Author's note: When I was watching the season finale the other day, I was intrigued by the idea that Arthur had heard what Gwen said to him while he was unconscious. This got me thinking. What if that wasn't the only thing Arthur heard? What if he actually heard everything that went on around him? I didn't actually plan to write this – I was really hoping somebody else would have picked up on it but my muse just wouldn't let it drop. Two hours later, here's the result. I confess that all dialogue was shamelessly *borrowed* from Ep. 1x13 and none of this belongs to me. Nonetheless, please let me know if you enjoyed it. :)
Arthur wasn't quite sure how he had ended up flat on his back on the floor of the cave, trapped in what he could only fail to describe as conscious unconsciousness. Superficially, he considered, he was displaying all the symptoms of unconsciousness. His eyes were closed, his breathing shallow, and he was completely unable to move. What differentiated this from the more normal varieties of unconsciousness, however, was that he wasn't. Unconscious, that is. He could feel the cold, damp stone floor on his back and he could even more clearly hear Merlin's frantic cries for help. He just…couldn't interact.
He thought about the moments leading up to his current situation. He had, foolishly as it turned out, separated from the rest of his knights and ventured deeper into the caves with only Merlin following behind him. As the beast had emerged from its hiding place, he had done his best to push the young servant backwards out of harm's way, but before he had time to react further, the creature was upon him. He had recovered quickly, thrusting his sword forwards, but the creature had been too fast. In one movement it had lunged towards him, its fang sinking into his shoulder. For a moment he stared at the monster in disbelief, then he felt the sword falling from his hand. Before he knew what was happening, he followed it. Thus began his journey through conscious unconsciousness.
He could hear Merlin's enraged cries from somewhere behind him, and for a moment he feared his servant had suffered the same fate, but then Merlin's voice rang out clearly across the cave, speaking an ancient language he was unable to comprehend. He heard the beast let out an infuriated roar, and the sound was followed by the sound of a giant body crashing to the floor. Somehow, his manservant had defeated it. He tried for a moment to process this information. Merlin had used some form of spell to kill the questing beast. No. He couldn't have. He wouldn't have… Before he could consider his deduction further, he had felt a warm hand resting on his shoulder and Merlin's panicked voice had invaded his thoughts.
'It didn't bite you, it didn't,' his servant's voice had informed him, as though wishing would make it so. Then came the moment that Merlin had obviously been dreading – his hand came to rest on the gaping wound on the prince's shoulder. Arthur had been surprised to find that it didn't even hurt.
'Arthur!' the prince had been surprised by the level of anguish he could hear in his young friend's voice. He had long suspected that the servant had become fond of him but for Merlin to sound so distraught, Arthur knew that this must be really, really bad. As Merlin continued to scream for help, he came to understand two things. Firstly, Merlin had lied to him. His friend was, and probably always had been, a sorcerer, and if the speed with which he had dispatched the questing beast was anything to go by, a very powerful one. Secondly, he, Arthur, Crown Prince of Camelot, was going to die.
Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about either of these pieces of information. As he felt himself lifted from the ground and carried away from the caves, his pervading thought was that Merlin had deceived him. The man he had called his friend for so many months had turned out to be a sorcerer, something Arthur Pendragon had been raised to hate. Despite this, he found himself unable to feel malice towards his manservant. If sorcerers, and by extension Merlin, were truly evil as his father had insisted, why had the young man not acted before now? On the contrary, Merlin had proved time and time again that he was prepared to lay down his life for the prince, and the absolute despair in Merlin's voice back in that cave could not have been faked. By revealing his use of magic, the servant had shown himself to be an enemy of Camelot, but Arthur could not accept this. Whatever Merlin had been hiding, it didn't matter. Merlin was, and always would be, his friend.
With all these contradicting thoughts running through his head, Arthur barely even had time to think about the idea of his death before he felt himself deposited on some form of wooden table, and Gaius' voice confirmed that he had returned to Camelot.
'What happened?' the physician's voice called out. Within seconds his tone became more accusing. 'He's been bitten.' Merlin's voice responded almost immediately.
'I tried to save him.' The exchange told Arthur everything he needed to know. Gaius knew about Merlin's powers. Nobody who took the young man at face value would have considered him in any way qualified to serve as Arthur's protector. The man was loyal, even stupidly brave on occasion, but he barely knew one end of a sword from another – he was certainly no warrior.
'You must tell the king,' Gaius was informing someone.
'There must be something we can do,' Merlin's frantic voice sounded again. Gaius' reply confirmed the prince's earlier suspicions.
'I wish there was.' Both Gaius and Arthur may have been convinced that could be only one possible outcome, but Merlin's next words informed the prince that even when faced with hopeless odds, the young man was not prepared to give up. The thought warmed him slightly.
'I'll find a cure,'
'Trust me.' The sound of running footsteps indicated the young man's departure. As the fleeting wish that Merlin had stayed passed across the prince's mind, he felt Gaius' breath on his face.
'Can you hear me, sire?' Only too clearly, Arthur thought, but his body continued to deny his commands. Rapid, heavy footsteps signalled Merlin's return.
'Here,' Merlin had clearly returned with something.
'The king will be here at any moment,' Gaius' fearful voice objected to whatever Merlin was about to do.
'He cannot die! It is my destiny to protect him!' he heard Merlin argue vehemently. Arthur took a moment to consider this new information. He had known instinctively that Merlin was no enemy, but this new information gave him a whole new perspective. The thought that someone or something had sent such a gift, a man both as powerful and as loyal as Merlin, to protect him, was…humbling. There was no other word for it.
'We haven't done all the things we were meant to do,' Merlin continued to argue.
'That is a lament of old men,' Gaius shot back.
'Gaius, he's my friend,' Arthur heard Merlin deal his final card. 'And you mine', Arthur thought to himself. 'A better friend than I ever had a right to expect, and I haven't even known it.'
'Then save him,' Gaius finally conceded. Arthur listened as Merlin cast spell after spell, all to no avail.
'Maybe the spells need time to take effect,' Merlin suggested after a moment. 'I don't think so, Merlin,' the prince concluded. 'This time I've had it. Even you can't help me now.'
'The bite of the questing beast is a death sentence that no magic can overturn,' Gaius confirmed.
'Where's my son? Arthur!' the prince heard his father approaching, surprised to note that his voice echoed Merlin's earlier panicked tone. 'Do something, Gaius.'
'I am trying, your majesty,' the physician answered.
'Gaius will find a cure. He will not let him die,' the manservant added. Arthur knew that tone. It was the tone that Merlin used when he was desperate enough to try something very, very, stupid. 'I'm not worth that, Merlin,' he argued mentally, but his argument went unheard.
'I will do everything in my power,' Gaius agreed. 'And so will Merlin,' the prince acknowledged silently. 'Just please, Merlin, don't get yourself killed on my account. Your life is worth so much more than you think it is.'
As he felt himself lifted into his father's strong arms, Arthur began to come to terms with the strangeness of the situation. It was probably a good thing he hadn't been able to speak when Merlin's secret had been revealed. Over the last few hours he had learned the true extent of his servant's loyalty, and Merlin's dedication easily outweighed Arthur's misgivings when it came to magic. The prince decided there and then that if by some miracle he survived this, he would keep Merlin's secret. That was, after all, one of the many things that friends did for one another.