A Dark Day
The dawn that arose that particular day was as breathtaking as it was blinding. Aria chuckled, climbing down off the roof before her father awoke and scolded her for being so careless as to sit on the roof at daybreak. Unfortunately, her father was unaware that Aria's daily ritual started off with watching the sun come up over the horizon each and every morning before she would wake her family, dress them all and send them off while she stayed there, tending to her ailing father and the home itself. Aria was the one in charge of keeping the house in an acceptable state at all times, though mostly she did out of the goodness in her heart. Heading back inside, her dress tore a bit at a seam on the side just on her hip. She had mended that particular section of the seam countless times, always seeming to find yet another way to rip out the stitches not two weeks later.
"Oh, no," she whispered to herself, fumbling at the seam trying to make it appear less noticeable-she owned only two other dresses, three total. One skirt was her recreation skirt (which she wore while playing with her siblings), one was a formal dress she wore only on the most special of occasions, and one was an everyday dress, which just so happened to be the one she wore on this day. She quickly found some thread and a needle, mending the patch once more before anyone noticed. Aria had been meaning for several weeks to make herself a set of new dresses, but hadn't yet found the time to do it between taking care of her ill father and and two younger sisters still in her care.
"Ari?" young Marie, who was but ten years old, said drowsily, coming into the kitchen area. Aria turned around, greeting her sister with a slight hug before slinging on her apron and starting to fix breakfast.
"You have not yet finished breakfast?" Jayanne, Aria's fourteen-year-old sister said with a snitty tone to her voice, as per usual. "How late you are, Ari."
"Hush, you," Aria said briskly, whipping together a measly but healthy breakfast for the young ones. "Now, Jayanne, take Marie into the lower towns. Perhaps you could assist me by picking produce today? I need to gather firewood from the forest - we're nearly out, and we cannot afford for father to become more ill from the cold."
Reluctantly, Jayanne grabbed Aria's empty produce basket from beside the door, grabbing Marie's hand and heading out the door without another glance at her older sister. Aria sighed a sigh of relief, slumming down onto the bench at the table, grunting loudly once and pounding her fist against the dark wood. At that moment, the fire in the fireplace extinguished. Aria nearly screamed at the sight of what just happened, her blue-green eyes flying open as she barely blinked, pounding her fist against the bench once more, igniting the fire once more. Blinking quickly, she threw on her mother's shawl and stepped outside, shutting the door quickly as she headed off to the forest.
That particular occurrence was not the first of its kind that Aria had experienced. Sometimes she would be so exhausted from a hard day's work that she couldn't prepare supper for her family that night, yet somehow she would come home and with a quick blackout, she would come to and realize that dinner had, apparently, made itself. The experience with the fire happened quite often as she could find no other way to silently express her frustration than to beat her fist against the furniture in the house. She was, however, careful about that since the furniture was all they had to go by. Heading into the outlying woods, Aria started piling her arms full of the heftiest sticks and twigs she could find-anything she could find that would do as firewood she would put into the pile. Her thoughts raced to her older brother Nolan, who had been forced to leave home early and find work as a farmhand for one of the most prestigious farmers in all of Camelot. His pay was meager, but enough to take care of his family. Once a week, he and Aria would prepare a nice dinner for themselves alone where they would discuss the current state of things. This memory brought a smile to her face as she paid attention to the rise of the hill in front of her, bending over to grab yet another stick. Hours could have passed on that hill and Aria would not have known the difference, but she trodded on, gathering wood till her arms were maxed out and still she went forward, her ill father in mind.
And that's when the unthinkable happened. A group of men approached her from the north end of the forest, stopping in front of her. They seemed menacing, but Aria just assumed it was some sort of joke, so she attempted to get past them. One of the burlier men pushed her back. Aria looked at them-really studying them. Her intuition told her these men were out for whatever she carried in the pockets of her apron - these men sought to harm her. She said nothing to them, remaining complacent as her heart raced, pounding in her ears as one of the men moved closer to her, his arms outstretched. Aria did the only thing she could: she flung the pile of sticks in her arms at the man and jetted away in the other direction as quickly as her tired feet could carry her. Tripping and falling over a tree root, she looked behind her and saw the men rushing after her. Jumping to her feet, she ran faster than before.
Merlin awoke that morning feeling as though this day would be no different than all the others. He would ready himself for the day and exit his room to find Gaius already up and with breakfast prepared and set out for him. Upon finishing his breakfast, if Merlin had not immediately left for Arthur's chambers, a knight would most likely locate him and tell him that Arthur required his presence-this was a daily ritual and if Merlin was a mere two minutes behind schedule, Arthur would send a knight to fetch him. Typical, Merlin thought to himself with a shake of his head as he slung on his coat and departed for Arthur's chambers.
That's how it always was with the two of them: it was 'give' and 'give' on Merlin's side of the relationship and was nothing but 'take' and 'take' time and time again on Arthur's side. Merlin rolled his eyes at that sentiment. Such a prat. Heading off to his daily, mandatory destination, Merlin rapped lightly on the doors to Arthur's chambers.
"Enter," Arthur said in almost frustrated tone of voice.
"You requested my presence, sire?" Merlin said politely upon entering the chambers and shutting the double doors behind him. He folded his hands behind his back.
"Ah, Merlin, you're just in time to be relieved of your usual duties today."
Merlin did a quick glance around the room, making sure that this was Arthur's chamber and that this was Arthur he was talking to. Arthur had never once in nearly three years of indebted service to the princeling had Merlin been relieved of his duties. "Is this a joke?" Arthur shook his head at him. "You're serious? That means no polishing your armor? No shoeing and cleaning of your horse? No shining of your brass buttons and no bristling your leather boots for that particular sheen you require? No fetching your meals and mending your clothing?"
Arthur shook his head adamantly, crossing the room and patting Merlin between his shoulders roughly. "You're off the hook today. Seems like I've got another person to punish the way I usually punish you for...well, being you, really."
Merlin wasn't quite sure how to respond to that: should he be worried about it or should he thank Arthur. "...thanks, I think."
"Don't be silly, Merlin. It's not because I'm doing you a favor or anything. It's mainly because a stupid oaf of a manservant spilled spiced wine on my favorite trousers. So I gave him your chores for the day in ten-fold to make him wish he'd never been an idiot."
"So I'm just left with nothing to do today?" Merlin blurted and before he gave Arthur the chance to say anything, he continued with, "All right, well, see you around then." He turned to walk out the door when Arthur stuck his arm straight out in front of Merlin's path, turning him back around.
"Not so fast, Merlin, I've still got a chore for you to do." Arthur's facial expression told Merlin that this task would not be amusing. "My stockpile of firewood needs replenishing, so that's what you'll be doing today." With a flash of his usual triumphant grin, Arthur slapped Merlin once more. "Better get to it. Word is there's a storm coming. Oh, and don't pick those dinky twigs you usually pick up, Merlin."
Merlin frankly didn't hear anything about a storm heading in Camelot's direction, but knew that arguing with Arthur was definitely not on his agenda for the day. Grabbing a satchel in which he could carry a hefty amount of firewood, Merlin headed out to the forest just beyond the castle. He knew of a place well into the forest where he could find decently-sized logs so he headed there straightaway.
Upon arrival, it appeared as though others in the lower towns were growing familiar with this place as it was a great place for firewood gathering. Merlin was able to fill the satchel quickly and to the brim before he began piling his arms full of dry sticks. He then, for whatever reason, felt he should head a bit deeper into the forest, and today, he felt, was a day on which to contradict his usual instincts and just follow what he felt he should do. Nearby, he saw two knights pacing in their patrol line. Lately, Arthur had taken extra precautions in keeping magical beings out of Camelot and anywhere far away from Uther. Uther these days was not himself, probably out of remorse for what had recently transpired with Morgana. He blamed himself for what had happened, and in doing so, had destroyed his emotional immune system. Arthur was now surrogately in charge of the entire realm, which had, of course, placed loads of pressure upon Arthur. All eyes were on him, including Merlin's. That was, mainly, because Merlin would assist Arthur in becoming king, and that looked as though it'd be sooner rather than later.
Heavy footfalls on the forest floor stopped Merlin dead in his tracks. He peered straight ahead and saw what appeared to be a girl. She was running in his general direction, but the frantically exasperated expression on her face told him that she was running from someone and not to someone. In a flash, she rushed past Merlin and he could practically feel the heat of the chase that banded right on her heels. A group of burly men came next, yelling in anger as they chased the girl, anger infesting their already ugly faces.
Merlin, for whatever reason, dropped the load of sticks in his arms and took off after them, ready and willing to help this girl in any way she'd need it.
Aria's head told her to keep running until she reached the lower towns where someone would surely help her out, but her heart told her to stop and to fight them off. With what? She honestly didn't know what she would do to fight them. Aria was a near-pacifist, never carrying weapons with her knowing she wouldn't understand how to utilise it if she did have one. She screamed "Help!" as loudly as she possibly could, knowing that King Uther kept knights in the forest on patrol at all times. Hopefully someone would hear her cry for help and come to her aid, but whom?
At that moment, Aria passed a man a fair bit taller than her with dark hair. She knew her loose braid had become quite mussed, letting loose a few shorter waves of her hair from the braid. Why was she suddenly feeling self-conscious in front of this man? She did not have time to stop and ask for help-the bandits were close on her heels now. Aria tripped into a clearing ahead, landing on her back but quickly sitting up as the men reached her, all of them breathing heavily. Aria was a quick runner - she and Nolan had run everywhere as children, so she was quite fit in that sense. She nearly began to cry as the men closed in around her, circling her and darkening out the light of the sky. At that moment, she honestly hadn't known what was happening, but she looked up at them, raised her arms to the sky, and bellowed a cry so desperate, so justifiable, that it sent all of the men flying back through the air, knocking them all against the trees. Aria stood breathlessly, now in the clearing alone, her eyes wide in terror, not quite understanding what had just transpired. Her eyes searched for answers, but instead she watched as three or four knights surrounded her, wrapping her arms around her back.
"What are you doing with me?" she asked them, her voice cracking a bit from the terrible fright.
"You're under arrest for the use of magic," one of the knights answered, beginning to escort her to Camelot.
"No, please!" she told them. "Please, I have a family! You can't do this!"
Merlin had watched in awe as this girl had clearly used magic to propel the men-all of them strong, thick-bodied middle-aged men-to the trees that lined the clearing. His eyes wide, he became scared for the girl, knowing that she'd just used magic in front of official knights, a crime punishable by death. He followed the group back to Camelot, wanting to see where this girl would end up, wherever she'd end up. Of course, before he even reached where they were heading, and he knew this would not bode well for the girl: Uther.
Though Uther was weak-bodied and weak-willed, he still sometimes found the time to assist Arthur in the sentencing of magicians. He sat in the throne room, his face pale and clammy with sickness and depression, and that's when the knights brought Aria to Uther, standing her before him and forcing her to her knees while her wrists and ankles had been clad tightly in shackles and chains, just in case she tried anything revealing or dangerous in the presence of the king.
"Tell me what happened," Uther requested of the servant who had fetched the knights.
"We were all out gathering firewood, and I saw these men chasing this girl in the forest," the servant answered. "The men surrounded her, and then she blew them all back against the trees."
Uther turned to Aria. "State your name."
"Aria, sire," Aria answered respectfully, sniffling back her tears, "Aria Glinn. My father is Nicholas Glinn, the candlemaker."
"Aria Glinn, you're to be sentenced for your use of magic."
Aria raised her head, her eyes meeting his with the most tender of urgencies. "But, sire, I'm innocent - please believe me! I have not the slightest understanding of what happened in the forest - you must believe me! I did not use magic - "
"That's enough, girl." Uther gestured to take her away. "Take her away until I've locked in a sentence."
"Sire, please, I beg of you - do not lock me away! My family, my sisters need me to take care of them! My father is gravely ill and my mother is gone and buried - please! I'm all they have."
"Enough." With that, the knights escorted the sobbing Aria down to the dungeons, locking her away in one of the smallest cells there. Aria peered around, noticing hay strewn randomly all over the ground in the cell. Her eyes, weary from crying so much had become dried out of tears, so she could not decipher what she should do in response to what had just happened to her. The shackles on her wrists seemed to tighten, causing her to wince as she sat down in the corner, gathering her knees to her chest and leaning her head back on the cold stone behind her, raising her pleading eyes to God.
"Please, God," she whispered, "help me."
Merlin couldn't believe his ears. After the knights had taken the girl away to the dungeons, Uther immediately stated she was to be burned at the stake the next morning. A young girl with a family under her belt, no money and no prospects, was to be executed for the usage of magic when, clearly, she was innocent as to what had exactly happened-innocent to what happened, guilty to the use of magic.
"Merlin, don't try anything stupid this time-really," Gaius exhaustedly warning Merlin after he had been told everything that happened. "Uther is king-his word is final."
"Gaius," Merlin said urgently, "you didn't see this girl. She was so scared-I've never seen anyone use magic like that and still be that afraid in front of the king. I could tell she meant every word she said to Uther, regardless of whether or not she used magic."
"And did she, in fact, use magic?"
Merlin nodded. "Yes. I know magic when I see it."
"Then we cannot disband Uther's words, Merlin. The girl is guilty and will be executed tomorrow. End of story." Merlin had been about to say something else when Gaius put his hands up. "That's enough, Merlin. I'll not let you get yourself tangled up in another escape plan. One of these days, you'll get yourself caught, or worse. Leave it be."
But Merlin was not like Gaius at all. Gaius, while the center of all that is moral he may have been, was still biased into believing that Uther had the final say. Merlin knew better than that, and one thing he was definitely sure of was that this girl did not deserve to be executed, not after he'd seen the tears of frightened shame streak her cheeks. No way. Not this time. Not again, he thought adamantly, readying himself to assist the girl in the most dangerous of ways.
After Gaius had left to head to another part of the castle, Merlin prepared a powerful sleeping draught that would last up to two days. He doused bits of cheese, bread, tomatoes, and sausage with the draught and placed all of it on a tin plate, carrying it down to the dungeon. Two guards were on sentry duty and were heavily into a game of chance when Merlin entered the area, showing them the plate of food.
"I've come to bring the prisoner some food," he told them aloud as they reached out and took the food from him-all according to plan.
"Fat lot o' good that will do," one of the guards said with a maniacal chuckle. "I hear she'll burn tomorrow. Serves her right, the wretched thing."
With that, the guards ate the food off the plate, devouring every last crumb as though they hadn't eaten in weeks. Not two minutes later, both guards were out cold, so Merlin snatched their keys away, heading towards the girl's small cell.
"Please, God," he heard her say quietly, "help me." He tapped the keys against the metal bars on the door, giving Aria a fright so bad she felt as though she may literally jump out of her skin. She peered over to the door, seeing a man - the man, the one from the forest - opening the door to her cell.
"Sorry I scared you," Merlin said politely, entering the cell and seeing her huddled in the corner. "I'm not one for grand entrances, really, but this did nicely."
Aria rose from her place in the corner, her hands tightly wound in front of her. She didn't know how to respond to this man - was he friend or foe? Was he both? She honestly couldn't say, but something in this man's voice, at the very least, made her trust him. Aria gave him a small smile before he continued on.
"I'm not God, but I'm here to help." He outstretched his hand to her. "I just need you to trust me, but you'd better trust me quickly - someone will surely be down here soon and see you've gone - that is, if you trust me enough to get you out of here."