I am really, really sorry for not updating. I really am. Honestly. But stuff happened, I went on holiday, I went back to school, I had lots of exams (still do - urgh), and stuff just piled up. Sorrysorrysorry!!!
Ahem. Love to MirrorMyThoughts, static-as-you-walk-away, Kaerya, buttonbit, ScaredandConfused, PaperSpades, XtremeFrolicker89, alice, Hiyami and Suifox. Also to Kesomon, Arianith, CassandraMatinui and khibaeri for faving! And HopeCoppice and BlueSouledShadowDragon for putting it on alert. I love you guys!
I will update this time. I promise.
Merlin grunted as he yanked his shirt on as fast as he could. A border skirmish? Why? Why him? And why on earth did Arthur have to go? Wasn't it risky to send the only heir of Camelot into a battle?
Questions to which he already knew the answers. He growled under his breath and stumbled to his door flinging it open to George's despairing expression. "You can fix those on the way," he sighed, looking at Merlin's feet. Merlin looked down and his eyes widened in comprehension – he had been in such a hurry, he'd put his boots on the wrong feet. And his shirt was inside out.
"Come on!" George insisted as Merlin tore his shirt off and pulled in the right way in. "My uncle's going to flay me alive for running away at a time like this! Oh, and if Arthur says anything about having me as a manservant instead," he added quickly, "He's just joking around. He used to do it to me when he rode out with his knights."
Merlin switched boots as quickly as he could. "Really?"
"Absolutely." George nodded and pushed him towards the door. "Now get out there and for goodness sakes don't get into any swordfights. Or any fights."
"Okay – seeyoulaterGaiusI'lltrytostaysafebye!" Merlin gabbled as he was spun round the corner by an anxious George. The stable boy kept a crushing grip on his arm as he dragged Merlin out into the crowded courtyard. Merlin gaped – was this how all battles started? The yard was full of yelling men, clanking armour, rearing horses and all manner of sharp, pointy weapons. It was pandemonium, confusing and scary.
George shoved him, and he stumbled in front of a familiar horse – Hubert. "Sire, your manservant." George gasped.
"What?" Arthur frowned. "But I –"
"I'm needed here, sire," George interrupted. "In case the Mercians try to set fire to the stables." Merlin could feel the nerves radiating from him like heat. "Excuse me, my Lord," he bowed, "my uncle." And ran away, ducking and weaving through the throngs of flighty horses and battle-ready soldiers with an ease Merlin could only admire.
"Wonderful." Arthur's growl brought him back to earth with a painful thud, and Merlin scowled. "Well don't just stand there!" The Prince nudged Merlin's shoulder none-too-gently with his boot. "Go and get a horse. You can't keep up on foot."
"Right." Merlin didn't bother to bow as he slipped away and grabbed the reins of a lanky gelding and hauled himself into the saddle. He sat there for a moment, stunned and surprised that he'd managed to get up so easily, and grinned.
"Knights!" Arthur's voice rose above the clamour, and the noise in the courtyard stilled slightly. "We ride!"
There was a hearty cheer in response, and horses reared as the knights waved their weapons in the air, ready to kill the invaders. Merlin took the opportunity to weave through to Arthur. "Why am I here?"
Arthur looked at him. No, Arthur glared at him. "To watch my back."
Merlin raised his eyebrows. "Then who watches their backs?" He jerked his head behind him to the mass of soldiers on horseback.
Arthur drew in a shallow breath and turned his gaze forward. "I do." He said in a low voice.
"And my back?" Merlin added hopefully.
Arthur turned to glare at him again. "Your back means nothing."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Nice. That's noble of you."
Arthur's eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to respond angrily, but the knights had finished their cheering now, and Arthur closed it again, his eyes telling Merlin that he would beb in big trouble later.
Merlin watched as Arthur spun Hubert to face his knights. "Gideon, take your company and head around to the east. I'll go west, and Bedivere, your company will charge forward to prevent the Mercians from attacking Camelot head on."
Gideon nodded and Bedivere thumped his chest determinedly. Arthur nodded to both and to the men behind as they shuffled into their companies. "Be swift." He said, and Bedivere grinned, shoving his visor down and raising his sword with a yell.
"With me!" His men shouted in response and they galloped away down the drawbridge. Gideon let loose a war-cry that chilled Merlin's bones and led his company after them.
"Stay close, and don't even think of running off like a coward." Arthur growled out of the corner of his mouth. Merlin looked at him, affronted, but Arthur paid no notice and turned to his company instead. "For Camelot!"
"For Camelot!" They shouted back determinedly, and horses reared in the darkness, steel glinting in the air. Merlin only just managed to kick his gelding into action to get them down the drawbridge, managing somehow to stay up the head of the column with Arthur.
He wondered as they rode (or rather, the knights and Arthur rode – Merlin just let his gelding follow Hubert and the others, letting himself be carried along placidly), what the battle would be like, and worried. His mother had always said how battle was an ugly affair, and Merlin certainly held no misconceptions of it being a deal of glory and beauty. His best friend from Ealdor – Will – had taught him that. His father had been killed in service to their King, and Merlin knew how harsh war could be on those the dead left behind.
And he didn't even have a sword. What on earth was he going to do? How was he meant to protect himself, let alone Arthur? Merlin worried and went over nasty scenarios in his mind as they rode into the forest to meet the Mercians.
In the trees, Arthur ordered them to slow to a walk, and they crept through the undergrowth as quietly as possible. Merlin swallowed hard and leaned over his gelding's neck. He didn't like the tension emanating from the knights – it made him nervous. Plus, he had the feeling they were being watched. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he shivered.
Arthur turned towards him, his eyes black as pitch in the darkness. He waved to get Merlin's attention and pointed at his sword, then at Merlin, a questioning expression on his face. Merlin shrugged helplessly and looked around. He was sure they were being watched.
Obviously Arthur could feel it too, and he gestured for his knights to cluster close. The battle, when it came, came suddenly.
An arrow whistled past a knight's head and his horse reared. Merlin threw himself flat as an arrow shot over his own shoulders and embedded itself in a tree. Suddenly, there were yells, and blue all around as the Mercian knights attacked.
Merlin's gelding reared as a figure in blue slashed at it, and Merlin was thrown off, winded and bruised. As he tried to catch his breath, he saw Arthur ordering his knights into a formation and attacking the Mercians with brutal sword strokes, aimed to kill.
He staggered to his feet and leaned against a tree. A Mercian knight charged at him, having breached Arthur's wall. One of the red-cloaked knights spun quickly and hacked into the man's unprotected neck. He fell with a scream that ended in a gurgle, blood black as ink spraying out like a fountain. Merlin felt his entire body go cold, and his stomach clenched painfully.
The man wasn't dead. He crawled towards Merlin, dragging himself through the leaves slowly, moaning and leaving a dark trail of blood behind him. Merlin knew the man probably couldn't even see him – he just wanted to crawl away from the battle to increase his chances of survival.
Merlin dashed forward and picked up the Mercian's sword from where he had dropped it. He looked back at the man uncertainly. As a subject of Camelot, he should kill the Mercian.
No, he decided. He was no killer. That was Arthur's job. Leave the killing to the trained knights. He was here to watch Arthur's back, and that was exactly what he would do.
Arthur's wall had spread out – there were more Mercians than them, but the knights had horses, and the Mercians had underestimated the power of a war-trained horse. Arthur was still on Hubert, and the giant animal was a demon in the night. While Arthur slashed and hacked at the Mercian soldiers on the ground, Hubert whirled and spun, lashing out with fore and hind legs, rearing and bucking to escape crippling blows and kicking out with force enough to kill a grown man.
But then he tripped in a small hole, and stumbled, and Arthur slipped and fell from his back. He rolled and came up as Mercian screamed a battle cry and lunged for him.
And Merlin's eyes flashed gold.
The world slowed down, and he leapt forward, sword rising up to meet the Mercian's and save Arthur. The world caught up with him just as the Mercian's sword came down on Merlin's with more force than he would have thought possible. He staggered and tripped sideways, but the damage had been done – Arthur was ready now, and Merlin turned to see him clashing swords furiously with the Mercian, who was screaming insults as he fought.
Another man in blue ran at Arthur from behind, and this time the Prince didn't have Hubert to kick the life out of him, so Merlin dashed forward into the Mercian's path as Arthur ran his blade through his opponent's stomach and killed him, turning in time to see his manservant defending himself helplessly against a Mercian knight who had been making to plunge his sword into Arthur's back.
The Mercian punched Merlin squarely in the neck, and the boy choked and fell backwards. Arthur rose in his place, parrying the blow meant to kill Merlin and turning it back on the Mercian.
Merlin coughed painfully, his eyes watering. His fingers tightened around his sword and as another Mercian made to attack Arthur – honestly, he seemed to attract them like flowers attracted bees – and he swung it up hopefully.
The Mercian kicked him away effortlessly, and Merlin groaned as he thudded to the ground and the Mercian raised his sword to kill Arthur.
Arthur turned on instinct to see a Mercian who would surely have killed him, fall with a yell of pain as an ineptly-handled sword sliced into his ankles. Arthur stabbed his blade through the fallen man's back and followed the sword back to a dark-haired head – his manservant, again.
As the victory cry rose through the darkness and the blood-soaked leaves and spattered trees, Arthur considered his position, and then approached the boy, who he had expected to cower against a tree or try to flee at the first sight of blood.
Merlin groaned into the ground and raised his head to see a gauntleted hand offered out. He gripped it without thinking, and was pulled up off the ground easily. Damn knights and their superior strength, he grumbled inwardly. He raised his eyes to meet Arthur's, and gaped, surprised.
"I believe that's the third time you've saved my life tonight." The Prince said quietly. "You have my thanks."
"I'd rather have you be civil to me for a change." Merlin sniped, aching in places he didn't even know he could ache. He watched through dark blue eyes as Arthur considered him silently, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"I didn't expect you to fight." He said finally.
Merlin snorted. "I didn't. This is the first time I've used a sword. I just waved it around really – are they meant to be that heavy?"
Arthur smiled amusedly despite himself. "Yes, idiot."
Merlin scowled. "I'm not an idiot, you prat. And my name is Merlin."
Arthur stared at him thoughtfully. No one else dared talk to him like that, not even his knights. His father would have had any servant who spoke to him like that put in the stocks…
Arthur turned away, back to his knights, who were now checking their losses. He stopped suddenly and looked over his shoulder at his servant, who was still standing there, looking very small and thin in nothing but his blood-spattered jacket and breeches, while everyone else was in full armour. "Your horse is dead," he said shortly. "You'd better ride with me…Merlin."
Merlin tilted his head to one side as the Prince walked away to check over his knights and smiled crookedly. Maybe things would get better from here on in. Just maybe.