This chapter is for MagicByMerlin whose kind and detailed reviews make my day.
Arthur's voice was so…defeated. So defeated and lifeless that Lancelot felt his own throat tightening. "Oh." said the man who would be king. "Oh no."
Merlin didn't look "peaceful." He didn't look like he was "sleeping". Nothing like the portrait stories paint of fallen heroes. Of our dear departed ones.
Arthur's closest friend lay as he fell. Stomach-down on the unforgiving, cold, cruel ground. His head was tilted to the left, facing his master. As the prince's eyes welled, Lancelot could see Merlin's tragic visage reflected in their surface.
From what Arthur could see, Merlin's mouth hung open, lips parched and split. Ugly purple bruising encircled his friend's pale neck. The remains of a thin rope…a knotted leash…trailed off. His eye had been blackened and Merlin's cheek bore ghostly marks that had no doubt flamed red in life. Outside these injuries—that made Arthur's stomach clench—his face was white as marble. Who could have done such a thing? To strike a defenceless man, a meek, unarmed man. Dear sweet Merlin? How? The eye Arthur could see was open. A cloudy crack. Staring forever across the rocky hilltop.
Arthur's eyes overspilled. Merlin had been waiting, looking out across the rock.
Waiting for Arthur.
Waiting with his eyes open. Merlin had not drifted peacefully off to sleep. Had he imagined Arthur coming over the hill only to blink and realize he was alone? Had he watched as death came for him?
Arthur roughly swiped the back of his good hand across his face. Angry at his tears.
Arthur's eyes roved away from Merlin's accusing stare. He couldn't bear it. With a sound that made Lancelot flinch—an anguished choking—Arthur made the discovery which he found most horrible of all.
Merlin's hands were bound.
Oh spirit. Arthur choked again, swallowing back the sickness and horror that had flooded his throat. Merlin's bloodless hands were bound tightly at the wrist, behind his back. His narrow shoulders wrenched cruelly together. A thin piece of leather circled the boy's cold wrists over and over.
Arthur tipped clumsily from his knees to sitting, hand held firmly to his horrified mouth. After closing his eyes for a moment against the sight, Arthur reached out, gently touching the bindings. His head fell forward, chin to his chest. A chest that was heaving with restrained sobs.
Thoughts flew through the prince's burning mind.
Merlin was too clumsy to be bound.
He never would have been able to keep up.
Not on these rocks.
Too clumsy. He needed his hands.
Arthur pictured Merlin, pictured the last moments of the man Arthur thought of as his other half. The images were as sharp and clear as life itself—Merlin scared and rushed, eyes wide, stumbling and falling again and again, falling to his knees, being struck with a gauntleted hand when he fell, hauled to his feet roughly by his neck, choking, retching.
Arthur thought he was going to be sick.
His dear, dear Merlin.
His hands. He was too clumsy—sweet and warm and goofy and clumsy.
Arthur couldn't tear his eyes away from Merlin's hands. 'No!' his mind screamed…'gods no!'
Lancelot knelt softly beside his prince. He touched a broad shoulder and was surprised to feel Arthur shaking beneath the bulk of his jacket.
The devoted knight, and Merlin's friend, gently severed the bindings with his dagger.
Merlin's hands parted a span, but remained behind his back, arms already stiffening.
Dead four or five hours at the most then.
The leather stuck to Merlin's raw wrists, imbedded in his long-cold skin.
Arthur swallowing roughly again and again, Adam's apple bobbling, vomit rising in his throat.
Arthur's mind whispered cruelly.
As he'd lain on his bed, warm by the fire Merlin had…Merlin had died. Right here. Those long legs had tangled one last time, Arthur could see it. Merlin crying out weakly and falling hard on the rocks.
He wouldn't have been able to get up this time.
They would have hauled on that choking leash. Would have kicked him. Once it was clear Merlin was at an end, blood running from his mouth, body twitching over the rock, they left Merlin to die alone. Cold and shaking on the rocks.
With his usually warm, open, hands forever bound.
Arthur was sobbing now, as quietly as one could, hand hard over his mouth, but sobbing none-the-less.
Ignoring the screaming pain in his shoulder Arthur heaved himself back onto his knees, reaching down to gently roll Merlin onto his back. Lancelot helped, carefully guiding Merlin's arms to his sides.
Lancelot was talking—likely trying to be kind—but the sounds failed to form words in Arthur's mind. Mumbled noise.
Just as Arthur'd pictured, Merlin's body told his tale.
The side of Merlin's face that had been resting in the rocks was eternally marked by abrasions and lumps. And blood. The knees were ripped out of his thin pants, the shins stiff with blood. Arthur could see blackened and broken skin between the torn fabric. Merlin's shoulders and sides were battered. At the end, his bladder had let go.
Arthur barked out a harsh sob and put his hand to his eyes.
He had fallen.
Merlin had fallen over and over.
On his knees, on his sides.
On his poor dear face.
Lancelot started at the horrible keen that came out of the prince before he could bite it off. From the bereaved came full-on yells, single syllable bursts of denial and pain.
Arthur wrested a shred of control and slammed his mouth shut. The prince sagged forward, gently grasping Merlin's face in both hands. So cold. So unlike his warm friend. With his thumbs Arthur closed Merlin's eyes.
Arthur bent to whisper in his servant's deaf ear, the cold, torn, skin of Merlin's cheek against his own.
"I'm sorry Merlin." Arthur's voice broke but he continued "I love you my friend."
He paused—spent, wearied. Arthur found he didn't have the energy to get back up; he just could not do it. The prince rested his forehead against his servant's. Two more sounds, half scream, half sob were ripped from his throat.
He'd lost him.
He'd lost Merlin.
With every bit of energy he possessed, Arthur drew back. Toppling again off his shaking knees.
"Merlin. Oh Merlin." Arthur's good hand went to his eyes, the other hung limp at his side. There was such deep fondness in those three words that tears pricked the back of Lancelot's own eyes.
Arthur looked up with tears in his eyes "If they just hadn't bound his hands…they shouldn't have! Merlin could have been a good slave…he could have lived…he…"
Lancelot's voice wavered "Merlin was a great man m'lord. He thought the world of you."
Arthur couldn't speak, nodding his agreement. He felt the same. With a meaningful squeeze on the prince's forearm, Lancelot rose. He'd give the men time alone.
Lancelot straightened his shoulders and stepped carefully down the slope. The men were standing silent, the sounds of Arthur's grief had echoed in the small valley. Of course, they'd pretend not to have heard.
Lancelot sent most of the guard home and asked Sir Kay to gently break the news to Gaius before anyone else was informed, even the king.
Several strong and trusted knights—Lamorak and Degore—had made a rough travois. With Lancelot they climbed the slope in silence.
The knights found Arthur sitting right next to his cherished manservant. Unable to look any longer but unable to move away. Arthur's left hand covered Merlin's left wrist—as though he might warm it.
With great care the three men took up poor broken Merlin—took him from his unblinking prince and lay him on the travois. They'd brought a fine cloak, given by one of the others, and covered the servant warmly and securely.
The two men began the careful trip down the hillside with their burden.
After watching them go, Lancelot fell silently to his knees beside Arthur. As gently as he could, he worked the prince's arm back into his sling and secured it tightly. Lancelot imagined his ministrations were painful. If they were, Arthur showed no indication, sitting silently and staring glassily ahead.
Arthur wasn't sure how they made it back down the slope, Lancelot supporting more than half Arthur's weight, good arm slung over the knight's shoulder.
As they reached the bottom, Arthur was relieved to see the others had gone and mentally thanked the stars for Lancelot's help that day.
The ride to the castle was silent. Lancelot led. Lamorak carefully followed, the travois strapped securely behind his steed. Arthur was next. His eyes never left the small shape he knew to be Merlin. Sir Degore followed closely at the rear. Ready should the prince fall.
Once within the walls of Camelot, the party proceeded past faceless onlookers to Gaius' door. The old physician stood, a sad silhouette in the open door frame. His face was shadowed as light poured forth from behind him.
When had it turned night? Arthur wondered.
Merlin was brought into the home he and Gaius' had shared and lain on the bed.
Arthur tried to explain. To explain to Gaius how he had lost Merlin. How this could have happened. Arthur couldn't stop talking, mentally and verbally fumbling. He rambled. Gaius had nothing to say. What was there to say?
The physician hadn't noticed Arthur's pallor or given a thought to the prince's injuries. Really, right now, nothing at all seemed to matter to the old man. Gaius interrupted the frayed thoughts of the prince, holding up a trembling hand. "Please sire" his voice was quite and tired "Please, just go. To your chambers. Try to rest for a bit, I will come to you in the morning." Then Gaius turned away, leaving Arthur standing alone.
Somehow, Arthur found himself back in his room.
He was absolutely spent. And in shock. And in pain—the mental torment of the day outweighing his physical pain many-fold.
Arthur quietly lay down on his bed. The bed where he had napped in comfort while Merlin had suffered and died. Alone. He was swept away on a current of burning tears.
Arthur woke in near-darkness; the fire was burned down to glowing embers. Images of Merlin assaulted the prince and pain crashed into his chest. It felt as if he'd been hit full-on with a lance, he couldn't breathe.
Arthur raised a shaking hand to cover his eyes. Tears tracked down into his hair, into his ears. The prince tried to stifle a sob.
A voice pierced the darkness "Arthur? You awake?"
The voice came again, sing-song and teasing "Arthur…I know you're awake. I can hear you snuffling like a wild boar…"
Arthur's hand fell and his eyes snapped open; his voice was filled to the brim with confusion "Merlin?"
A spark was struck and Merlin's face came into view by the light of a stubby candle.
"Of course Arthur. Who else?" Merlin's rolled his eyes expressively "Really!"
For his part, Arthur just stared. Eyes wide and mouth open.
Merlin went on "You've been out for the whole day! You'd better have a bite to eat before you go back to sleep."
Merlin put the candle on the night table, almost knocking it over, and tried—stiffly—to get up. Surprising to no one, his feet became tangled in a sheet that had inexplicably found its way to the floor. As Merlin flailed and tried to balance without upsetting the candle, Arthur grabbed Merlin's wrist roughly.
"Merlin." Arthur's voice was a croak.
Something in Arthur's voice made Merlin stop. He sounded so serious. "Arthur?"
Arthur found he couldn't utter a peep around the lump in his throat. His eyes were hollow and haunted.
"Arthur? Did you have a bad dream?"
Arthur nodded once. With choppy movements, the prince sat up, still gripping Merlin's wrist...his wonderfully warm, alive, and unbound wrist. Arthur yanked his friend towards himself, letting go of Merlin's wrist just long enough for Arthur to get his arm around Merlin's thin back. He pulled his well-loved servant into a shaky hug. Even Arthur's injured arm came up weakly.
"Oh." Arthur swallowed roughly again and again, holding a flood of emotions at bay. "Merlin."
"Shhh…Arthur…" Merlin returned his master's embrace with concern. He slowly pulled back, carefully settling Arthur onto his pillow and snugging the blankets around the trembling man. "You're alright now. This is my fault; I should have woke you to eat earlier." With that, Merlin moved to get the food. He pulled a face as his knee smashed into the corner of the night table.
Again, the crown prince of Camelot found himself unable to speak. If he opened his mouth, he just knew he'd come apart at the seams.
Instead he just nodded.
Merlin turned away, bumping around in the near-darkness trying to put together a bite for his Arthur.
Arthur watched raptly—the beginnings of a smile playing at his features. Arthur quickly swiped away one traitorous tear—stemming from the most overpowering sense of relief he'd ever experienced.
There was Merlin…bumbling around, clumsy as ever.
Thank the gods.
Thank you so much for reading my Christmas gift to you! Feedback would make a lovely return-gift!
Author's note…just in case you're interested
My fictions are always written around one image (funny, I know, to write 5,000 or 10,000 words to have enough front-story and denouement to bracket one image.) For 'Clumsy' my inspiration was an image of Arthur finding our sweet Merlin—still and gone—nothing to tell his story but the cruel bindings on his wrists.