Arthur screamed. It felt like there was a beast trapped inside his rib cage, clawing to get out of its prison, and it hurt… hurt so much that Arthur felt that if he could will his heart to stop beating he would, but before he got the chance to try, the pain stopped.
Unlike the physical pain of the numerous wounds that Arthur had received while being tortured, the magical pain would simply disappear without any residual ache. It was almost like he had imagined the whole thing. There was a chuckle from somewhere above him where he lay on the cold stone floor.
“That is one of my favorites. One I swore I would use on you,” Garlock said, malice flickering in his eyes. “One of the many… that I swore to use on you.”
“Why do you hate me so much?” Arthur’s voice cracked. It was a stupid question. The man was a sorcerer, and sorcerer’s hated Pendragons. While Arthur had tried to make sure every sorcerer received a fair trial, magic was still outlawed, and so many people still hated him.
“You want to know why?” he asked, a gleam in his eyes, his hand holding an amulet shot up to point directly at Arthur. Suddenly Arthur was surrounded by fire, and he was burning and screaming again. He could feel the fire licking at his skin, could see as his skin seemed to melt away.
It lasted for an age, and Arthur wondered why he was not already dead when it stopped. The lack of pain afterwards made him realize that it was once again magic that had been used against him.
“That is why, King Arthur. Because so many of my kind have been burned at the stake because of you…”
Despite the pain he suffered Arthur couldn’t help replying, even if he was pretty sure it would cause more pain.
“Magic is outlawed for a reason.” he said angrily. “It is powerful and dangerous and corrupts even the best of people.” Morgana’s face flashed across his vision. “I do it to protect my people. Those who practice magic know what they are doing; they know it is against the law. All they have to do is stop, and they will be safe. They will not have to face that nightmare.”
Garlock bent down to where Arthur now sat staring at the ground.
“You want to know what it feels like for us to stop using our magic?” he asked, and Arthur had a feeling he really did not as Garlock held out his arm with the amulet in it again. The black jewel, surrounded by intricate designs, glowed menacingly before it took effect.
He felt a tugging at his right arm, his sword arm, and then excruciating pain. His eyes snapped to the offended appendage only to find that it was not there. All that was left was a bloody stump. Arthur stared at where his arm used to be, his breath coming faster and faster. Garlock knew what he had just done; he had just removed who Arthur was. A soldier, a warrior … and a good one at that.
“Taking magic away from
us is like taking your arm away from you, King Arthur. It is not just losing a
limb to us; it is losing who we are. You are a soldier, but without your sword
arm you are nothing, nothing but words.”
Arthur tore his eyes away from his arm and stared at the sorcerer, part of him wondering if it was true, if this is what it was like for sorcerers to stop using magic. However, before he could think about it too long, Garlock was laughing again. The fire returned, and Arthur threw his head back, screaming in agony.
Arthur bolted upright from bed gasping, sweat plastering his nightshirt to his body. His eyes were wide with fear, but he stared straight ahead, too afraid to look down and see if his dream had been more than a nightmare. He clenched his fists into the sheets and finally managed to drag his eyes downward to his right arm.
He lifted it up, inspecting it, one hand, five fingers. Everything was there. It had just been a nightmare.
Yet Arthur knew it was more than that. It was a memory. Garlock had used magic to convince Arthur that his arm had been gone. He knew the king was a warrior, the best warrior in Camelot. It was something that Arthur had always prided himself on. To have his right arm, his sword arm, missing … well, he thought, he might as well have been dead.
Arthur had dropped his head into his hands and only just realized that two smaller hands were massaging his shoulders. He looked up and turned his head to see Guinevere looking concerned, but comforting. She had been whispering quiet words of comfort but had stopped when he seemed to have calmed down.
His eyes watered upon seeing her, and he turned into her embrace, both of them slipping back under the covers as they held each other. Gwen never asked him to talk about it; he never thought he could. She had told him once that if he wanted to, she was there, but she refused to pressure him, even a little bit.
Arthur never spoke of his nightmare-like memories, memories that plagued him nearly every time he shut his eyes. Gwen did not need to know. She was not one to say the wrong thing or squeeze information out in order to satisfy her own curiosity. She lay there with Arthur in her arms and began to sing to him, stroking his hair like a mother comforting a child who had woken up from a bad dream.
Slowly Arthur’s eyes closed again, his head resting on her shoulder. It was the middle of the night, and he was still so tired. It would not be until he woke up the next morning that he would realize his waking life was almost as bad as his sleeping. The pain caused by Merlin’s condition struck him to his core. It was a heaviness, a crushing weight that pressed down Arthur’s chest so that he felt it every time he breathed. It was despair, one so deep that he felt its presence with him throughout the day, never being able to shake it even when he wasn’t thinking directly of his manservant.
When Arthur entered Gaius’ chambers that morning to check on his friend, Gwaine was asleep in Gaius’ bed. Arthur trudged to the back room and stopped at the door. Gaius sat by Merlin’s bedside, looking far older than Arthur had ever seen him; old and weary. But even the image of Gaius was nothing compared to Merlin.
The young man lay there, staring at the wall away from Gaius, awake but unresponsive. He was pale, paler than Arthur had ever seen him, dark shadows lined his eyes making him look like a skeleton, and he was thin and malnourished.
Gaius saw Arthur and stood up, moving over to the doorway. They talked in hushed tones but did not leave the room. Leave it to Merlin to find out how to block them out even as sick as he was. Still they did not have much distance, and Arthur wondered if Merlin could hear them. If he did, he showed absolutely no reaction.
“Any change?” Arthur asked.
Gaius looked grave. “He refuses to eat or drink. With the amount of blood he has lost I’m afraid he does not have much time left.”
Arthur felt the familiar prick in his eyes but blinked it away. “What can we do?” he asked and his tone came out pleading and trembling, begging Gaius to fix this.
Gaius glanced at Merlin and spoke even more quietly than before. Arthur had to strain to hear his words.
“Gwaine believes he has been brainwashed, that this whole ‘prophecy’ belief might have been planted in his head.”
Arthur was not really sure how to react to that. On the one hand it meant that Merlin had not seen the future, and maybe if it was not true they could somehow convince the idiot that his sacrifice would be worthless. . . On the other hand, Arthur had dealt with brainwashing before, and he knew how dangerous it could be, especially when magic was involved. The last time he had encountered it was when it had happened to one of his own knights. The man was trying to kill Uther, and when he forced himself to stop after Arthur reasoned with him, he had fallen over, writhing in agony. It had only lasted a few seconds, not even enough time to call Gaius for help, and then the man had been dead. Arthur wondered if the enchantment on Merlin went that deep as well.
“What makes him think that?” Arthur asked.
Gaius sighed. “Apparently when he asked Merlin about the prophecy, Merlin could give him no explanation. He claims to have seen it but cannot describe what he saw. When he tried, he ended up having a type of seizure, much like what I heard described of Sir Robert.”
Arthur nodded gravely. It was just as he had feared. “I remember that incident well Gaius, how do we prevent something like that from happening? How do we convince Merlin without him having another attack?”
“I am not sure, but I think it would be most prudent if we were to return to the dungeon where we found both of you. If I look around, maybe I can find something, anything that might be of use.”
Gaius had yet to notice, but at his words Arthur had gone stock still. He stared at Gaius his eyes widening slightly, his breath coming a little quicker. The more he thought about returning to the place that had been his own personal hell, the more the panic crept in and the faster his breathing came.
Arthur didn’t hear Gaius calling to him, did not feel the warm hand on his shoulder, did not even notice as Gaius led him to a chair and had him sit down. He did however hear Merlin’s voice. It was the first time he had heard it in a while, and the first time it had sounded anywhere close to normal.
“What’s wrong, Gaius?” There was concern in his manservant’s voice, but Arthur was still dealing with the nightmares in his head. Now, however, he began to get a better grasp of his surroundings. He was now sitting in a chair, his head lowered, almost against his knees, his hands pressed against his temples.
Gaius did not answer Merlin, who was apparently in bed in front of Arthur. Suddenly Arthur felt another hand on his shoulder, this one was cold and trembled with effort, and this time Arthur did look up, straight into the worried eyes of his manservant.
He stared at Merlin. The man had not touched him in days, had seemed adamant not to in fact, had hardly even looked at him. But now they were staring into each other’s eyes, and for a moment, everything seemed right. Everything seemed like it was supposed to be. Arthur reached up and grasped Merlin’s hand like a lifeline to his friend. A slight smile graced his lips as his breathing returned to normal.
Merlin smiled back for a moment, just a moment. Then his brow furrowed, his eyes bouncing back and forth between his hand and Arthur, and with an inward hiss he yanked his hand from Arthur’s grip, lying down once again and facing the opposite direction, his hands trembling even more.
Arthur stared at him. It had only been a moment, but it was proof enough for Arthur. Proof that Merlin was still in there, and it provided him the strength he needed.
He stood up with more resolve than he had been able to manage before and looked at Gaius. The older man looked worried about both of them but remained quiet.
“We leave at midday,” Arthur murmured.
Gaius frowned. “Sire, there is no reason you have to accompany us. You are still healing from your wounds and no one would think less of you for not returning to that place.” he assured. While Arthur knew that was true, he also knew he had to go… for Merlin… for his friend.
“I might recognize something. After all, I was there for days, and there might be something that I can do to help him.” Arthur nodded towards the bed. “And if there is anything I can do, I have to do it.”
Gaius looked like he was going to protest again, but Arthur spun on his heel.
“Be ready by midday,” the king said.
“Yes, sire.” he heard the old man say reluctantly.
As soon as he was out of sight, Arthur leaned against the wall trying to steady his breathing and his trembling hands. As much as the thought of going back to that place terrified him there was no way he was giving up on Merlin when he needed him.
With a strength and resolve that seemed to appear out of nowhere, Arthur turned and marched on, looking for Leon to inform him of their new quest.