Merlin ducked an arrow and hurtled around the corner, only to stumble back as the heat of the burning apothecary's shop hit his face like a muffling sack. He windmilled his arms to stay upright, ears buffeted by distant screams. He wondered, creasing his chin with remorse, whether the shopkeeper and his pretty daughter were still inside. A hot swoop of nausea burned his throat as he turned away and sprinted on.
He found a clear street, sloping steeply away from the darkly looming castle. He let his legs move automatically as the gradient carried him downwards, desperation making him reckless.
At the end of the road Merlin skidded to a halt in front of the city walls. A dark bundle unfolded itself from the base of the wall and plucked at his sleeve, turning a pale face and frantic eyes up at him. She spoke, small and muddled and gibberish through the mounting buzzing in his ears. He whirled towards her and, aching with pity and self-loathing, peeled her icy fingers away from his jacket.
Rhythmic footsteps approached, filling the air with an impossibly amplified executioner's drum-beat. A group of knights, in a parody of their old discipline, but mad-eyed. Merlin pushed the peasant woman back into the shadows, hoping it would be enough but without time to do more.
He took up his panicked sprint again, away from the flame-lit swords of the mob, following the inside of the wall towards the south gate. The streets were nearly empty here, the chaos muted by distance and thick smoke.
The gate, like the other four exits from the city, was barricaded and heavily guarded. It was impossible to tell if these were loyal knights seeking to eliminate the threat, or traitors blocking the townspeople's escape from the turmoil that had seized Camelot. Or perhaps to hinder the escape of one person in particular.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught a flash of something that could have been a dirty blonde head. He spun on the spot. Through the smoke he glimpsed a figure dodging out of sight behind a house.
Merlin darted towards it, and collided heavily with a cold steel breastplate. He sat down heavily in the dust, and met the half-familiar eyes of Sir Alnor.
Merlin scrambled uncertainly to his feet and crouched, ready to flee.
'The whole town's in uproar, man!' the knight continued. 'Nobody can get any news from the castle. Have you seen the prince?'
Merlin narrowed his eyes. He couldn't risk trust, not now that enemies and friends wore the same faces. 'He was in the dungeons, last I saw…' he stammered.
Alnor's eyes gave no indication of his reaction to this news. 'Alert a knight immediately if you hear news of his whereabouts,' he snapped, and stalked away, quickly swallowed by the gloom.
Merlin cursed under his breath. Arthur – if it was Arthur – could be streets away by now. He slipped into the alley where he'd last seen the fleeing figure, dodging between the overturned barrels which had been neatly stacked behing the low-roofed brewery.
There was no hint of movement, no whisper of sound.
Merlin flapped his arms mutely in frustration. What if the prince had already been killed? Even Arthur was no match for so many, not when they were men he had trained himself, and especially not when he was beset on all sides by the horror of the familiar which had been abruptly turned from home to death-trap. What if Merlin was chasing a ghost through this hellish labyrinth of streets, leaving Gaius and Gwen and Morgana to their fates in the castle?
He bent over, clutching his ribs and gasping for breath, supporting himself with a hand on the nearest barrel. He snatched his fingers back as if burnt and stared. A flare behind him illuminated the scarlet stain on his fingertips.
He stood frozen for a second, then glanced feverishly up and down the alley. His mind was too full and strangled with panic to process this. He took in a hissing breath through his teeth. He muttered a guttural phrase and watched the flare of his eyes change the dark crimson to angry scarlet, then to bright white. He looked down. The now vivid white substance had left a print of fingers on the barrel rim, as well as a wide smear on the wall. He looked at his feet to see a tiny round pool of it on the ground and, behind him, an irregular trail of similar drips and splatters leading to his current position from the corner of the alley. They didn't continue forwards, though. The trail seemed to evaporate where Merlin stood.
He returned the traces of blood to their natural colour, trying to ignore the mounting sick panic in his stomach. Quickly, he conjured a ball of white light in his hand. Again, the full redness of the marks was visible, but Merlin forced himself to look past them. When he managed to see clearly, he noticed a greyer mark on the barrel lid. One that could have be the dusty print of a boot.
Gulping down panic again, Merlin scrambled up onto the barrel and vaulted himself onto the building's flat roof. He blinked back tears of adrenaline, and abruptly froze. The cold sharp point of a sword pricked into the flesh just under his jawbone. He raised both hands quickly with his finger spread, and turned his head as slowly as he could bear to.
The sword was making him nervous, not least because it was trembling violently in its owner's hands.
Merlin stretched his neck uncomfortably sideways and squinted down the length of quivering steel to the familiar blue eyes looking at him without a hint of recognition.
'Arthur it's me. It's just me. Maybe you could, um… put the sword down?'
'Merlin?' the prince rasped, unconvinced.
'Yup.' It sounded high pitched and incongruously cheery.
'Stay back,' Arthur commanded, lowering his sword but keeping it extended warningly in Merlin's direction.
'Are you alright?'
Arthur shifted slightly, suppressing a wince.
Merlin gulped. 'Yes,' he repeated.
'How can I be sure that you are yourself?' the prince demanded breathlessly.
Merlin glanced around for inspiration. The redness on Arthur's fingers was distracting him and hindering his brain.
'I once called you a clot pole?' he offered. ' I put your chainmail on backwards two days ago and you threw a shoe at my head but missed because your aim's rubbish?'
Arhtur closed his eyes and nodded wearily, allowing his sword to finally clatter against the rooftop. Merlin hurriedly stilled it, afraid that he noise would draw attention to them.
'What are you doing here Merlin?'
'Looking for you. Thought you could use some help.'
Arthur snorted a quiet laugh. 'I've had better days.'
'Are you going to let me see that wound?'
Arthur glanced at his bloody hands and grimaced. In a low voice he admitted, 'I'm not sure what good it would do.'
Merlin frowned and ignored him. 'Move your hands.' He pushed the prince back to lean against the wall at the edge of the roof. Merlin pressed his lips together and tried not to show any reaction in his face. The livid slash across Arthur's side was hours old, but still seeping blood.
'We need Gaius,' Merlin muttered, mostly to himself.
Arthur looked up suddenly. 'Gaius – is he stil in the castle? What about Morgana? And – and Guinevere? Have you seen them?'
'They're fine, they're not hurt. I – well, they were fine the last time I saw them.'
Arthur nodded impatiently. 'Go on.'
'Morgana went back to Uther after she warned you of the king's order. The lady Emilia found them arguing and had her locked in the dungeons, Gwen as well. They should be safe there. Gaius was researching a way to break the enchantment Emilia has on your father.'
'She's a sorceress?'
'We assume so, sire. Don't think Uther would sign your death warrant of his own free will, even if you did call his queen a…'
'Malicious hag? Point taken…'
Merlin grinned wryly.
'We have to get back to the castle.'
'We have to get back to the castle? Did the two hundred lethally trained knights trying to kill me somehow escape your notice?'
'Did the festering stab wound in your torso somehow escape yours?'
Arthur swatted at his servant's head with a heavy arm. 'Not funny, Merlin. How did my wicked stepmother manage to recruit all my knights to her evil purpose?'
'Gaius thinks it was something in the beer they've been drinking. You father drank it, and all the knights except those who were on duty on the walls – Sir Leon and his battalion. They're in the dungeons now protecting Gwen and Morgana.'
'Yeah, you know. Brown stuff, you drink it?'
'I know idiot. Tell me, Merlin, what building are we currently on the roof of?'
Merlin blinked. 'Oh.'
Arthur nodded condescendingly.
Merlin brightened. 'I guess we need to get back to the castle, then?'
7 hours earlier.
Arthur stared idly at his foot, extended in front of him in the dirty straw of the dungeon floor. It was cold, and his shirt was thin, but he carefully maintained a relaxed and nonchalant posture. The guards looked slightly baffled to have him there, but were loyally sticking to their posts anyway, and had turned away Merlin when he'd appeared worriedly in the doorway.
He had to admit – silently, to himself – that he was worried. His father had locked him in the dungeons before, had even disinherited him before. But the cold fury in his eyes and the promise of further punishment after he had discussed the matter with his wife – that was something Arthur hadn't seen before. It had to be sorcery – someone had turned his father and stepmother against him. But he was hardly in any position to combat the attack.
A commotion at the foot of the stairs made him look up. Morgana's voice, raised in a commanding tone.
'The king has granted me a final meeting with the prisoner. Let me pass.'
The guard mumbled an objection that Arthur did not catch.
'That is not your concern.'
More unintelligible arguing followed.
'If you even suggest searching me again I will report you to the king for lechery. Let me pass.'
There was much shuffling and clanking as the guards moved aside and then Morgana's imperious footsteps approached. By the time she glided into view her icy composure was all but gone.
'Are you alright?'
'Arthur the king has ordered your execution. You must leave immediately.'
'Keep your voice down, you blundering fool, if you want to keep you thick head,' she hissed.
'He's ordered my execution?'
'He's… not himself. Even Uther would not go so far…'
'Oh really?' Arthur whispered sarcastically. 'You don't say.'
'Shut up. Here – ,' She pulled a sword from under her cloak and began to post it through the bars. He scrambled to his feet to stop her.
'What are you doing?'
'Helping you escape.'
'You can't – you'll be thrown into this cell as soon as I'm out of it.'
'I'm not joking about the death sentence,'
'I know.' He reached through the bars to grasp her wrist. 'I fully intend to get out of here, but no one must know that you helped me.'
'Arthur, you don't have long… his words were "with immediate effect".' Despite her efforts, tears were creeping into her voice.
He let out a shaky sigh and squared his jaw. 'Alright. Give me your belt knife, and I'l pick the lock. Take the sword – I can take one from the guards easily, they won't want to fight properly against me.'
'Don't let your guard down Arthur. It's worse than we thought.'
'I'll get out through the tunnels. Tell Merlin to meet me outside the keep…'
'They'll follow you, You have to leave Camelot until this madness has passed…'
'I can't leave it like this. If my father will order my execution do you think he'll hesitate to send you and Guinevere to the gallows? And Gaius, and Merlin too?'
'Arthur, you're the only one he's turned on, at least, so far. I think this enchantment, wherever it comes from, is aimed at you…'
'Go to Uther and see if you can buy me some time. Ask him to delay the execution until morning. Don't be too concerned though – don't provoke him.'
'Promise me you'll be careful.'
'And the same to you. I'll be back soon'.
'Promise me you'll stay away until-.'
'Shh- no time. Go now.'
He stowed the narrow blade in his belt and watched her disappear.
It was almost too easy to pick the lock. Arthur hadn't grown up making mischief in Camelot for nothing. He was within feet of the guards with one of their swords in had before they so much as looked up from their uncharacteristic drinking and gambling. They scrambled clumsily to their feet and barred his way.
Arthur whirled the sword over his head and glared seriously at the guards. They looked nervous, and he wasn't surprised. Their loyalties must have been thoroughly uprooted by this turn of events. He hoped the confusion would allow him to knock them out easily, protecting them from suspicion of having allowed a condemned prisoner to escape unchallenged.
He stepped forward slowly. Two of the guards burst into premature action, rushing him with steel drawn. He parried hurriedly, lashing out with a foot to push the second one away. Edmund Tanner, a man he'd known all his life, was raining blows on him with unfamiliar fury. In a distracted flash he realised this was wrong. He found himself fighting in earnest; managed to knock one down with a well placed blow to the head but, engaged in a rapid exchange, got surprised from the side by the third guard.
His back met the wall and a knee knocked the wind viciously out of his belly. He doubled over choking and reached down to his boot for Morgana's belt knife. Too slow, though.
A hand caught his shoulder and slammed him upright against the wall. He saw stars and then nothing – just felt raging storming firey agony light up his side and yelled out strangled wordless anguish. He opened his eyes to meet Edmund's, cold and untouched by recognition, the same eyes that had frowned in bemused affection when his eight-year-old self had hidden a family of rabbits inside a spare suit of armour.
For a frozen moment he couldn't breathe. Then he slashed the little stick-knife across in desperate rage and Edmund's twisted face fell away. With a cry of grief and routeless fury and pain, he pulsed the stained sword from the dying man's grasp and hurled it into the third guard's – James Anderry, the brewer's son's – chest.
He slumped back against the stone and linked back tears. He'd killed two friends. His father had ordered his execution. He had to run from his only home with murderers on his tail, leaving his friends in danger. He felt like curling up and weeping. Blood was seeping into his shirt. He took a deep breath and fled.
- - - - - -
2 hours later
The door banged against the wall and Merlin and Gaius immediately stopped talking and looked up nervously.
'Merlin - Gaius – Arthur's gone - !'
'What – did Uther…?'
'No, I mean – he escaped. Killed two guards and knocked one out. Uther has half the army out looking for him. They're tearing the town apart.'
'How did he -?'
'Morgana went to help him. But Merlin – they'll find him, the king has sealed the city. We have to stop this…'
'We're trying,' Gaius interjected. 'But until we know the source of the enchantment, we have little chance of breaking it.'
Gwen nodded shakily, turning desperate eyes on Merlin. In a breaking voice, she whispered, 'But – Arthur…'
'I'll find him,' Merlin promised impulsively, his chair scraping against the stone floor as he stood. He took Gwen's hand, looking her carefully in the eye. 'He knows what he's doing. He trained these men – he can hide from them, better than anyone.'
She chewed her lip. 'He can't… on his own…'
'I'll find him.'
She nodded resignedly.
'Go to Morgana. Make sure she doesn't do anything reckless. Gaius will keep looking for a way to break the spell.'
Gwen nodded, and squeezed his hand before releasing it. 'Find him, Merlin,' she repeated. The door slammed behind her and Merlin met his mentor's grave look.
'Go quickly. Be careful.'
- - - - - - -- -
5 hours later
After what seemed like an age, Merlin's tousled head popped up again over the edge of the roof.
'Got it. Beer sample for Gaius. Soon as he's got this, he can get to work on the antidote. Get everyone back to normal.'
'I'm glad you're so certain,' Arthur groaned, not bothering to open his eyes.
'Arthur?' Merlin stowed the bottle in his tunic and scrambled back up onto the roof. He slapped frantically at the prince's grey face. His eyes snapped open immediately.
'Ow – Merlin! What are you doing?'
Merlin rocked back on his heels and bit his lip. 'Just – checking. Sorry.'
'Definitely still alive…'
Merlin nodded encouragingly. 'Good. Good, that's um… that's great.'
'Go and check if the street's clear.'
Merlin watched his friend warily for a few seconds, then did as he was bidden.
Arthur watched him disappear and immediately turned his attention to the startling task of getting to his feet. The bleeding in his side had slowed to a trickle, but he was felling cold and shaky and short of breath and he knew instinctively that he'd already lost far too much blood. He stifled a groan as he tortuously rolled onto his hands and knees, letting out only a strange, strangled, animal sound of stunned pain.
He shuffled to the edge of the roof and slowly lowered himself over the edge onto the upright barrel, feeling for it clumsily with his feet, teeth gritted. He put his weight onto his legs and promptly folded at the knees. The world tilted sideways and he flailed his arms to grab the wall for support as he fell. Suddenly Merlin was there – a hand on his back and another on his elbow, halting his inexorable progress towards face down in the dirt. He let out something between a sigh and a growl, hunched over with his eyes pressed tightly closed.
'Okay – don't fall over…' Merlin was muttering.
'I wasn't falling over,' he hissed back with determined antagonism. 'I was just…'
'Just inspecting the guttering?'
'Can you walk?'
He favoured his servant with a dark look. 'Of course I can walk.'
'Right, sorry. Um – silly question.'
'Shut up Merlin.'
Merlin pulled Arthur's arm across his shoulders and steered him towards the end of the alley. The prince didn't object to the support – he wasn't quite foolish n=enough to refuse help he knew he needed in the name of pride. But still…
'If you tell anyone about tonight's events, Merlin…' he paused to cough painfully. 'I'll make you polish all my armour every day for the rest of your natural life.'
'That's not even possible. It would get thinner and thinner until it was eroded away. In fact, I'm worried that it may be getting weak. I think maybe I should stop polishing it.'
'In your dreams, Merlin,' Arthur growled. He was grateful for the low stream of inane chatter that Merlin kept up – it was a welcome distraction from the chore of walking. As well as from Edmund Tanner's surprised dead face in his mind's eye.