Merlin closed his eyes and fell to his knees. He had seen the fury and betrayal in Arthur's eyes. He knew the evidence was damning. The enormous frog creature lay smoking where it had fallen, blasted by golden lightning bolts from Merlin's hands. He had panicked- Arthur had fallen, smashed by the creature's tail into a nearby tree, sword flying in the opposite direction.
He hadn't moved.
The prince's voice from his training sessions had flashed across the sorcerer's mind – once you're down Merlin, you're dead! And Merlin had reacted, standing over Arthur and whispering the sibilant words that would seal his fate. Now he had the luxury of hindsight, Merlin thought ruefully that he could have been slightly less dramatic. Subtlety had never been his strong point.
He bowed his head as the sound of the Prince striding towards him crackled through the leaves. There would be no leniency. He had seen it- the hatred that had scythed across Arthur's face as Merlin had offered him his hand, the prince's defensive posture as his eyes had searched for his sword on the ground. Arthur would not forgive him this betrayal.
The shring of a dagger being unsheathed in the silence made him flinch. So many times he had imagined this moment – he had dreamed of Arthur saying it didn't matter, that he forgave him, that he trusted him anyway, but always knew it could not be. Uther's teachings were too deeply ingrained, the betrayal too personal. The cool feel of the blade against his neck made him clench his eyes tighter, holding his breath for the pain that would come. But it will be over quickly, he told himself desperately. Arthur was too noble a man –too good a man – to let anyone suffer needlessly, even a friend-turned-traitor. Or so Merlin hoped.
He should beg for his life, try to explain, tell Arthur that it was for him, always for him. But he froze, terrified, and could only wait for the axe to fall.
The blade was removed, the whoosh of the air as it came down a sudden shriek. The pain exploded, and Merlin screamed as the blade went through skin, pierced through flesh. It went on and on, searing through nerves, the lick of flames in the bleeding tissue. But...shouldn't it have stopped? And it wasn't... Merlin's hand flew to his face, feeling the bone-deep cut. The blood gushed between his fingers, the slice downwards across his cheek. His eyes flew open in confusion.
Arthur was staring at him coldly, the dagger in his hand still dripping blood. My blood, thought Merlin hysterically. The drip drip of the liquid against the dry leaves of the forest was strangely mesmerising.
"I don't..." he whispered. Was he?
"You saved my life, sorcerer, " he spat. "I cannot honourably repay that act with death. But you remain a traitor to this kingdom. As an act of grace, you have from now to get out of Camelot's borders. I will be informing my father on my return, of your... betrayal."
"Arthur, I..." Merlin tried.
Arthur backhanded him across the face. Merlin fell backwards, the impact against his bleeding wound causing new waves of pain to scream across his face. He breathed shallowly, fighting unconsciousness. He had to make him understand...
"Silence, traitor. I have heard enough of your lies. You have a day."
And Arthur spun on his heel, gathered up the reins of his horse and left.
He left .
Merlin had lost his chance.
Ignoring the blood still streaming from his burning cut, Merlin curled up on his side and wept.
Arthur was furious. Everyone scrambled to get out of his way as he stormed through the castle, slamming doors as he went. He burst into his quarters and threw himself into his chair, staring broodingly at the empty fireplace. Merlin had obviously forgotten to refill the log box before....
Damnit! Not Merlin. The sorcerer. The traitor. The first true friend that never was.
Arthur smashed his hand on his table and something clanged. It was only then he realised he was still clutching the dagger, Mer...the sorcerer's blood still dried on the handle. No wonder everyone ran away from me, he thought distractedly. He continued to stare at the blood. The reddish-iron flakes were beginning to curl at the tip.
Arthur's stomach clenched. He had hurt Merlin. Badly. He would carry the scar for the rest of his life, regardless of whether it became infected. But he lied to you! his mind screamed. He was never who you thought he was!
Merlin was a sorcerer. He was a servant. He cared for Arthur, made him laugh, smiled at him. He lied to him, betrayed him, made a mockery of their friendship. He had drunk poison for Arthur. He was afraid of and scarred by Arthur.
The Prince's insides were a roiling mass of hurt, pain and anger. He was still staring at the dagger when someone knocked on his door.
"Enter," he said, not lifting his eyes.
Gaius came through the door and stood before the Prince. Arthur's eyes went flat again as he raised his gaze to stare at the old physician.
"Forgive me for disturbing you, my lord," Gaius said. "I was wondering if you knew where Merlin was."
Arthur rose to his feet, fury making his body a tight bowstring. The bloody dagger was still clutched in his hand and Gaius's eyes flicked to the blade, concerned.
"Did you know?" Arthur demanded.
A flash of fear across Gaius's face was all the confirmation Arthur needed. The physician's expression quickly settled into neutral, but it was too late. "I'm sorry?"
"You did." Arthur pinched his nose, all of a sudden excessively weary. He turned away from the old physician and leaned against his table. "I am surrounded by traitors, it seems."
All the colour drained from Gaius's face as his gaze returned to the bloody dagger, still clenched in the prince's hand.
"My lord? Please, where is Merlin?" the physician asked desperately, hoping he was wrong, that this was a mistake, that Merlin had just insulted the wrong person again and would bounce through the door any minute, all silly smiles and explanations.
The Prince finally dropped the dagger onto the table, and the clang echoed loudly in the silence. Gaius flinched. Without turning, Arthur leaned forward so his arms rested on the surface, his back a tight curve of tension. His voice, when he spoke, was cold.
"Merlin won't be coming back."
Gaius closed his eyes in pain. His boy, his son in all but name...for the first time, Gaius felt the weight of age on his shoulders. He felt hollow and old.
"Leave, Gaius," Arthur said harshly. The physician bowed his head, swallowed his tears and left to mourn alone in his empty chambers.
Arthur didn't tell his father. He wasn't sure why - he didn't owe Merlin anything. But the last image of his servant, curled on his side sobbing, tears and blood trailing down his face, was seared behind Arthur's eyelids. He tried to banish it with the anger at Merlin's betrayal, still curled tightly beneath his breastbone.
"And where has your useless servant gone, Arthur?" his father asked pleasantly at one of their evening meals. "He's usually stuck to you like a burr."
Arthur raised his eyes from where he had been staring at his food for the last half hour.
"I sacked him," Arthur lied easily. He could feel the sudden burn of Morgana's glare from across the table. God, she was going to be insufferable. "I got sick of his incompetence. He has returned to Ealdor."
His father started. "That is...unexpected," Uther said slowly. "You two appeared attached at the hip. Did he do anything in particular?"
Arthur tried to quieten the bile that had risen his throat. Why was he lying for him?
"He was just a servant father. Why does he matter?" Arthur shrugged, pretending nonchalance. His father smiled in approval and Morgana looked at him in disgust.
"I am glad you are finally learning their place, Arthur. Have you reassigned another manservant yet?"
"I am considering several candidates Father," Arthur prevaricated. "I am aiming for more competence this time."
"Very good," was all Uther said, before dismissing the topic and turning the conversation to negotiations with Mercia.
Morgana accosted Arthur after the meal, grabbing his wrist before he could escape.
"What have you done to Merlin?" she hissed. "He would never leave without saying goodbye."
Arthur shook his hand free roughly and moved to go. Morgana - stubborn wench! - stepped in his path again.
"And if it was nothing, why does Gaius looks likes he has aged 10 years?" she persisted. "And you've sacked him what, 3 times already? He never left then. He loves you too much." Her tone clearly showed what she thought of that.
All the anger boiling inside Arthur rose to the forefront and he slammed the wall next to her head with his hand, leaning in close and pinning her with his gaze and body. Even Morgana had to shrink back a little at the fire in his glare.
"Your precious Merlin was a liar and a traitor," Arthur growled in her face. Flecks of spittle flew out of his mouth as he hissed the words. "Camelot is well rid of him!"
And he stormed off towards his chambers, leaving a shocked Morgana staring after him. He only wished he could quieten the ball of grief and guilt within him so easily.
All in all, it was a month before Arthur decided to face hiring a new manservant. The armourer had been dropping hints for days that he could do without the Prince's chores, and the different servants every day were grating on his nerves. He finally settled on a quiet, younger boy with sandy hair from one of the outlying villages. The boy had only joined the servants recently, so didn't know anything about Merlin - the castle servants kept stopping him in the passageways, inquiring after the boy's health and where he was. Did everyone like Merlin? - and with his blonde hair and greenish eyes he was nothing like Arthur's former servant.
Arthur made it clear from the outset that all he required was service. The boy - Randy, Randolph, Rudy or something - understood his duties quickly. He was a ghost in the room, cleaning the chambers and dressing Arthur with no more than the occasional 'Sire' or 'My Lord.' Deep down, Arthur missed the chatter and banter that had existed between him and Merlin. He missed a lot of things. The surly backchat. The blinding smiles given solely to Arthur. The trust. The loyalty. A quiet part of Arthur found it hard to believe it had all been a lie.
The dagger remained uncleaned. Arthur had snarled at the boy when he had tried to take it away from servicing and he had flinched back (so unlike Merlin.) At night sometimes Arthur would stare at it, the dried blood the only evidence of Merlin's perfidy. He wondered where the boy was. Whether he was still alive, the nights getting colder and harsher by the day. Why he still cared so much, his heart clenching at the thought of Merlin, injured and alone in the snow. A spell no doubt.
But he knew it wasn't true.
The first attack happened when he and -Rolph, that was it - were en route to one of the outlying villages. Arthur had sent the knights on ahead to prepare camp while he hunted, and ordered Rolph to accompany him to carry the game.
He had just sighted on a prize elk when he felt a strong shove in the back, making him stumble forwards and the elk to take flight. Furious, he turned on his servant to give him the tongue lashing he deserved and faltered, the words dying in his mouth. Rolph was curled on his side on the ground, an arrow lodged in his right shoulder. An arrow meant for Arthur.
Merlin, curled on his side, the blood from his face dripping on the leaves...
Arthur seized his sword and ran towards the arrow's origin. The archer turned out to be an angry villager whose daughter had been killed on suspicion of magic (it was always magic wasn't it?) The man's furious tears and clumsy attacks were easily halted as Arthur knocked him out with one blow to the head. He didn't have time for him right now.
Rolph lay where Arthur had left him, his eyes clenched in pain. The Prince knelt beside him and checked the wound gently.
"You're lucky," he told the boy brusquely, hiding his concern. "The exit wound is clear. Now this is going to hurt," as he took hold of the back of the arrow and snapped it. Rolph cried out, and Arthur's eyes blurred in sympathy, the boy's hair appearing almost brown. Arthur shook his head to clear it and took hold of the shaft.
"Are you ready?" he asked the boy. Rolph nodded, eyes still clenched shut. Arthur counted to three and then pulled the arrow through the wound in one long pull. Rolph screamed as the arrow came out and then his eyes rolled up as he fainted.
Arthur quickly ripped a strip off the servant's shirt and used it to bind the wound. As he moved to lift the boy he noticed a bleeding strip on his face where he must have impacted with something on the ground. It would need to be cleaned, but Arthur dismissed it as he carried him to his horse. The arrow wound was the more pressing concern.
But by the time they reached camp the cut was gone.