Warnings: Shades of dub con
A/N: Post Le morte d'Arthur.
There are times - more frequent since the days have grown shorter and the nights ever longer - when Uther insists on conversation once the initial need is sated, or if not conversation then at least Merlin's attention while Uther voices his thoughts on whatever matter is currently occupying his thoughts. Sometimes the discourse is perfectly mundane in nature - some trivial court feud that Uther must rule upon, bills from Morgana's dressmaker - but from time to time Uther's voice grows softer and more measured as his thoughts turn to other, graver considerations. In Uther's bedchamber Merlin hears of politics and treaties and diplomacy and a world so far removed from his own duties that Uther might as well be speaking of another land entirely. At Uther's feet he has come to realise more than ever how skilled a helmsman a king must be to steer a course through such treacherous waters, and how lucky Camelot is that it is Uther still on the throne and not Arthur, for Arthur is in no way ready for such machinations.
Tonight Uther chooses to reminisce. This is not the first time he has done so; Merlin has heard many times of the evils sorcery visited upon Camelot in the years before Arthur's birth, and of Uther's long and arduous fight against those who practised it. Occasionally, in his lighter moods, Uther might tell him a story of Arthur's childhood that Merlin suspects Arthur would not wish his manservant to know but for the most part there is no such entertainment in Uther's tales. In the king's cold recounting of arrests and spilled blood and public executions Merlin sees his own fate if he fails to take the care he should and it is to his great relief that Uther chooses to avoid that particular subject tonight, speaking instead of his own youth and his own ascension to the throne. Knowing that Uther's tales are never short, Merlin rests his head against the king's knee and closes his eyes, lulled by the warmth of the fire and Uther's mellow tones.
"Arthur knows nothing of war," Uther says absently, coming to the end of his tale. He frowns as Merlin raises his head and shakes his head in vehement negation. "Are you disagreeing with me?"
Merlin is. Arthur is Camelot's strongest warrior; Gaius told him so and Merlin has himself watched Arthur fight, both in tournament and in other, less civilised surroundings and he knows it to be true. A prince he may be but Arthur is a warrior born and bred, and Merlin knows the prince can kill without a moment's hesitation. He knows Uther is wrong and Merlin protests as much.
Uther scowls. His hand tugs on the leash attached to Merlin's collar so that Merlin's head is drawn firmly against Uther's thigh once again. "No," he says, more emphatically. "Arthur knows nothing of war. And I hope he never does."
The single candle on the table flickers and Merlin opens his mouth to protest and Uther tugs on the leash again, hard enough for Merlin to try and bring his hands up to relieve the sudden pressure on his neck. Uther watches with an expression of detached interest as Merlin struggles against the ties securing his bound wrists to the table leg before finally giving up and sinking back to his knees, resigned. The floor is cold and hard and the position Uther has him in is uncomfortable. Which is, Merlin supposes, the point.
"Will you be quiet now?" Uther asks, his voice soft and brittle.
Merlin nods. He has had his chance to protest. His bound hands still their twisting motion. For now, at least, he is quiet and attentive.
And then Uther tells Merlin about war.
The life of a king is one of duty as well as privilege. Whatever fear and apprehension is felt inside must not be shown, even when standing before the massed ranks of your army, the king's army, trying not to see them for the people they are because you must ask them to die for you. A miscalculation on your part will send them to a meaningless death and no history book will ever note their names or mourn their passing. Only yours, for better or for worse. In your hands lies the fate of a kingdom.
There is no glory in marching for hours in the cold and rain, muscles aching with the strain of bearing armour and weapons, hungry but too sick with fear to eat. No glory in laying siege to a town for weeks or months, disease and pestilence decimating your army, while you wait for its defenders to be slowly starved into reluctant submission. What others might call bravery feels like something else when advancing towards an implacable, ruthless enemy horde.
To fight in war is no tourney battle. A knight might die in tourney but that would be considered unfortunate; in war that is his fate. There's no time for grace or dexterity or skill or even bravery; primal instinct and blind terror take over and a well-born knight is no better than any other man. Kill or be killed, by fair means or foul.
Uther's voice grows softer, so quiet Merlin has to strain to hear the measured words.
There are many ways to kill a man and many ways to make the victory still more emphatic. Uther seems to take a certain dark pleasure in watching Merlin blanch and shiver as he details those past horrors. Uther does not spare himself a share of the guilt, or try and excuse his own brutality with empty words.
When, finally, his voice quiets Merlin's head is bowed. "Why do you tell me this?" he whispers.
Uther cups his chin, forcing Merlin to look up at him.
"Because I want you to understand. I fought those battles so that my son will never have to. I have brought peace to this land, and Arthur will not know what war is."
Merlin does not look away or back down.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because one day I will be dead and the weight of the kingdom will fall on Arthur's shoulders, and when that day comes he will need you." Uther's fingers tighten their grip. "He will need you."
"Arthur does not need me," Merlin says mulishly. He's a better liar than he used to be - Arthur would be dead ten times over if not for him - but he feels uncomfortable talking about Arthur so casually when he's bound on his knees on the floor of Arthur's father's bedchamber dressed in nothing more than a tabard emblazoned with the Pendragon crest.
Uther's fingers tighten their grip again; Merlin's eyes are watering with the pain of it. "Do you think me a fool?" the king hisses. "Do you think I cannot see?"
Uther cannot know, Merlin thinks frantically, he cannot ... but it is clear he does and time slows to a crawl and for once it is not of his doing. There is nowhere to run to, no sanctuary, no easy distraction. He can only gaze up at Uther helplessly, looking for the slightest glimmer of mercy in that shuttered face. Mercy he knows cannot be, for Uther is implacable when it comes to the use of magic. There can be no exception for him, regardless of his position in Camelot - official and otherwise.
Uther reaches out with his free hand and takes up his dagger from the table. Merlin closes his eyes. This is it, he thinks with dizzying clarity. This is the moment he has been half-expecting since he walked through the gates of Camelot and saw what happened to sorcerers in Uther's kingdom.
"I am not so blind..."
Merlin can barely hear Uther's words over the rasp of his own breath and the pounding of his heart. He flinches as the very tip of the blade brushes against his hair, just above his ear, and wonders what Arthur will say when Uther tells him of Merlin's fate.
"Of course I know he wants you," Uther murmurs. The hand holding Merlin's jaw releases its grip; he hooks a finger under Merlin's collar instead. "I can see it in his eyes when he looks at you. He thinks I do not know but he has never been a good liar."
The relief is so profound Merlin has to bite back a foolish, hysterical laugh; he presses his face against the king's thigh so that Uther will not see his expression. He expects Uther to ask the obvious question but instead the king leans forwards, tugging Merlin’s head back so that Merlin has no choice but to look at him. There is no time to compose himself, and he can only hope that Uther mistakes his relief for embarrassment.
The blade brushes against his hair again; a reminder, as if Merlin needed one, of the mortal danger he courts with every breath. He gazes up at Uther, waiting for the king to speak.
Uther does not speak, and his expression gives Merlin no hint as to his thoughts either. Only his hand moves, and Merlin’s breath hitches as the dagger's tip ghosts slowly across his cheek, so close he can feel the whisper of it on his skin, and then the flat of the blade touches lightly against his lips. The metal is as cold and implacable as Uther's eyes and Merlin shivers under its touch, but for all his apprehension it occurs to him that if Uther is truly intending on carrying out his execution then this is a peculiarly convoluted way of going about it.
Carefully, hesitantly, Merlin presses his lips against the blade. It is surely his imagination that he tastes blood, for when he pulls away the polished metal is smooth and unmarked.
"Get up," Uther says.
It hurts to stand; Merlin has been kneeling for long enough for the sudden return of blood to be exquisitely painful. Uther watches him rub at his arms, that same strange, closed expression on his face.
"Do you think me a cruel man?" Uther asks, unexpectedly, and there is nothing Merlin can think to say in response that is not a lie.
Uther grimaces and gets to his feet in turn, draining the last of the wine before reaching for the leash. Merlin lets Uther draw him closer, holds himself still as Uther's hands slowly trace the Pendragon crest over his heart.
"What needs to be done must be done," Uther says softly. "One day you will understand that."
"Yes," Merlin says, and he thinks of Morgana and the darkness in her eyes when Gwen's father died. "I understand."