Genre: Slash, Arthur/Merlin
Length: ~2,400 words
Spoilers: None, really
Synopsis: If not a kingdom for a life, then a life for a death.
Author’s Notes: For the merlin_flashfic challenge “Betrayal”
Disclaimer: I do not own this particular interpretation of the myth and am making no profit from this.
“Drink this,” Merlin told him, pushing a goblet of something shiny and most determinedly not wine in his direction.
Arthur eyed it wearily. “Why?” he asked what he thought was reasonably. It may have come across more doubting than he had intended.
Merlin did not flinch. In truth, he did not even waver from his position across the table, head propped on fist and looking so purposefully bored that Arthur knew something was up. “Because I asked you to,” was all he would answer.
Arthur picked up the goblet and sniffed the contents. It smelled like cheap wine mixed with herbs of some sort, though he saw nothing floating on the surface. Its slightly purple hue reminded him of the dregs of the last cask of the season, but it had none of the grit or suspensions he usually associated with the sort.
“The things I do for you,” Arthur huffed. He took a tentative sip and found it was no worse than anything Gaius had given him in the past. He finished it quickly and reached for the cup of water that waited for him at the side to rinse the lingering taste from his mouth.
Merlin stood and took both cups from him. He leaned down and placed a gentle kiss upon Arthur’s forehead and whispered, “Thank you.” He straightened and seemed to be watching him just a bit too intently as he offered, even softer, “I am sorry.”
The prince tried to make sense of that as, really, the concoction was not that bad in comparison to some of the dreck he had drank over the years. He found it hard to focus though, as if his very thoughts were slowing, blending with the blurriness of the suddenly too warm room. His last thought as the table approached at a damning speed was, “This is not good.”
He awoke with the chill of the autumn air upon his face and the heat of a fire far too close to the rest of him for his liking. His hands were bound above him but his feet were thankfully on something solid. He blinked his eyes open to find the last rays of the setting sun before him and many small bonfires lit around him, a torch in a stand at his side.
The brightness of the fires against the shadows of the approaching night made it difficult to make out any distinct shapes or forms, but he saw figures moving, blending with the tall grasses of the field before disappearing behind the orange and red glow. There was murmuring, rhythmic like chanting, though he could not identify the voices or the words they shared. Things were still hazy around the edges, and he feared the drug had yet to leave his body completely.
He stood there, ignored, until the sun set fully and the area was cast in darkness. He took in the clearing, the platform he stood on, and the symbols carved into both, tracing them with his eyes, memorizing them before they faded into the darkness.
Figures approached, firelight glinting off of well-polished jewellery and crescent-shaped blades at their sides. The woman stepped forward and gave him a chance to look her over, try to recognize her, note the ceremonial robes and the way her red hair was knotted neatly away from her painted face.
He knew who she was, knew who they all were: Morgana’s nightmares come to life. She had dreamed of a group of powerful sorcerers, seeking to destroy and corrupt and make Camelot their own at any price. He, apparently, was that price.
She must have seen the recognition in his eyes as she smiled, red lips looking obscene against the black and white shapes decorating her features. “Pendragon,” she purred, making a show of walking around him slowly, looking her catch up and down like the prize it was.
“I’m afraid I do not have the privilege of your name,” he replied, proud when his thick tongue did not slur the words too much.
“It is not necessary for you to know,” she told him, arching one carefully painted eyebrow.
“I don’t even get to know the name of my executioner?” he scoffed. The words came easier now, the fogginess abating. He could not tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing as at least he would face his death head on, but the pain would no longer be diluted and he had a feeling they had something spectacular planned for him. He took comfort in the fact he would be of his right mind, conscious and aware.
She laughed and it was cold and cruel. She turned to her companion at her side, lips upturned. “He wishes to know your name,” she told him.
The man stepped forward, swathed in black and his face tinted the same dark colour, the only identifying feature his eyes. His very blue eyes.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked. He knew his emotions were writ across his face as clearly as the paint on the woman, but he did not try to hide them. Merlin was here. Merlin was safe. Merlin had come for him. Merlin would never betray him, not after everything they had shared.
Merlin’s face was stone. If there was any thread of the man he knew within, it was carefully hidden away, guarded beneath the mask he now wore. He did not say a word, but his eyes glowed an inhuman gold and Arthur knew instantly he had completely misjudged the situation.
The woman, a priestess of some sort, was prattling on about the night. It was Samhain, the end of one year and the beginning of another. The passages through time itself were thinnest now according to the Old Ways, and raw power flowed over the land. She went on about how not just sorcerers in general, but her specific people were wronged by the House of Pendragon and how she sought to make that right this night; to end the line that would destroy her own and allow a new beginning.
She turned to Merlin, the same smile upon her lips. “With your power on our side, we shall not fail. You have returned to the Old Ways, returned to Our Ways. Prove to us your loyalty and take the future from the past; kill the Pendragon son so that we may live.”
Arthur tried not to role his eyes at the pompousness of it all. The task was made infinitely easier when he realized the only person he knew, the only person he could trust with his very life was standing before him at this very moment without a hint of recognition on his face.
Merlin listened to her words dispassionately, looking simply like a painted puppet, a version of himself, only not. She kissed him, smearing red against the black, not caring that she received little to no response in return. The puppet nodded and removed the sickle blade from his side, took a step closer to the platform.
“Merlin, don’t do this,” Arthur begged. He was proud, but he admitted it for what it was. This was not Merlin; this was not the man he knew. This would change him, damn him irreparably. There would be no turning back. Arthur swallowed heavily, not afraid for his own fate, but for the future that awaited his lover should he choose this path.
Merlin continued forward, blade raised before him. “Only with death can there be new beginnings. Only with the gift of life can lives be saved,” he intoned, emotionless. The blade came down, slicing neatly through the tunic Arthur wore, exposing his chest and his vulnerability for all to see.
“Merlin...” Arthur tried. The name became a mantra, a chant in counterpoint to the murmur from the crowd of shadows circling him. He pulled at his bonds and felt them cut deeper into his wrists, trickles of blood dripping down his forearms.
“A kingdom for a life, a future for a death,” Merlin continued. “A balance must be struck so that one may continue while the other perishes.” There was another flash of gold in his eyes and Arthur swore there was awareness, if only for the length of a breath. “But the cost weighs deep for both. If not a kingdom for a life, then a life for a death.”
The woman’s head snapped around at the same time Arthur realized his bonds had loosened. No longer were they cutting through his skin and he swore he would be able to escape the knots if given the chance. Maybe it was Merlin’s gift to him, a chance to face his death free and on his own terms, such as they were.
The woman was seething beside him and he figured the out was discovered. Only when she hissed that those were not the words of the ritual, did Arthur realize she wasn’t even looking at him, did not know the ropes were hanging loose in his hands.
He looked to Merlin, stayed in place and offered himself to him if that is what he needed. The golden eyes were blue once more and appeared to be watching him with both recognition and something more, something like sorrow. In that moment, he was no longer a servant or sorcerer or pawn in these lunatics’ game. He was his lover, his friend, and the other half to his whole.
In that moment, Arthur knew what Merlin was about to do.
He opened his mouth to protest, but no sound was forthcoming. Instead, Merlin repeated his words from earlier, this time without the benediction of a kiss. “I am sorry.”
In the blink of an eye, Merlin spun, curved blade arching wide and slicing clean through the woman’s throat, red blood welling quickly, but not quick enough. One hand rose to her wound as if powerful enough to hold her mortality in place, if only for a moment, while the other flung her own blade forward, hitting her mark and embedding it deep within.
Arthur watched as they both crumpled to the ground, tore his hands free from the ropes as a scream finally tore itself free from his throat. The circle of symbols around him glowed brightly, nearly blinding him before it subsided. He blinked his vision clear to see the woman unmoving and Merlin clutching at the blade, slicing his fingers as he tried to pull it free.
Arthur stilled his hands, felt their fingers slide together in the slickness. He spared a glance at the crowd that had gathered, readied himself for a fight to the death if need be, only to find nothing remained. The shadows were gone, the fires sizzling out as if doused with rain, and the only sound was the echo of voices on the wind chanting, “The life was taken, the kingdom was won.”
Another breath and all that remained were circles of blackened grass and the platform on which he knelt, death on one side and life on the other. He refused to let that life slip away. He tore off his tattered shirt, ripped it further into bandages. He looked down to Merlin devoid of the paint but still dressed in black, and offered thanks that the sorcerer’s aim was off, that the knife was buried deep beneath his shoulder and had missed his heart.
He lifted the blade quickly and carefully, cloth at the ready to press down in its place. He took Merlin’s groan of pain as a sign of hope. He tried to staunch the flow of blood as he both cursed and praised the subterfuge, issued promises and threats of retribution. He watched as the pale skin beside the wound grew paler still, Merlin’s rasping breaths grew fewer and farther between.
“You will not do this,” he declared. “You will not die for me; not here and not now. A long, long time from now, when we are both old and grey, then and only then are you allowed to go and only if I’m at your side. Do you understand that, Merlin? I decree it, so it must be so. You pompous, arrogant, arse. You will not do this to me.”
He was rambling, raving like a mad man, but he did not care. He was not about to let Merlin give up his life for his own, not for something as foolish as this.
He leaned down and, much like Merlin had done to him so long ago now, placed a gentle kiss upon his forehead. He looked down at a face that could have been sleeping for all of its stillness and bade, “Live.”
The body beneath him shuddered. Merlin’s mouth opened and he gasped for breath, deeper, surer than before. A golden mist escaped his parted lips, matching the hue of the eyes that snapped open, stared at Arthur intently even as they slowly turned to the familiar blue.
“Arthur?” Merlin breathed. The simple action seemed to take so much out of him.
“I’m here,” Arthur promised. He kissed the sweat soaked forehead once more. “I’m right here.”
“You’re alive,” Merlin smiled, as if that was his only concern.
“I am,” Arthur confirmed. “Though you very nearly were not.” He lifted the makeshift bandage to replace it with another, watching in horrified wonder as the wound began to close before his very eyes. The process was slow, and it still seeped with lifeblood, but he suspected by morning all that would remain would be a fine line and more than likely a fair amount of pain.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin told him, and seemed sincere.
Arthur knew he meant for the drug, for the lie, for the near sacrifice of one to save another. “I really would rather not hear those words from you again anytime soon,” he declared.
Merlin smiled, a subtle turn of his lips. “No promises,” he whispered.
Arthur knew better than to accept anything different. He checked the progress of the wound and pressed another bandage into place as he helped Merlin first sit upright, and then clamber to his feet when his foolishness persisted.
The dark of night stretched before them, as did the long trek back to the castle. He wrapped an arm around his lover to hold him, steer him, and support him as they turned towards the shadow of Camelot rising in the East. “Let’s go home,” Arthur sighed, pressing another kiss against his temple.
Behind them, the circle glowed and balance was restored once more.
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