…
His mind whirred as he simply tried to breathe through his panic. His magic was no longer restrained. He was out in the open; he could do magic again! He could escape, and run –
Despair filled him again. No, he couldn't run. Sure, his magic might allow him to break free of the guards for a little while, but he was severely injured, his back a mess of welts and cuts and bloody stripes from the whip. He was weakened, feverish, and in more pain than he'd ever experienced in his young life. If he thought he would be able to escape from Camelot alive, he was a fool.
Merlin was in a daze of pain and terror as he was all but carried onto the platform, made to stand on it, and then held upright by the guards since he could barely stand on his own. A third guard came forward and slipped the noose around his neck, tightening it just enough – there was a little slack, but not much. He would die quickly, but not instantly. He would suffer first. He found he wasn't very afraid at the idea of suffering. The emotional pain, knowing he was about to die and would never see Arthur again, or Gaius, or Gwen, was almost as overwhelming as the physical torment. His throat tightened and he began to panic in earnest, even though the executioner hadn't pulled the lever yet.
No, please, I don't, I don't want to die… he thought. Arthur, his mind pleaded desperately as he heard the king begin to tell Merlin what a wicked person he was and why he was being hung for sorcery – as if Merlin hadn't heard this speech a hundred times, before every execution of one of his kind he was forced to watch. For Camelot's sake, for Arthur's…
And then, Uther fell quiet and the moonlit darkness of the courtyard was blacked out completely as a rough sack went over his head. Merlin's heart was pumping furiously, fear overwhelming him. This was it, but this couldn't be it. Merlin had so much more to do, his and Arthur's destiny had not been fulfilled… He couldn't die here and now, alone save for Uther and some guards, hung in an empty courtyard in the dark of night… Arthur… Please…
The rough fabric of the sack was suffocating him, the air in the bag becoming too hot and thick to breathe. He realized that it wasn't actually the cloth over his face that was restricting his breathing, or the slackened noose around his neck – it was his own fear and desperation. He had to break free. He couldn't, he couldn't do this, not now… Terror rushed through his weakened body and he almost toppled over held up only by the executioner.
Uther was still talking but his speech was coming to a close. "…and for your crimes, sorcerer, and your unwillingness to cooperate with your king, you will be hung by the neck until dead."
Merlin's breath came in strangled gasps. This was the end. His magic rose, ready to lash out and protect him…
The voice was like that of an angel's, and if Merlin hadn't known Arthur for nearly three years now, he might have thought the speaker was one, too. At the moment, though, Merlin hadnever been so happy to hear his master's voice. If he had been completely coherent, or even semi-coherent through the pain and blood-curdling fear, he might have noticed the higher pitch of the other man's voice and the way his voice shook.
He could hear yelling, maybe even cursing, from both father and son, from where he stood – or rather leaned heavily on the guards – but couldn't make out much of what was being said. His mind was fuzzy, his vision fluctuating between blurriness and nothing at all. Not that there was much to see, anyway, with the sack over his head. He thought distractedly that he would rather see the back of his eyelids than the coarse fabric of the execution hood.
Arthur shouted something and Uther responded with such anger that Merlin was chilled to the bone with fear. And then – "Do it."
Merlin knew what he was talking about in an instant and his breath hitched. No no no no no…
Arthur's horrified scream echoed through the courtyard, through the castle, and rushed around Merlin's head, stunning the boy with its sincerity.
Arthur was begging now, his tone, although the words didn't make sense to Merlin's ears, pleading desperate.
A soft, "Please, Father," and suddenly the ground disappeared from under Merlin's feet and the rope dug into Merlin's neck as he fell. He choked, coughing, breathless, trying to move, to pull himself up, but his limbs were useless. His throat burned from the rope, his lungs gasping for air that simply wasn't there. Spots danced eerily in front of the warlock's eyes, decorating the interior of the bag with splotches of white and crimson that Merlin thought disjointedly were quite pretty.
His whole body hurt, his neck and his chest and his back, and he knew this was it, he was dying and nothing anyone did could stop it…
His eyes fluttered closed, the dots still prancing, and his struggles began to wane. Darkness consumed him, and there was silence.
When he woke up, he was confused.
First of all, he didn't understand how he was waking up because he was pretty sure he had just been hung.
Secondly, how was he in Gaius's chambers, lying on his stomach, his wounds wrapped and the pain slightly dimmed?
Finally, what the hell was Arthur doing slumped in Gaius's favorite chair, head lolling to one side, mouth slightly ajar, strange rumbling noises not unlike the feral snarl of a wild boar emanating from him? And Arthur said he didn't snore…
Merlin turned the strange thought away and shifted slightly, his battered back screaming in pain. He tried to move his head but quickly realized that his neck was a bruised, raw mess and that changing its position was just about as painful as his back. His voice was hoarse and his throat dry as he croaked as loudly as he could, which wasn't very loud at all, "Arthur."
Despite the softness of his tone, Arthur woke immediately, his blue eyes snapping open and locking onto his servant. Instantly the prince's face split into a relieved smile and he looked so relaxed now that if it hadn't been for the welts on his back and bruises on his neck, he would have sworn the past day had been a terrible dream. Merlin was beyond confused, his mind simply trying to wrap itself around what had happened and failing miserably. So, he did the next best thing – he asked.
"Wha… Wha' happened?"
Arthur's smile faltered slightly and his eyebrows gave a little frown as they drew together above the bridge of his nose. "What do you remember?"
Merlin hated it when people answered a question with another question – this kind of philosophical response was like a riddle, and the Great Dragon had completely exhausted Merlin's tolerance of riddles. Still, he strained his memory, his head pounding, and tried to differentiate between reality and pain-induced fantasy. He wasn't sure he could. "I…" he said, then broke off coughing. Arthur jumped up like he'd been slapped, grabbed a cup of something – water, Merlin found out as it was pressed to his lips by an oddly helpful prince – and allowed his servant to drink a few sips. "Thanks," Merlin rasped, his throat a bit less painful when he spoke. He supposed hanging from a noose would do that to a person.
Arthur shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "Well?" he prompted.
"I… the k-king…" Merlin shuddered and the shivers jerked the lacerations on his back painfully. He gritted his teeth and sucked in a breath through them, waiting out the worst of the twinge until he could speak again. "H-he ordered… whip… execution…" His panic made his voice hitch and he began to hyperventilate. He'd lived his worst nightmare, being executed for his magic, but somehow he'd managed to survive it and was here talking to Arthur about it. The guilt on the prince's face was tangible.
"You don't have to answer," the prince said quickly, averting his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Merlin said softly, trying not to think about his ordeal. "But I don't understand. How am I… still alive?"
Arthur flushed. "I didn't know what was going on, I still don't know much of anything."
"Nothing's changed there, then," Merlin quipped weakly, and Arthur couldn't help but smile. Leave it to Merlin to put a bit of humor into the most desperate of situations.
"Shut up," Arthur said automatically, a wan grin coming and going, before he went on. He told Merlin everything that had happened since the servant had been dragged from the throne room – the confrontations with Morgana, the accusations, the uncertainty. When he got to the part where Merlin was being executed, his voice was low and dark. "I got there right as father was about to hang – to do it," he amended, not looking in Merlin's eyes. "I tried to get him to stop, but he wouldn't listen. He pulled the lever and you—" He broke off, trying and failing to keep the tremor out of his voice. He cleared his throat.
"I stopped trying to reason with him. I yelled, cursed, screamed at my father, ordered him to stop the madness, told him that it was all a mistake and that if he didn't let you down, I'd never forgive him… ever." He looked royally embarrassed at this point and refused to meet his servant's eyes. "Then you stopped struggling and I knew you didn't have much longer, so I did the only thing I could… I threw my dagger and it sliced through the rope and you fell to the ground. Father was… he was furious. He was going to run you through, and at this point I didn't even know if you were even still alive." His voice shook.
He chuckled softly. "I must have woken up the whole castle with my protests," he said, "and to my surprise, a crowd began to gather, surrounding the gallows. It was full of people, your friends, those who abhorred the way you'd been treated by my father. Guinevere, Gaius, many of the knights, and bunch of villagers and servants I don't know." He shook his head.
"When my father saw how much of a stir your death would cause, and how even some knights of Camelot and the court physician were standing up for you, he relented. Even I'm surprised at the mass of people that wanted to stand up for you – seems you've made quite an impression on the citizens of Camelot, Merlin." His words were teasing but his tone was proud. He decided to talk to Morgana again, one more time, just to be safe – he didn't want some sort of uprising on your account, I guess – and for some reason, she changed her story. Said she didn't see right, that she was confused. A headache made her see things or something. I dunno if she changed or had another motive or…"
"No," Merlin said, shaking his head, wincing, and remembering that he shouldn't do that. "She knows you know how much she hates me and that you suspect her. She said too much, revealed too much. She's playing it safe, trying to give you some time to forget her outburst, trying to mellow everything out again." He paused. "She's just covering her tracks."
Arthur sighed. "I don't know all that's going on, but I do see that not all is as I thought. I'm not sure who I can trust anymore."
Merlin looked at his master seriously, two sets of blue eyes locked on one another. "You can trust me," he said. "I swear."
And Arthur knew it was true. Magic or no magic, whatever the story, whatever was going on, he knew without a doubt that it was true. He'd find out more later, when Merlin felt more like talking, but for now Arthur contented himself with the knowledge that no matter the twists of fate ahead that there was at least one person he could always count on. And he swore to himself and to his servant that the opposite would always be true – no matter what, Merlin would be able to count on Arthur.
A/N: That was a fun story to write! Thanks so much for your reviews! :) Please review one last time! Love you guys!