Summary: When Merlin becomes the unwitting hostage of a man with dark intentions, it's going to take more than Arthur alone to save him. His very life depends on a choice that has yet to be made.
This is my first chaptered Merlin fanfic (ever!). Reviews are always appreciated! I'd love to know how you feel about it so far, whether you think anything could be improved, what you like/don't like, etc. I hope you enjoy the story!
6/12/10 - fixed a couple of minor errors.
Chapter One : The Nightmare
Merlin twisting in pain, a burst of light obscuring most of his body. The flash of a blade, followed by a stream of scarlet.
Trees, bunched close together, dark and towering.
"He treats his servants like dirt…"
Morgana gasped and her whole body jerked as her eyes flew open and she awakened suddenly. Her fingers grasped subconsciously for the bracelet on her wrist; it was still there.
She shakily pushed herself into a sitting position, staring straight ahead through the darkness, trying to steady her heavy breathing. Her chest rose and fell with her hammering heartbeat, so loud it almost had its own echo.
It had been so long since her last nightmare that she had begun to think they were truly a thing of the past. She had not been prepared, therefore, for this one.
Then maybe that's all it is, she thought. A nightmare. But the rational part of her knew that didn't make sense, either. She'd never experienced the kind of dreams that normal girls did, not before she'd gotten the bracelet, and certainly not after.
The door swung open, and Morgana's eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness to see the outline of a familiar woman striding towards her. It didn't take much to imagine the look of concern on her face. Morgana realized she must have screamed while she was still enveloped in the nightmare.
"I'm all right," Morgana assured quickly, before Morgause could pose the question. "Really, it was nothing."
Morgause moved swiftly to cover Morgana's trembling hand with her own cool one. "Morgana," she said in a hushed whisper, "I'm no fool. I know you better than that. It was more than nothing. Please, weren't you wearing the bracelet I gave you?"
Morgana lifted her hand from beneath Morgause's; the bulk on her wrist was visible as a faint, shadowy outline. Morgause traced the pattern on it reverently with a long, pale finger. She no longer needed it for the nightmares she had once suffered, but it still held value for her. It was the one thing from her childhood she had kept, the one relic that held ties between her past and her future.
"It's never let a dream through before," Morgana whispered back, hearing the fear in her own voice. "My sleep has been completely peaceful since you gave it to me… until tonight."
"What did you see?"
Though she had anticipated this question, she was still ill prepared to answer it. She was forced to speak around a growing lump in her throat. "Merlin… bleeding. Lost. Alone. Dying."
The words Morgause spoke next, coupled with the way she said it, voice low and dark mystery and intent, sent chills down Morgana's spine.
"Perhaps my bracelet did not work because you were destined to see this."
Hunting was Merlin's absolute least favorite thing to do. Whether it be bear, deer, or herbs for Gaius' brews, hunting was a miserable activity. But worst of all was hunting for the unknown. This God-forsaken trip, for instance.
"Look on the bright side, Merlin," Arthur said cheerfully, smug from Merlin's disgruntled behavior. "At least you're not doing chores."
"Right," muttered Merlin. "Until we get back, then you'll want your armor polished, sword sharpened, room cleaned, tunic washed, horses mucked out… have I forgotten anything?"
Arthur smacked his forehead comically. "And to think, I would have forgotten to mention my tunic. Good on you for remembering. Oh, and don't forget to mend my trousers, I caught the leg on a briar bush the other day, ripped a couple of the seams."
Merlin threw his pack at him.
The deeper they plunged into the forest, the quieter it became. This was worrisome, as usually the opposite was true. Life was meant to thrive at the heart of the forest, but the gleeful chattering of birds was becoming less; the scuttling in the undergrowth were absent.
It felt like a crime, somehow, to break the silence, but it had to be done. "Arthur," said Merlin, almost wincing at how loud he sounded. He lowered his voice. "Arthur, what do you think this is?"
"Whatever it is has half the forest spooked," Arthur observed. "I'm guessing it's more than just an oversized bear."
They fell back into silence.
Not that silence was ever permanent with Merlin.
"If this thing is so dangerous, why are we the only ones on this trip?" he wondered aloud. Arthur really did wince at the way Merlin's voice penetrated the quiet, not to mention the ungainly crunching of his boots. "Shouldn't, say, the trained knights who agreed to defend Camelot with their lives be involved in this… expedition?"
"Someday, I'm going to teach you the fundamentals of a whisper," hissed Arthur. "And we don't have a knight escort because we're only here to find out more about this creature so that when do fight it, we have an advantage. After we report back, then we'll return with more men who know how to pick up the sword by the proper end."
Merlin ignored the jibe. "And if the beast finds us first and we don't have time to report back?"
"My father will send knights anyway if we're not back in a few days' time."
"Great," Merlin muttered.
He had never been in this part of the forest before. Close, yes; they had passed the now-deserted lair of the Questing Beast less than an hour ago. The atmosphere had changed greatly in that small amount of time. Little sun filtered through the thickly bunched treetops, and when it did it cast a mystical light that Merlin could compare only to magic.
They were dangerously close to Camelot's border. If they ventured much further, they would risk an attack of the human nature as well as the beastly kind.
Arthur stopped suddenly. Merlin came to a halt, too, looking at him curiously. "What?"
"Shh!" The prince wasn't moving a muscle except for his eyes, which carefully roamed from side to side, taking in everything his peripheral vision would allow without turning his head. "Do you hear that?"
Merlin listened attentively. Maybe he was imagining it, but he could have sworn all the noise in the world had been turned off, except for the barely perceptible crunch of footsteps in the undergrowth.
Something streaked past and knocked Arthur to the ground with a mighty growl. Merlin crushed his first instinct and instead clumsily drew Arthur's spare sword and swiped at the beast. Arthur rolled to his feet and joined the assault, twigs and dirt clinging to the fabric of his clothes.
The creature roared and again and reared on its massive hind legs, crashing back to the forest floor and causing the ground to tremble.
Merlin struck out blindly, trying to shield his face and attack all at once. The monster's breath was foul, and saliva dripped from its teeth and tongue, spraying whenever it roared. The tip of Merlin's blade drove into its calf muscle, but although the blade was wet and bright red when he pulled it out again, it appeared to have no effect, and the wound had healed itself up again before Merlin had time to wonder how that was possible.
It seemed more intent on pursuing Merlin than Arthur, and chose to ignore the prince's brazen attempts to harm it. Great, Merlin thought sulkily. Even a beast he'd never seen before recognized him as the easier prey.
Finally, when Arthur ripped open a gash the entire length of its tail, it rounded on him instead and Merlin had a chance to look at it properly.
It stood almost twice his height when it balanced on its hind legs, and its flesh was thick and tough as leather. Its head was turned away, but Merlin had already caught sight of the two rows of teeth, although the ones in the back could hardly be seen past the enormous front ones. Its shape was much like a hunched-over, over-grown dog, though its features more closely resembled a lizard, if anything.
Arthur was able to defend himself well enough from the swipe of the thing's massive paws, but like Merlin, he could do lasting damage.
"This is definitely a magical beast!" he yelled to Merlin, who was trying to attack it from behind. "No flesh-and-blood creature could withstand so many blows with nothing to show for it!"
Merlin himself had already come to the conclusion that that was the case, which in the average situation would mean it was up to him to vanquish it and somehow make it look like he hadn't just cast powerful magic. In this case, though, it did not matter whatsoever that Arthur was standing mere feet away from him, because he had no idea what spell might bring this creature down. What could possibly penetrate such thick skin, and what would kill with enough speed that the healing powers would not come into effect?
Without warning the beast switched targets again, and Merlin found himself pinned to a tree, rough bark digging into his back through his thin tunic, and claw marks shredding the cloth and skin in front.
With renewed energy, Arthur sprang again at the beast, wielding his sword with the combination of stealth and strength that could only be associated with a Knight of Camelot. But at the same time the creature hooked Merlin by the shirt with a single, deadly tooth, it snapped its tail to the side, clipping Arthur by the side of the head and knocking him to the ground, out cold on contact. His sword fell uselessly at his side.
Merlin hardly registered any of this, as the pain in his chest and the foul, hot breath enveloping reached an overwhelming point. He allowed himself to sink into black, dimly aware that with every jolting step, he was being carried farther and farther away from his only hope of survival.