Arthur swam back into consciousness slowly with an aching head and foul taste in his mouth. It must have been a bloody good feast, he thought groggily, the pounding behind his eyeballs making it hard to concentrate and shifted grumpily, feeling bloody uncomfortable for some reason. His arms must be tangled in the sheets or something and why were they so dirty? He'd have the chambermaid reported for this.
Were those leaves sticking into his face? His nose itched as a strand of grass tickled it and Arthur abruptly froze, realising for the first time that he was not asleep in his chambers. He quieted the urge to leap into a defensive posture and lay still, feigning continued unconsciousness as he tried to get a sense of his situation. His hands were tied behind his back, not caught in sheets as he had naively hoped; a subtle twist proved them to be well-tied with a rope both thick and strong. There was the jingle of chainmail. The low voiced murmurs of men, eight maybe? Ten? He twitched his nose as it picked up the faint smell of smoke, indicating a doused campfire and so a fair-sized company. And was that...
"I know you're awake, you know," said an amused voice.
Arthur cursed under his breath and opened his eyes. The light shining through the foliage was like needles thrust into his pounding brain and he winced, squinting as he tried to get a sense of his captor. The man was huge – over six feet tall at the least and rippling with muscle, nearly bursting out of his well-cared for chainmail. His weapons were also of the highest quality, Arthur noticed dispassionately; the dagger he was sharpening gleamed and had a well-oiled hilt, as did the scimitar thrust through the man's belt. His bald head had a pentagram tattooed on its left side and his craggy face was hard and uncompromising as he stared at the prince.
"Who are you?" Arthur croaked out of his dry throat. "I think I'll skip the traditional 'What do you want,' as I think it's fairly obvious in this case."
The man held his sides as he let out a deep bellowing laugh. Arthur used his distraction to take a quick glance about the clearing; fifteen men at a glance, with good horseflesh and well-outfitted.
"You have a sense of humour about you, little princeling," the man said. Argus, Arthur decided. He'd once known a palace dog named Argus. It had been a savage and brutal cur whose personality had belied his good breeding and had had a scar on the same side of his head. Arthur had ordered him put down after the hound had taken a savage bite out of the arm of a servant.
Yes, he looks like an Argus.
"And what is it that we want?" Argus drawled.
Arthur feigned boredom as well as he could from his trussed up position, summoning his princely arrogance like a cloak. He sniffed disdainfully at the man's 'ignorance.' "Me, the King, Camelot, the usual," he sighed.
"But then you would be dead," the man pointed out with infallible logic. "No, in this instance," Argus said, a smug grin on his brutish face, "You are wrong. We don't want you."
Arthur was still struggling to comprehend this – then why was he here, for god's sake – when the man's next words struck him like a slap in the face.
"We want Merlin."
Arthur stared, not caring that his mouth was opening and closing like a stunned fish as Argus laughed in his face. Merlin?
"What could you want with Merlin?" he scoffed. "The boy's a passable servant on his best days, but an idiot at worst and half-wit at best." They couldn't know. It's not possible.
Argus chuckled again, pointing his dagger at Arthur in a Gotcha! pose. "And just about the most powerful sorcerer Camelot has ever seen, perhaps all of Albion," he corrected mildly.
"You can't be serious," Arthur said, pulling his face into the most contemptuous expression he could manage. "Merlin couldn't even remember his daily chores, let alone hold enough knowledge in that empty skull to be a sorcerer."
Argus sat down, his back against a tree trunk. "Deny it all you like," he said offhandedly. "But we have you, and so he will come. And then we can finally destroy the biggest barrier to the Camelot throne."
"He won't come," Arthur said with false confidence, while his thoughts ran in a panicked spin. Merlin ohgod shit Merlin how did they KNOW? "Haven't you heard? He is out of my favour. We haven't spoken in months."
For the first time since he started gloating what looked like worry passed over Argus's face and Arthur dared to hope his bluff would work. But the man's expression cleared and Arthur's stomach sank.
"I did hear about that," the man agreed. "Did you find him out? Is that why you sacked him? We," he said, indicating his henchmen with a tilt of his head, "Weren't even sure you knew the truth. But it makes no difference." He shrugged and repeated, "The sorcerer will come. And then we will kill him."
Argus – he must be the leader, Arthur thought distractedly, the other fifteen remained silent and holding their guard during the conversation – looked far too sure of himself for Arthur's comfort. If he knew Merlin was a sorcerer- and how did he know that? – surely he was aware that even with his grunts he didn't stand a chance!
"If he comes and if he is this 'great sorcerer' that you have been trumpeting about- and I still don't think he will come - you know that he will annihilate you," Arthur said conversationally, quietly testing the ropes around his wrists again. He cursed silently - whoever had tied him up knew their knots very well indeed. It would take him hours to loosen the bonds sufficiently, if he could at all, and their location behind his back wasn't helping matters any. The muscles in his arms were beginning to cramp from their strained position. Who knew how many hours he had been unconscious before waking up in this charming company?
"That's where you are wrong, your highness." The leader bowed mockingly to Arthur and flourished his hand dramatically at the drawled title. "After all, we didn't go to all the trouble of infiltrating the palace and risking our necks drugging the crown prince for you to serve only one purpose."
At a signal invisible to Arthur two of the men moved towards him and unsheathed their swords. Arthur struggled wildly at his bonds again as they approached and kicked one of the men hard in the shin, for which he earned a heavy handed cuff to the head. Blinking stars from his vision – did that man have boulders for hands? – Arthur felt cool steel at his throat and froze. Two swordpoints jabbed into his neck. Shifting his eyes carefully across the clearing he saw another of the grunts had an arrow levelled at his chest. Argus smiled at him pityingly.
"You are not merely bait, Pendragon. You are leverage."
And with that he turned on his heel and left the Prince frozen in place, barking orders to his men and preparing for Merlin's arrival. Arthur's throat closed over in fear for his friend.
Please. Don't come after me, Merlin. I made you hate me for a reason...now stay away...
(3 months earlier)
Arthur looked up from his reports in anger as his chamber doors burst open. When he saw Merlin in the doorway he felt the familiar bile of betrayal rise in his throat – but also the choking hold of fear. Not fear of Merlin, no - fear for his stupid, good-hearted, magical idiot. The now-familiar mask of hatred and contempt settled on his features with relative ease as he faced his former manservant. Relative ease - but relative only to the ease of a knife being twisted slowly in your side.
"Arthur, I need to talk to you," Merlin begged, walking across the room to stand before Arthur's desk. "Please, you have to let me explain. You have to..."
Arthur slammed his hands down on his desk, stopping Merlin mid stream. He stood and swept the books of his desk, the ledgers landing on the floor with a loud thump and making Merlin flinch.
"I have to do nothing," Arthur hissed. "I have to do nothing but remind you that you are only alive on my sufferance, and that is quickly wearing thin. I have to do nothing but report to the King that my former-manservant is a lying, traitorous, magical wretch if you do not leave my chambers this instant."
Merlin looked devastated. "I thought you would understand," he said in a small voice. "I thought...I thought you were my friend. That's why I told you."
Arthur closed his eyes in pain. You are my friend Merlin. You are my truest, dearest companion and that is why I must do this. A Prince's manservant is too close to the King. How you escaped from being noticed before now...
Arthur opened his eyes. His next words would break his own heart as much as destroy Merlin. He narrowed them as if in fury, trying to cover the wetness building behinds his eyelids.
"You are nothing, Merlin. You will always be nothing. Clearly my lenience with your poor attitude has given you ideas beyond your station, but let me spell it out for you. You are a commoner. Your only purpose is to serve your betters. Nobles are not friends with...your kind. As recognition of your previous loyalty, I have chosen to overlook your treasonous activities for now, but that will change if you ever force your presence on me again. Now get out of my sight."
The colour drained out of Merlin's face. The fire, the life that had always burned so brightly seemed to die behind Merlin's eyes, their sparkling sapphire dulling and becoming flat as his posture slumped in submission. The bond of trust and friendship that had always existed between them and so easily bridged the divide of class and rank shattered, leaving a yawning gulf where it had been. Merlin bowed deeply to the Prince.
"'I am sorry Sire," he said, his words quiet and lifeless. "I will not trouble you again."
Arthur watched him leave, not bothering to hide the pain in his eyes as the door shut with an air of finality behind his former-friend. He leaned on the table and let his head slump forwards.
I'm so sorry Merlin. I'm so sorry...but I couldn't watch you die.
Merlin was true to his word. Arthur had not seen more than a whisper of his former servant in all the months since that horrible confrontation. Many times he had caught a glimpse of a red scarf in a crowd and flinched, heart clenching in his chest – many times he thought seriously about explaining things to Merlin, apologising for his actions and telling him how truly important he was to the prince. Arthur missed his smile, his laugh, the way the servant would listen without judgement to Arthur's plans for Camelot as well as his worries and concerns, the way he believed so strongly that Arthur was, indeed, a man worthy to be King. Every time Arthur would turn towards Gaius's rooms, to tell Merlin how much he was needed.
And then he would walk past the gallows. See the ashes of another execution being swept up from around the pyre. And he would see Merlin, screaming, burning, dying. And turn away.
Now he sat on the forest floor, hands tied, blades to his throat, surrounded by competent men whose stated purpose was the execution of the very man he had fought so hard, and sacrificed so much, to protect.
Please Merlin. Stay away...
"I am here."
The quiet voice nonetheless echoed in the suddenly silent clearing as Merlin stepped out from the trees, one of the guards by his side. He didn't look at Arthur, focusing instead on Argus who immediately stepped forward.
"Merlin," the man said gratingly. "So glad you accepted our invitation. Your Prince there was so very adamant that you wouldn't be coming we were beginning to think we didn't need him anymore, if you know what I mean."
Merlin stood silently. He looked like he had come straight from the stables, his clothing dirtied and his scarf haphazard. He even had straw in his hair, Arthur thought a little hysterically. Yet he still cut a dignified, even noble figure, standing as he was, unfazed, surrounded by enemies.
Irritated that his sally had received no response, the leader circled Merlin curiously, like a buyer inspecting a horse at the market. Merlin stared straight ahead, waiting for the man to face him again.
"You don't look like much for a sorcerer, does he boys," Argus sniffed. "Still, if your power if what we have heard then it presents too great a threat to ignore. You know what we want," he said, suddenly serious, trying to stare Merlin down.
Merlin remained unruffled. "I do."
"So why are you here?" the man asked, bemused by the sorcerer's calm. "You cannot kill us all before one of my boys kills your Prince there. Is it possible you came here to die? Die for a Pendragon, a man who cast you aside like a dog?"
It wasn't like that, Merlin, Arthur thought miserably, willing Merlin to hear him. Please don't believe them.
Merlin simply shrugged at the man's taunting. "He is my Prince," he said simply, in that flat, dead voice. He sounded like he was discussing a business transaction, not calmly talking about his imminent death.
Arthur couldn't take it anymore. "Get out Merlin!" he yelled, ignoring the blades that cut into his throat. Sticky blood began to flow from the shallow cuts and the men guarding him cursed, shifting their now bloody swords back half an inch. "Don't be ridiculous!" He struggled against his bonds again as another of the grunts approached him with a dirty rag, refusing to be silenced. "Use your damn magic and... mmph! Mmph mmph!" he cried, continuing to yell indistinctly as the gag was stuffed in his mouth. Merlin didn't even bat an eyelid or glance in his direction.
"I will require certain guarantees, of course," the sorcerer continued.
"Of course. I suppose you want your Prince unharmed."
"Yes. But how do I know you will keep your word? You want me. You can go after Arthur another day. If we are to seal this," and Merlin's chin came up stubbornly, "I will need on blood oath from you for yourself and your men that he will be freed and allowed to return to Camelot unharmed."
"You ask a great deal," Argus said slowly. A blood oath to a sorcerer was binding. If broken it would cause the men's blood to boil in their veins, a prolonged, agonising and certain death.
"Then we are at an impasse," Merlin said flatly. "Either you swear the oath or I will use magic against you. You and your men will die- I may or may not be fast enough to save the Prince. Or, you swear and release Arthur, free to try another day. You will live. For now."
Arthur shivered at the cold tone of Merlin's voice. What had happened in three months to change his happy-go-lucky servant into this...this creature of stone?
The man made a show of considering it, but he and Merlin both knew he had only one option to get what he wanted. "Done," he said finally. He pulled a dagger from his belt and sliced a shallow cut across his palm, closing his fist and allowing the blood to drip onto the forest floor. "I so swear, on behalf of me and my men."
"Witnessed," Merlin said quietly. Gold smoke briefly curled around the cut on Argus's hand before fading and leaving no trace of a wound behind. For a moment the clearing was frozen, a stark tableau of this bargain of death. Everyone was poised, waiting, the gravity of the moment silencing even the sounds of the forest.
Then Argus drew his sword and ran Merlin through.
"MMPH!" Arthur screamed into his gag, thrashing wildly in his captors hands. The men withdrew hurriedly, quickly moving their weapons away from the Prince as he fought his bonds. The archer put up his bow and took a step back, all of them afraid of breaching their oath. They had achieved what they sought.
Merlin blinked slowly. His mouth was slightly open, blood beginning to dribble over his lips and down his chin. He looked confused as he looked down at the sword protruding through his gut and raised a shaking hand towards the blade.
Argus ripped it out in a savage motion. Merlin was jerked forwards and took a half step, hand still out in front of him. He turned towards Arthur, meeting his eyes for the first time since entering the clearing. The dead expression was gone; his eyes were brimming pools of sadness and pain, staring at Arthur beseechingly. Forgive me.
Then Merlin crumpled to the ground.
No! No no no no no no no no... Round and round the chant went in Arthur's head, tears streaming down his face as stared at the fallen body of his friend. My fault. My fault. Merlin nononononono... He remembered once, long ago, standing before Merlin as he went to fight the dragon. No man is worth your tears, he had said then. For the first time he understood. It was easy to say the words when you were not going to be the one left.
Through his streaming eyes he saw one of the men kneel before Merlin's body, checking first his chest and then listening for his breath. "He's gone, sir," the man said, standing and brushing himself off. Argus came to stand before Arthur and the Prince glared at him through his bleary eyes.
"An oath is an oath," the man said, dropping a breadknife besides Arthur's bound hands. "We can't have you coming after us but if you're half the warrior they claim that will get you out in a few minutes. You'll be seeing us again, Prince Arthur!" he called, mounting his horse at the edge of the clearing. One by one the rest of the men saddled up and mounted. One levelled a kick at Merlin's body as he left, and Arthur flinched violently, feeling like the blow had struck his own gut. "Watch your back!"
Then they were gone, leaving Arthur alone with his dead.
Arthur finally shook off his bonds. What had that breadknife been used for, chopping wood? He thought numbly. He hunched over where he sat, staring at the ground as he massaged life back into his cramping limbs. He had hoped – prayed – that this was all some kind of trick, that Merlin would bounce up with his old careless grin and a "Ha! Fooled you!" But as the minutes when by as he sawed at the rope that hope had dimmed, and eventually, died altogether. Now as the pain of blood rushing back into his maltreated limbs brought tears to his eyes Arthur stared fixedly at the ground, not wanting to acknowledge the pitiful bundle of cloth before him.
Finally he stood, muscles complaining but functional again, and he had no more excuses. Walking towards Merlin his throat tightened and his treacherous eyes pricked again. He had seen men killed in battle, many times over. Why the cowardice now?
Arthur squatted beside his friend and gently turned him over. Merlin's head lolled on his neck, body flopping like a puppet with its strings cut and Arthur could finally look into his friend's face. Merlin didn't look 'peaceful.' He didn't look like he was sleeping. His glassy eyes, already fogging over, stared in accusation at the prince who had failed him. Blood stained his chin from where it had dribbled from his slack mouth and when Arthur went to cup his face his skin was already cold, even the illusion of life fleeing from the bloodless body. Arthur closed his eyes in agony as tears began to stream anew. This was his fault. His attempts to protect Merlin had backfired spectacularly and now, because of his actions, his friend was lost to him forever.
A sob caught in Arthur's throat as he gathered the empty husk of his friend to his chest, burying his face in Merlin's hair. When did he become so light? Arthur thought, not even noticing as he began to rock, clasping the body to his chest as he wept. The frenzied cry of an animal tore from his throat and he breathed in from where his nose was buried in Merlin's hair, wanting to remember the smell of his friend. But he couldn't smell anything, not even the hay in the boy's hair. Nothing quintessentially Merlin.
He didn't know how much time had passed before he finally swallowed his sobs. Minutes. Maybe hours. He sniffed loudly and ever-so-gently laid his precious burden down onto the unforgiving earth. He would have to figure out a way to get Merlin home to Camelot. He would see he got a proper burial. Gaius would be devastated, Arthur thought numbly.
Suddenly the body in his arms shivered. Arthur, stunned, dropped the arms he had been holding and jumped back as it shimmered and suddenly disappeared completely. Arthur stared at where the body had been blankly, his mind thick and slow with grief. Did that happen with all sorcerers when they died? Surely not, he'd been at enough executions to know they were just like other men. But then...
"I thought that went rather well," Merlin announced, stepping into the clearing.
For the third time that day Arthur felt like he had taken a kick to the gut. As fast as a striking snake he was on his feet and he grabbed Merlin by the collar, yanking him around and slamming him with bruising force into a tree. Fury blinded Arthur's eyes and he slammed the sorcerer into the tree again and again, punctuating each connection with a shout.
"You...let...me...think...you...were...dead!" he yelled into Merlin's surprised face. "What was this, some sick kind of revenge? You wanted to hurt me as much as I hurt you? Was that it?"
Merlin slapped away Arthur's hands with astonishing strength, anger darkening his face. "I didn't think you'd care!" he screamed back, pushing Arthur in the chest. "Why would you care if I died? You threatened me with death yourself not too long ago, if you remember!"
"To save your life, you idiot! Since you're clearly too stupid to look after by yourself. Why did you even come here? What if they shot you? What if they'd laid a better trap? "
"What, I was just supposed to let you die? Some of us understand the meaning of loyalty and friendship, you know!"
Arthur jerked backwards as if he'd been slapped, staring at Merlin who was breathing hard, hands clenched into fists at his side. "You were always my friend, Merlin," he said quietly. "I hope you can understand one day that what I did, I was doing for you."
Some of the anger drained out of Merlin's face, leaving him looking tired and old. "I suspected," he admitted. "You were always too noble for your own good. But it hurt, Arthur. I gave you my trust, my greatest secret, my heart and you stomped on it like it meant nothing. I didn't know. By the time we got here -I really didn't think you'd care. I was …astonished. And honoured."
Arthur's fury rose up again at this reminder, thick and heavy where it constricted his throat. "You still haven't answered my question," he growled dangerously. "Was this some kind of sick entertainment for you? Did you enjoy watching my...was it revenge? Is that why you didn't end the spell after they left?"
"No, Arthur," Merlin snarled back, his face pulled taut in emotion. "God, do you really think that of me? They left a guard behind. These were not some half-witted bandits off the road. They suspected. I had to wait for them to be satisfied. I'm sorry, I really am."
Arthur visibly deflated, realising the sense of Merlin's words. Merlin, who was alive. The emotions and trials of the last two hours hit him suddenly, and he put a hand out behind him for support on a tree trunk.
"How are you even alive? What about the oath? And god, Merlin, I'm sorry too. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He shook his head back and forth violently, caught up with images. Merlin, glassy eyes staring. Blood staining the leaves where he lay. His face, cold and dead beneath Arthur's fingertips. The sight, he knew, would haunt Arthur for many nights and days to come. He clenched his eyes tight.
Arms were suddenly around him and Merlin pulled him into a tight embrace. Arthur fought half-heartedly – he was not a girl, for heavensake – then gave in and buried his nose in Merlin's shoulder. He was bony, warm, and smelled of hay, Gaius's potions, horses, and something sharp and foreign. Arthur huffed a laugh and his arms came up to grip Merlin's shoulders tightly. Just for the moment he would allow himself this weakness. The sound of Merlin's heart beating in his too thin rib-cage, the warmth of his flesh and the slightly ripe smell of a young man in need of a bath.It was real.
"Um, Arthur, you're hurting me," Merlin gasped. The prince came back to himself and jumped back, brushing himself off and staring anywhere but at Merlin. He felt colour rising in his cheeks as he felt the beginnings of the burn of humiliation at the vulnerabilities the servant had witnessed.
"As for the oath," Merlin said, a half-smile playing about his lips. "I never swore they would have anything besides me. And I was there, wasn't I? I never said what they could do with me." Then his face twisted into bitter lines.
"But what do you plan to do? Am I to face the executioner now after demonstrating my treasonous activities?" he asked cruelly. "Will my lord prince hand me in for breaking the law in saving his royal neck?"
Arthur winced at the suspicion and wariness in Merlin's face and body language. The trust between them had been damaged - he hoped not broken irreparably– and he knew he was the only one to blame. His concerns about Merlin's safety were still real and strong; but this afternoon's events had proved to him that pushing the man away could result in consequences worse still. The reparations had to start with him.
"Well, it may have been said once or twice that you were the worst manservant I've ever had," Arthur started, drawing himself up arrogantly like the puffed up popinjay he had been when they first met. Merlin's nostrils flared as his eyebrows snapped together in anger but Arthur raised a hand to forestall the snarl he could see rising on the servant's lips. "But I think...perhaps not all that bad."
Merlin's expression evened out but his mouth curled into a sardonic twist that didn't belong on his face. It seemed the three months apart had changed them both. "The Crown Prince would have a sorcerer as a manservant?" he asked.
Arthur held his eyes. "He'd have a friend," he said simply.
Merlin merely raised his eyebrows and went to turn away. Arthur's stomach sank and he tried not to show his burning disappointment. He had to accept Merlin's choice. It was not as if the prince hadn't deserved it, after all.
But he was startled out of his self-pity as a horse cantered into the clearing, snorting as it laid its head against Merlin's outstretched hand. He was still staring as Merlin led the horse over to him and the servant had to force him to take the reins.
"How did you do that?" Arthur said in disbelief. Merlin smiled wryly.
"It seems three months not having to run after the demands of a prattish prince leaves one a lot of time to study," was all he said. "I will join you later. First," and that cold look stole into his eyes again, making Arthur shiver at the un-Merlinlike expression, "I'm going to make sure those men never come after Camelot again."
And while Arthur was still staring at that impossible statement – there were fifteen of them, for crying out loud – Merlin threw his arms and head back. His eyes shone with a bright golden light and before his limbs had reached their limit they had shortened and sprouted feathers, his face grew a long hooked beak and in moments a giant tawny owl flapped in his place. The owl flew in a circle around Arthur gently brushing his face with its feathers before flying off in the direction of Argus and his crew.
Arthur shook his head and began to lead the horse back to Camelot. He was under no illusions about their relationship. Their bond had been cracked; it would take a long time to heal that hurt and regain the trust that had once existed so naturally between them. They would never be what they had been. But perhaps they could be something new; rather than Prince and manservant, the tentative beginnings of a King-too-be and his Sorcerer. A new future rose before the prince.
And Arthur smiled.