Rating: PG-13 (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin, Ragnor
Summary: Merlin faces Ragnor in the dark.
Warnings: Angst, issues of rape, (minor) character death
Word Count: 2569
Prompt: #33 Choices
Author's Notes: You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
There is no response when Merlin knocks on the door the first time, so he knocks again, and after a long moment, Arthur calls for him to enter. Merlin pushes the door open with one hand, the bundle of clothes held to his chest with the other.
Arthur is standing in the middle of the room.
“Merlin,” he says simply, looking almost surprised to see him.
Merlin ducks his head respectfully, painfully aware that they are alone, that Arthur has shown faith in him by telling him to come to his chambers, and that Merlin must not betray him again by being anything other than his servant. He has slipped already, calling Arthur by his name when he went to fetch him from the training field, but that was in public, surrounded by friends. Here, they are alone, and these chambers are a place of intimacy, of sleep, sex and nudity. So Merlin must be careful.
“I’ve got your clothes, Sire.”
Arthur fidgets. “Thank you. Just … put them on the bed.”
Merlin puts his bundle down. He runs two fingers idly along the collar of the red tunic.
“When you go to see Ragnor,” he begins. “What will you say to him?”
He glances up to see Arthur shrug.
“He’ll want me to free him, but even if it was in my power, I don’t think I could. He would go back to a life of crime, and my honour is not worth the lives he would destroy.” He looks to Merlin for approval, so Merlin smiles briefly.
“But then ... why see him at all?”
Arthur presses his lips together. He shifts in place and looks elsewhere again. “I don’t know. I suppose I’d regret it if I didn’t.” He doesn’t ask if Merlin intends to go.
Merlin nods slowly, and looks around the room in case there is something that needs to be done before he leaves. He doesn’t dare offer to assist Arthur with dressing, though. Not again.
There is water in the pitcher, the hearth is stacked with firewood, ready to be lit, and it is too early to prepare the bed, so there is nothing to keep Merlin. “I’ll just go then.” He walks backwards towards the door. “If there’s nothing else.” He has his hand on the door handle when he is called back.
Arthur has taken Merlin’s previous position by the bed, a hand on the bedpost, back half turned to Merlin.
“I need to apologise.”
Merlin shakes his head. “You have nothing-”
“I do.” Arthur turns around in that slow, measured way he will move when he is facing some terrible task. His hands are restless at his sides. “I need you to know that I would do anything to make it so this never happened, give anything to be able to take it back.”
The words stab into Merlin like a knife, killing remnants of his foolish dream that he didn’t even know he still carried. He can feel tears gathering in his eyes and blinks furiously to stop them. “Yes, my lord.”
Arthur releases a heavy breath and drags his hand awkwardly through his hair. “I hope ... I realise that you’ll want to leave ... my service. But I hope-”
“My lord, if there’s nothing else, I really should go,” Merlin says quickly. He’s going to cry, he needs to get out of here. Arthur doesn’t want him at all anymore. Arthur wants him to resign. “I’ll find someone to serve you during dinner tonight,” he continues, pulling open the door.
Arthur takes a step forward, reaching for him. “Merlin?”
Merlin almost stumbles out the door, blinded by tears. He runs until he is sure that Arthur didn’t come after him, and then he walks the short route to the corridor where he spent most of last night. He goes straight to the door of his chosen victim, looks around to make sure he is alone, and whispers a spell that will enhance his hearing. He leans in to listen, after irritably wiping at his eyes. From distant parts of the citadel, he can hear shouts and murmurs, and the sounds of metal and wood striking each other, but not even breathing can be heard from inside these chambers. Another whispered spell unlocks the door, and Merlin slips inside.
He finds the wardrobe, pulls it open and begins rifling through it for a robe. The man staying here is not much older than Merlin, and of roughly the same build. Merlin spent hours curled up on a window ledge just down the corridor last night, and saw the man come in after the feast, which is how he knew to come here now.
He’s scattered half the contents of the wardrobe on the floor before he finds something he can make do with: an ensemble in blue consisting of trousers, a long tunic, and a floor-length open jacket. The material is heavy and rich, the embroidery on the jacket intricate, and blue is a rare dye, so Merlin has no doubt he is robbing his victim of his finest clothes, but he doesn’t care. He dresses with jerky motions, stopping now and then to wipe at his nose or his eyes, and uses magic to do up the row of tiny buttons on the front. He’s almost out of the door before he remembers that his boots don’t exactly go with the new outfit. The solution is a pair of shoes that are just this side of too small. He tries a couple of steps and grimaces when they squeeze his feet painfully.
He glares down at them. “Rýmaþ.” Nothing happens. “Rýmaþ!” He feels a feeble stirring in the leather, and then, if anything, the shoes grow tighter. Merlin’s hands ball into fists. He closes his eyes, making fresh tears slip down his cheeks.
Arthur would give anything …
Power roars through him, the shoes tear with a frightful sound and lie in tatters around his feet.
Merlin sobs, once, body shaking, and then he grabs his own boots and shoves his feet back into them. Damn everything. If anyone dares to say a word about his footwear he’ll turn them into a frog.
His old clothes disappear in a flash of fire and burst of smoke. Full of the power he failed to use when it mattered, Merlin doesn’t need more than his will to make the clothes on the floor shove themselves back into the wardrobe. He doesn’t care that it ends up in a mess.
He wipes at his eyes one last time, and inhales deeply to calm himself. The aging spell requires concentration. Will Arthur wonder where Merlin has gone? Merlin won’t be able to change back without the potion on Gaius’ shelf back home, which means he’ll have to leave for Camelot with no chance of explaining his absence to Arthur. He can leave a note, but what will he say? Perhaps Arthur will be relieved? Merlin pushes those thoughts away. He has a job to do, and everything after will come as it may.
He mumbles the spell and age descends on him like a cloak. He barely waits for the changes to settle before he is out the door, locking it with a careless wave of his hand, and setting off down the corridor.
He’s not even at the first corner before he just breaks down. His breath hitches, and then the first great gasping sobs make him stagger and double over. He finds the wall and slides down along it, curling up and weeping into his knees. Tears and mucus get in his beard and his hair, and he can’t breathe because the convulsions are coming on too fast. He must look a picture; an old man, with gnarly hands clenched in his long hair, rocking himself over loud sobs.
Has he become so self-important that the dead no longer bother him? The people he could have saved if he had been willing to risk himself. Arthur said he would have done anything in his power, and he would have, just like he always does. Merlin could have waved his hand and warmed the shivering prisoners as easily as he had locked that door. He could have killed Ragnor and his men and freed everyone long before they reached the icy valleys. He could have gotten himself and Arthur out of the net without so much as a whisper. It was all within his power, but he chose to do nothing, to preserve a friendship that was based on a lie.
At some point along the road, Merlin has begun to care more about being with Arthur than he cares about the people waiting for him to free them. He has let them down, just as he has let down the men who lie stiff and dead at the campsite in Ismere. Even now, what hurts the most is not the peaceful faces of those dead men, or Mordred’s secret smile when he smuggled Merlin bread the morning after that night. What hurts is that Merlin loves Arthur, but is unworthy, and worse than that, it isn’t even the unworthiness that has caused Arthur to send him away. Arthur just doesn’t love Merlin.
Perhaps there is more to the aging spell than frail bones and wrinkled skin, for when Merlin eventually calms down, he quickly begins to think more practically. Arthur must be spared further humiliation at Ragnor’s hands, not just for personal reasons, but because it would damage his image as king, both at home and with his allies in Caerleon. Merlin has the power to keep Arthur’s secret safe, and this time he fully intends to use it.
His old body takes less kindly to sitting on the floor than his young one does, but once he’s limped a ways, the ache begins to fade. He goes back to the nobleman’s chamber first, to wash his face, conjuring water into the empty basin. A hand mirror found in a drawer tells him he looks a mess still, eyes all red and puffy, but he’s an old man and nobody knows him, so he doesn’t have to give a damn. He sneers at his own image to get into character, and finds that spite makes him feel better.
As he descends into the dungeons, he thinks that the new clothes, hanging heavily on his shoulders, make him feel more like a mighty sorcerer and less like a wounded sparrow. By the time he has to deal with his first guards, Merlin is ready to laugh at them as they sink to the floor, fast asleep at his word.
Then he stands for a moment indecisively at the top of the line, knowing that somewhere in the darkness ahead waits faces he doesn’t want to see, and voices he never wants to hear again. As the guards snore behind him, Merlin realises that he doesn’t actually know what to do with Ragnor, and the others who know and might still use the secret against Arthur. Kill them? Technically, they are already dead men, sentenced to hang. He takes no pleasure from the prospect of speeding them to their end, however, feels only sickened by the thought, frightened that their ghosts will attach themselves to him, that he will have to carry the sounds of their last breaths with him the way he carries their leering smiles.
He takes his first hesitant steps forward, aware that he does not have all the time in the world. He thinks he could silence them, but it would be clear evidence that sorcery was used, and the effect of the spell would be specific enough to perhaps arouse suspicion. Merlin takes a deep breath and pushes himself into a slow walk, looking through the bars for the men. He can decide once he finds them. Perhaps being face to face with Ragnor will provide its own answers.
There are no windows down here, unlike in the dungeons in Camelot, but a torch is burning outside the farthest cell. Merlin is almost there when he is stopped by a voice.
“I thought perhaps the King had come at last, but he cowers in his chambers still, I suppose. Who are you, old man, to have dispatched the guards so quietly? Have you come for the child?”
Merlin squints in the darkness. The torchlight just ahead casts this cell in shadow, and the number of men in it makes it seem darker still.
Merlin expected more than a slight increase in heart rate at the sound of that voice, but his own voice is quite steady when he replies. “I am your judge, Ragnor of Ismere.”
The figure huddled by the bars stands slowly, and when Merlin moves, light falls on his face. Lanky grey hair frames a bruised face. One eye is swollen shut, but the other one is quick as ever, and the split lips are as ready to smile. “I have been judged already. I die in the morning, haven’t you heard?”
Merlin steps closer. “I have. What sort of deal do you imagine the King of Camelot can give you? He is but a man, far from home.”
Ragnor’s eyes narrow, and there is some nervous murmuring from the lot behind him. The Scot does not lose a beat, though. “I thought I would leave it up to His Majesty to supply the imagination. I’ve got nothing to lose, while he’s got a great deal, so I’m sure he could come up with something.”
“Or what? There is no tale to tell, no grand secret, there is only your perversion, and a soldier who did what he had to do to survive.”
At that, Ragnor laughs, though it rings hollow, the mirth of a dead man. “I don’t know what you think you know, old man, but speaking as someone who saw and heard, I would say there is a secret, and it is grand indeed.”
Merlin’s brow furrows in confusion. He can’t make sense of Ragnor’s words. What is he referring to?
Ragnor’s one good eye narrows as he studies Merlin. “I don’t think you ever told us who you are.”
“What will it take to buy your silence?” Merlin asks.
“My freedom,” the Scot replies.
“Then I will free you.” He needs no spell to carry out his intent, only his hands raised to guide the power bursting from behind his eyes. Ragnor is flung back, his head hitting the stones with a wet crack. The other men scramble to their feet with shouts of fear, and begin to scream for the guards, for help, for mercy. Merlin spots Hamár among them, and for the first time, he experiences the cold sweat and nausea he was anticipating. Hamár is the next to die. Their necks snap, their skulls crack open, and their bodies lie sprawled on the floor of the cell like ragdolls.
Merlin leans his clammy forehead on the bars and tries to convince himself that all he has done is deprive the hangman of a day’s wage. It was necessary. For Camelot. For Arthur.
Then he hears the hushed sobs coming from the next cell, the one lit by the torch. He goes to see. A ragged woman is sitting on the straw in a corner, a girl child cradled in her arms.