Those That Resonate Our Beginnings.
The greatest stories are those that resonate our beginnings and intuit our endings, our mysterious origins and our numinous destinies, and dissolve them both into one."
The first time Arthur sees him he's five years old: he has run away from his nursemaid's care and Gaius' watch and he has hidden away because he heard them talk about the execution. Three witches are to die today, and Arthur might be young but he knows his father will be there. Even more, he knows that his father will be proud if he learns that Arthur wanted to be there to see how the laws came through, that even though he might be young he wants to be by his side when he punishes those who break the law.
But it's nothing at all like Arthur expected to be. The women cry and beg as they are tied upon a pole, and the people of Camelot are grim faced. His father, as well, looks grave and serious, and he gives the order without minding the way his people beg him for mercy.
Arthur doesn't want to see, but he can't close his eyes. The women scream as the fire grows, as it licks at their legs, at their bodies, and Arthur can't close his eyes at all. He doesn't know if his father is still there, and for the first time in his short life, Arthur doesn't care if his father is there or not, if Arthur realizes that he's there or not.
Finally, the spell is broken: the women are still screaming as they burn to death, but Arthur finally manages to run away. He has forgotten about his nursemaid, about Gaius, about his father standing there with no mercy at all as three women were burnt in front of him. Arthur runs and doesn't stop running until his short legs can't hold him anymore.
He stops in the garden, and through his heaving breaths Arthur realizes that he's crying. He rubs at his eyes, berates himself for being a baby: he's a prince and even more, Uther is his king. He has to obey him and respect him.
Arthur throws up on the roses, and he's still sobbing when he realizes that he's not alone.
A boy, a few years older than him is there, his whole expression somber. He's finely dressed, but his eyes are red and there are tear tracks running down his face. He has used his cape as a makeshift package, and while he glares at him, he finishes tying it.
"Who..." Arthur starts. The son of a noble, perhaps? One of the knights' squire?
But the boy simply stands up, the package in his arms and he looks at Arthur as if it hurt him to do so.
"Grow up," the boy tells him. "And remember how this day felt, young prince. And then, maybe, you will find out who I am."
And then he goes, and Arthur doesn't think about chiding the boy for treating him with so little respect until it's too late, and by then Gaius has walked into the garden, and Arthur allows Gaius to hold him until he stops shivering, and then he drinks the potion Gaius makes for him so that he won't have to think about those women anymore.
The second time Arthur sees him he's eleven years old: it's the very first official hunting trip he is allowed to join, and Arthur is adamant about getting, if not the strangest animal in sight, at least the biggest one; he goes on his own after a boar that is as tall as he was when standing straight, but something goes wrong: later he'd find out that a snake had attacked his horse.
But for now, his horse screams in fright and pain, raising on it's hind legs and despite Arthur's best efforts, with his animal panicking, Arthur falls down a slope, rolling down for what felt forever, and when it finally stopped he was barely conscious at all.
The moment he can think straight again he knew he has broken a leg and that despite his efforts to protect his head with his arms he has hit his head way too hard: he winces when his fingers find a bump on the back of his head and they come back red. He is lucky to be alive. Still, Arthur tries to move. His father's knights will be looking after him, and he can't just stay as he was. He'd be much of an easy prey like that. He has to be somewhere they could find him
Standing up proves impossible on his own. Arthur screams at the way the broken bones of his right leg shifted, and with his head injured even just sitting up leaves him dizzy and nauseous. He tries crawling up over the slope, but that, too, proves highly improbable with his broken leg. The slope is too steep for him to be able to move upwards without sliding right back with no proper leverage.
Arthur shakes his head, trying to stop himself from fainting like a bloody maiden. Oh, that would make Morgana's whole month, and he can already hear her laughter. It's not enough that he has failed, no, but he is also injured, and on his very first trip. Arthur gasps, doing his best to keep himself awake. He can remember Gaius' words and warnings about hitting ones' head and he knows he has to...
When he opens his eyes again, the shadows are much closer. Arthur shakes his head twice, even though that makes him nauseous again, holding unto his dagger. Something had woken him up, and despite his dulled senses he does know that something is getting closer. He doesn't think it's his father's men: he hears no armor clashing, no voice asking for him nor calling his name.
Arthur grits his teeth. If he is to die, he thinks, but he doesn't know how to finish it. Father won't care if he died, he thinks, but he will lose his heir. There'll be a war, maybe, and all because Uther's stupid son was enough of an idiot to let himself die. Arthur holds unto his dagger. If he is to die, he decides, he'd do so killing whoever it was who would kill him first, and that way at least keep some honour to his name.
But before despair and resignation could settle in, the snap of twigs and branches came through. A red fox runs through the bushes and, behind him, a boy about Arthur's age, maybe a little bit older, the same golden hair Arthur has but with eyes of green instead of blue, greener than the fields Arthur loves so much.
He is losing consciousness again. Arthur blinks several times, but the strange boy still comes to him, his eyes serious and his expression a mix of grief and anger and joy, but he kneels by his side and when his hand touches his shoulder, Arthur has the daftest feeling that he is now safe.
When he wakes up again there's a fire lit and the night has fallen down around them. His leg is tied together with branches, resting upon a stone to stop it from swelling, and rough linen is wrapped around his head. The boy is, again, kneeling by his side, offering him water from a rough jug.
"Drink," he orders, and Arthur's head pounds with the simple effort of raising his head enough to do so, but the water is cool and gentle in his burning throat.
"Who..." Arthur starts, dizzy with the effort of pushing himself off the ground, to look at the boy despite the way his vision swims.
The boy puts his hands on his shoulders, pushing him to rest and Arthur thinks about telling him off: he's the prince of Camelot, the son of Uther Pendragon, he who has saved this land from the hands of witchcraft. But the boy doesn't feel like an enemy at all, and Arthur can't help but think that this is probably how brothers feel, or maybe family. He realizes he has probably hurt his head far worse than he feared if he's thinking like that, even more now that he's sure that the boy means him no harm, and Arthur somehow knows, without a drop of doubt, that he would gladly kill for the boy alone.
"Grow up," the boy says, his voice rough. "And maybe you'll find out about that. But for now, rest."
And he couldn't say no to that, his eyes already heavy again, and Arthur falls asleep once more with the boy still kneeling by his side.
When he wakes up again it's for his father's voice, Uther sounding angry and disappointed and calling him an idiot, calling for Gaius. There was no sign of a fire, nor of the boy who had taken care of him, but his leg is still on its makeshift cast and Arthur can still taste the water the boy had given him the night before, and his dagger is nowhere in sight.
The third time Arthur sees the boy is Merlin's fault: not only had he caused Arthur's horse to run away, leaving them stranded about half a day from the nearest soldier post, only he would think that picking up a bright flower the size of a grown man's fist in a forest that was known for its poisonous plants was a good idea. By the time where Arthur cuts the flower from it's stem, Merlin is pale with pain and the wound on his arm is edged a vicious blue.
Arthur drops most of his armor and their bags at once, realizing that there is little to no chance that he will be able to get Merlin to the post on time. If he had his horse, perhaps, but not when he has to practically carry Merlin as well. Despite the fact that he tied a belt around Merlin's forearm to try and stall the poison it spreads fast: Merlin's blue eyes have gone milky white and his lips are dry. He's gasping for breath.
Arthur grits his teeth and he keeps talking, Merlin an almost dead weight on his back. It's the only thing he can do right now, talk and pray that it's enough to keep Merlin grounded. He shifts him higher on his back, still walking.
"When we get back to Camelot," he tells Merlin, moving as fast as he possibly can. "I'm going to get you the tiniest brush I can possibly find. And you, Merlin, are going to scrub the stables with that brush."
Merlin groans in pain, and Arthur starts to feel despair.
"And then, you're going to pick at the muck in my boots with a twig of straw until they are as good as new. Do you hear me? You are going to have so much work once we are back so you better be alive by then, Merlin, or so help me God--"
Arthur pauses for a moment and then he puts Merlin down, leaning him against a tree and he draws his sword, ready. There is someone else around them, and this is a dangerous forest. There is talk within his men about a wizard who lives here, centuries old and yet still powerful and young. Arthur does not believe in old maid's tales, but he does believe that there might be wizard folk within this forest, ready to strike at him now that he's without armor and with a fallen man.
When he's about to call forth to anyone there, a boy comes through the forest, roughly fourteen years old, still missing his growth spurt. His clothes are similar to Merlin's, rough dark wool and boots worn soft, but Arthur takes notice that the hilt of the dagger he carries is made of gold. The boy approaches him, and for reasons Arthur cannot understand, he lowers his sword.
"What happened?" the boy asks, kneeling by Merlin's side, a hand to his forehead. He gasps when he sees the wound on his arm.
"A flower, I have it with me," Arthur says, urgently. "I have to get him back to Camelot, I'm sure Gaius will--"
"Be too late to cure this," the boy interrupts him. He frowns at Merlin's slumped form and then he looks at him, and Arthur is taken back by how intense the boy's green eyes are, how familiar they seem. "Come with me, then, we have to treat this."
Arthur would have said no, he would have chided the boy for ordering him around when he's Camelot's crowned prince, but Merlin groans again, and he seems to be in so much pain that Arthur simply sheaths his sword and then he picks Merlin up again, following the boy across his path.
They come upon a small cabin that is half built against a cave. The boy tells him to put Merlin down on the bed and as Arthur does that he potters around his many jars and herbs. Many of those are familiar to Arthur through Gaius, many others are not. Arthur grits his teeth to stop himself from murmuring 'witchcraft', because Merlin's life is at stake. For all the times that he hasn't been allowed to hear the cries of people that might have been innocent, this time, he will stay still. He will tell himself that the boy is naught but a healer's apprentice and that'd be enough.
"Tip his head back, this will buy us some time," the boy tells him. Arthur does as he's told, lifting Merlin's head so that ever so carefully the boy gives him some sort of foul smelling potion. Merlin's face twists in distaste and that almost makes Arthur smile. He lays Merlin down again and when the boy points towards a bucket of water and some rags, Arthur gets them wet and puts them on Merlin's forehead at once.
"You said you had the flower with you?" the boy asks, frowning.
Arthur nods and he takes it out from his pouch, still wrapped around a bit of his cloak. The boy frowns and then he nods, moving around his herbs and jars, grinding herbs as he mutters around. The boy's Latin, Arthur realizes, is better than his own.
He pretends not to see nor hear anything out of the norm. When the lad is done he moves to Merlin's side, putting the balm he made on Merlin's wound. He makes Merlin drink more of the foul smelling potion, and he sighs.
"That's as much as I can do," he says. "If he survives the night, he'll be alright."
"Thank you," Arthur says, surprised when he realizes that he means it. The lad seems surprised as well before he looks away, his frown deeper than before.
"Don't mention it."
Arthu doesn't ask for his name, for his age. He owes this young man his gratitude, and the best way Arthur has to give it is pretending that he doesn't realize this might very well be magic. Ignorance and looking at the other side is the best he can do so far, if he's to follow his father's laws. Arthur won't, in fact, mention it at all.
He grits his teeth, hating how helpless he feels, realizing that there's nothing he can do, and he watches Merlin struggle with the poison through the night.
At some point he must have dozed off. He hears the boy's voice, rough and almost begrudgingly kind.
"--oo much like his mother, thankfully, but his hard head, that's Uther's all along-- yes, I know, I know, but he's still young-- oh, now you're just being daft! You have heard as well as I have everything he has done, it is unfair to believe he will be like his father just because they share the same blood! The people love him much more than they ever loved Uther and--" a sigh. "Yes, I know that you worry about Emrys, but I do not think you have to. Their bond is stronger than I thought it'd be..."
He dozes off again.
When he wakes up again his neck hurts him from the awkward position he slept, his shoulders stiff. He winces as he rolls them over, looking at Merlin. He's still sleeping, but his face has gained in color, and the wound on his arm has started to scar.
"Your servant will be fine," the boy tells him. He's skinning a rabbit deftly with his dagger, a broth starting to boil on the fire.
"We need to go today," Arthur says. "The soldiers are most likely already searching for us."
The lad nods. "Just as soon as you have something to eat."
The food is ghastly, somehow managing to be too spicy and too bland at the same time, but it's better than not having anything at all. Merlin drinks the broth and Arthur eats the too stringy rabbit and well before noon they are more or less done to go on their way.
The lad walks them through the forest, all the way to the main road. "Walk south this way, you'll cut almost two hours that way."
"Thank you," Merlin says, and though he's still pale his eyes are blue once more. "Really, I owe you. Thank--"
"Merlin, stop blabbering," Arthur interrupts him. "We have to go before someone decides to tell my father that I got killed or worse, lost. Morgana won't let me hear the end of that."
Merlin rolls his eyes, the irrespective prick, but he nods his head towards the lad, then moving to walk by Arthur's side. Arthur looks at the boy from over his shoulder, and ever so slightly he nods his head as well. The boy looks at him for a moment too long with his enthralling green eyes before he bows his head as well.
And then he walks back to his forest and Merlin and Arthur start walking down the road.
"Who do you think he was?" Merlin asks. "He kind of looked like you, a little."
"I do not suffer those eyebrows, Merlin,"Arthur scoffs but then he thinks for a moment about how familiar the boy had seemed, like a long lost friend or more.
"I have no idea," he admits. "It's not important, I suppose. And if it is, we'll find out sooner or later."
Merlin hums a little, thoughtful, and concedes his point, and then there's glorious silence as they walk.
At least until Merlin starts running of his mouth again, obviously feeling much better now. Arthur is looking forward to telling him about all the things he's going to have to do once they're back home.