Characters: Arthur, Merlin, Uther
Arthur witnessed his first execution when he was seven years old. It wasn’t the last he ever saw – after all, he grew up in Camelot, in a kingdom that executed magicians and sorcerers, warlocks and witches on a regular basis – but it did make an impression. “You’re old enough to see this,” his father had said – and Arthur didn’t feel old enough, but his father had said it, so it must be true.
He remembered watching in a sort of horrified amazement as the blade arced through the air, silent and swift and shining with justice.
His father was very tall as he walked off the platform, the axe in his hand gleaming as bright as the crown upon his head.
“One day,” his father had said, “there will be no more magic – and we can put an end to this. For now – we must protect the kingdom. There is power in force. The people must learn somehow.”
“Words are weapons,” Arthur’s tutor had once warned him, many years ago. He had taught Arthur that lesson well – and between his tutor’s calculated attempts to teach Arthur the delicate art of diplomacy, and years of watching his father, Arthur learnt how to rule with an iron fist in a velvet glove.
Arthur took to his lessons well – he always had, was good with instructions, and soon surpassed his teachers.
Arthur grew up learning to wield all manner of weaponry – swords that clashed and clattered midst the heat of battle; but also the thrust and parry of political one-upmanship; the full force of a disapproving stare across a crowded room.
He learnt that even his own name was a weapon – or it used to be, until the day he tried to strike a common peasant with it– only to have the blow glance off, deflected by defiant blue eyes and a head that would not bow.
Arthur kept trying for days after that, but he gave up when he realised that Merlin gave as good as he got. And apparently nobody had ever thought to warn Merlin that words were weapons, because Merlin didn’t even seem to notice when he had been hit. It was at best a one-sided battle, at worst like fighting an unarmed man – which, Arthur had always been taught, was most unsporting.
“Where’s my sword?” asked Arthur, looking around. The tournament was due to start any minute now, and it wouldn’t do for the Crown Prince to be late – especially considering the tournament was in his honour, after all.
“Here,” said Merlin, holding it up in totally the wrong way – the idiot was going to cut his own fingers off, any day now.
“Give me that,” said Arthur, snatching it away from him, roughly. “Honestly,” he huffed, “you are the worst manservant I have ever had.”
“So you keep telling me,” grinned Merlin unrepentantly – and Arthur had no defense for the answering smile on his own face.
“Know your enemy,” his father had cautioned – and Arthur thought he had, thought he did. According to his father, the enemy was magic, and all those who wielded it – and he had thought he understood, at least in part. He did not carry the zealous rage of his father, who was half-blind with passion and bitterness and hate towards all that he could not comprehend, but Arthur still carried some of that residual fear. It’s human nature to fear what you don’t understand, after all, and Arthur didn’t know much about magic, only enough to know that he didn’t understand it. It was something dark and foreign, and utterly inhuman.
Also, it mostly seemed to be used to try to kill him and the people he loved, so it was really only logical that he was harboring some resentment towards it.
He was about to die – and then he wasn’t.
Arthur was left gaping at Merlin, who had just – Merlin who – there had been sparks, and a flash of light – the monster who had cornered Arthur and had been moving in for the death blow now lay dead at his feet, and Merlin - and Arthur’s mouth was thick with the taste of betrayal and fear and roiling uncertainty, because Merlin had – Merlin had – and Arthur was staring at him with wide eyes, because Merlin was – Merlin was magic, and it would be funny except it really, really wasn’t.
As Arthur stared at Merlin, mouth agape and shocked into a stunned sort of silence, the world spun and coalesced – and he was suddenly seven years old again, staring with wide eyes and hearing the swish of the blade and the sickening crunch in the split-second as it severed flesh and bone.
Merlin looked resigned and defeated in a way that Arthur had never seen before.
Know your enemy, his father had said – but apparently that was one lesson that Arthur had never quite absorbed, because he hadn’t even known the most basic fact – that the enemy had been beside him all along.
His tutor had been only partly right. Words were not the only weapons - the silence between them cut sharper and deeper than any knife.
And then –
“Sod it,” said Arthur fiercely. “I don’t care.”
Merlin was the one gaping now.
“This whole anti-magic thing,” continued Arthur. “It’s my father’s battle, not mine. And you’re not evil. You’re not.”
“I could be evil,” Merlin protested, sounding deeply offended.
“No,” said Arthur. “You really couldn’t.”
“You’re right,” said Merlin. “I’m not nearly enough of a prat. You, on the other hand…”
And then they were wrestling, elbows and arms and Arthur could have pinned him down on the ground instantly, but he didn’t – and he wondered what that said about him, that he was holding back when he could so easily take the upper hand. He wondered if this is what Merlin felt like, all the time – having a weapon and choosing not to use it.
There was power in force – his father was right, but Arthur was gradually realising that perhaps there was power also in restraint. Magic was a weapon – but as Arthur had grown up realising, nearly anything could be used as a weapon – what mattered most was the hand that wielded it. He didn’t know everything about Merlin – too often he didn’t understand him at all - but he knew enough to know that neither Merlin nor his magic was the enemy.
In this, at least, his father was wrong.