“All I want is a hot bath, and then sleep.” Merlin groaned, dismounting. Arthur followed suit, allowing the waiting stable hands to lead their horses away. “You’re on your own tomorrow. I’m taking a holiday.”
Arthur smirked. “Can’t keep up, Merlin?”
“Gods, no. I’m done. Why I have to work for an arrogant prat…” Merlin muttered as the prince laughed.
They were greeted at the Prince’s chambers by the king’s personal guard. The lanky servant yelped as he was grabbed and cuffed in shackles.
“Merlin Emerys, son of Balinor, former Prince and Dragon lord of Camelot, you are under arrest by order of King Uther, for the knowledge and practice of sorcery.”
“What is the meaning of this? Unhand us, this instant!” Arthur demanded.
“Arthur Pendragon, you are also under arrest for knowingly and willingly consorting with a sorcerer–”
“Warlock.” Merlin corrected, but was ignored.
“–and harboring him against the king’s justice.”
“Justice!” Arthur roared. “This is madness! He just saved all of our lives, and my father wants to execute him?”
“Arthur, enough.” Merlin said sharply as his eyes flashed gold. Arthur, stop it. If you fight them, you’ll be thrown in the dungeons with no chance of helping anyone. You must stay and finish what we started. Please, sire. For the love of Camelot.
Arthur froze as Merlin’s voice resounded in his head. Merlin’s gaze was resigned, but unwaveringly trusting. He reluctantly stopped struggling, and allowed the guards to pull them both away, assuming that they would be led to the dungeons, or possibly to the council chambers to face the king directly.
Instead, Arthur was pulled away up the stairs, as Merlin was dragged outside to the courtyard, where two pyres were already set up.
“Don’t do this!” Arthur pleaded, but his father did not turn or acknowledge him as he stepped out onto the balcony.
The two men gasped simultaneously, though distance separated them. Gaius was already tied to the first pyre. His grey head was up, his gazed fixed steadily on the king standing above them all on his balcony, although the fight and life was already gone from his tired blue eyes.
Merlin began fighting in earnest, struggling to get to his mentor, but there were too many guards, and eventually he was overwhelmed and tied firmly to the second pyre.
“Gaius Physician, you have been accused and judged guilty of the knowledge and practice of magic, of willingly and knowingly consorting with a sorcerer–”
“Warlock!” Merlin muttered rebelliously.
“–and harboring him against the king’s justice.” Uther’s gaze was hard. “I granted you clemency these many years, and you have been my faithful friend and servant. However, you have betrayed me, and protected a sorcerer under my own roof. I cannot grant you mercy for that. You are sentenced to death, to be carried out, forthwith.”
“I regret nothing, my lord.” Gaius replied, his low voice carrying clearly in the still air. “And I ask nothing of you except this: stay and watch. You, who was my king, my liege, whom I was loyal to until the end. Grant me this last wish, and face your choices, your decisions alone.”
Gaius had played his last hand perfectly. Uther now had to stay; to leave would be a sign of remorse and weakness, something that the King would never show.
“Gaius!” Merlin cried helplessly.
A thin, reedy voice insinuated itself into his mind. Don’t be foolish, Merlin. Let me go, please. My time is over. I am a creature of the Old Religion, as the dragon was, for all that I betrayed my kin and kind. This is just payment for my sins, and soon I will be with my darling Alice once again. Goodbye, my boy. I love you. Let me go home.
Silent tears streamed down Merlin’s face as his head bowed and his eyes flashed gold. Gaius’ head slumped down onto his shoulder as the pyreman set torch to tinder. He would never cry out as the flames grew mercilessly higher, for he was dead before the first spark fell.
Up on the balcony there was muffled sounds of commotion, just out of sight. Uther turned to glare angrily at his son, now gagged and shackled, who returned his glare hatefully. “I will deal with you later. Let him see the traitor burn, and then take him to the dungeons.”
Arthur was forced to the doorway to watch as Uther stepped forward farther onto the balcony and addressed Merlin and the crowd below, listing the warlock’s so-called sins, and waxing eloquent upon his hatred of magic. The warlock stared up at the king as he finished.
“Magic is a part of me; it is what I am, and you cannot destroy it. I regret none of my actions since my first arrival here in Camelot, even knowing that it could be me on the pyre instead of Matthew Collins as it was that day. And no matter how much you rage against it and fight to eradicate it from your life, there will always be magic in the world, Uther. The only way you can harness your guilt and fear is to face the fact that you alone, ultimately, sacrificed the Queen’s life. You tried to gamble with fate and the Balance of the world; and you lost. Accept that, and accept your sins.”
“Enough!” The king snapped.