Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin or any of its characters, though I really wish I did lol!
A/N: I started this story a while back, and I was dismayed to see 2 similar plotlines pop up in just the last couple of weeks because of a prompt from somewhere. I guess that's what actually got me trying to finish this piece. I don't want to wait around and be one of a billion lol!
Thanks to silk-mistress for being the beta of my story. If not for you I wouldn't have been able to post. You saved me from my horrible punctuation lol! Best beta E—ver by the way!
Under the Assumption of Death
Chapter 1: Over the Ledge
Merlin watched in complete horror as the unstable ground beneath the Prince gave way with a loud rumble. 'No, no, no, no…' he screamed in his mind.
He couldn't think, he couldn't breathe-he just acted. His feet pounded urgently across the short distance, his body thrusting forward with all the force he could muster. Just as Arthur's blond head disappeared over the ledge, Merlin's lanky frame landed and fanned out on the earth. He skidded painfully across the rocks that lay in his path, each tearing at his skin. The momentum carried his torso over the edge, his arm surging forward in a desperate attempt to grasp whatever part of the Prince he could grab hold of.
In a moment tinged with brief relief his fingers curled around his master's forearm. He tightened his hold, and tried to brace for the inevitable burden.
No amount of preparation seemed to help, and a cry of pain escaped through Merlin's clinched jaw as soon as Arthur's fully armored body wrenched his shoulder taut. Despite his best efforts to prevent the unavoidable, gravity took hold and Merlin followed Arthur over the ledge-shouts from the knights following after them.
He still held firm despite the shock of being pulled over. He tried to keep his wits, and grabbed at the outward growing branches a couple of meters down. His ribs struck the rough bark, and with a whoosh all his breath was pushed out of him.
Having no air left within his lungs, he couldn't help but let out a silent bellow as the Prince's descent was once again stopped beneath him. Merlin could feel the chain mail slipping through his thin fingers. 'Don't let go!' he pleaded with himself. 'Hold on tighter!' But his master's arm still slid down further. When the feeling of Arthur's calloused hands reached his own, he went rigid and clutched with pure desperation. Merlin's heart beat forcefully within his chest, his eyes pinched closed with strain. It felt like eternity before he managed to suck in a rapid breath, followed by another, and another. His lungs were panting with exertion.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted below him.
Slowly the younger man opened his sapphire eyes only to look directly into the Prince's periwinkle ones. "Arthur," he hissed, gazing intently into his master's distressed features below. A small huff escaped the prince, and briefly Merlin thought he saw the evidence of a hesitant, if not shaky, smirk.
"I know you tend to follow me around like a lost puppy…but over a cliff, Merlin!" he ground out breathlessly "…It's a bit much, isn't it?"
"Well excuse me…" Merlin gritted, taking a breath. "…next time I'll let you fall, you prat!"
"Can you pull me up?"
"I…" Merlin hesitated. 'It's all I can do to bloody hang on!' his mind screamed wretchedly. A small cramp began to build and he let out a hiss of air and closed his eyes tightly, burying his face into the bark of the tree, scratches etching onto the ridges of his prominent cheek bones.
The silence spoke volumes. Arthur watched as Merlin seemed to try to collect himself, it was obvious that the younger man was in pain, the strain quickly getting to him. The prince could feel the tremble in his own muscles as he fought to hold onto his servant's hand. If he as a trained warrior felt such a burden, he wondered how much more Merlin was experiencing.
"Your armor," Merlin finally bit out. "God!" he hissed again.
Arthur knew this was not going to end well; the weight of his armor was too much to even expect one of his knights to bear. 'It's a miracle he's held on as long as he has,' he thought dejectedly.
Unexpectedly, there was a deep groan, followed by a cracking noise that echoed out from the wood to which Merlin clung. 'This is it,' he thought. It was going to give way, they were both going to die if this continued, and he wasn't sure he could bear the thought of that.
"Merlin, listen to me!" he commanded. "The branch isn't going to hold. It's breaking under our weight; you have to let me go." He had to make sure at least one of them had a chance to make it out of this.
"You're crazy!" Merlin huffed.
"Then if you won't, I will." Arthur stated simply, his grip on his manservant's hand releasing in time with his nervous breath.
The prince watched as Merlin's eyes snapped open in horror, alarm flashing across his hardened features.
Merlin shook his head adamantly and hoarsely shouted an abhorrent "No-!" Tears leaked from the warlock's eyes, but he didn't care, nor did he feel ashamed. He had always been perceived as weak, but this time, he was determined to disprove the common misconceptions about his character. With unwavering resolve, Merlin strengthened his previously faltering hold.
The wood cracked again, and with a look of dread Merlin looked deep into the prince's eyes. 'I can't let this happen,' he reasoned. 'Not when I can do something about it.'
"I'm sorry" Merlin choked, his voice trembling from anticipation.
Arthur's heart constricted as he saw his servants orbs fill with regret, salty drops cascading down his face.
"It's alright Merlin, you tried. Don't blame yourself… promise me."
"No!" Merlin growled numbly. "You don't…you don't understand. I'd never let you go" he panted. "Never!"
Arthur watched as a frightened yet determined look filled Merlin's eyes. "Merlin, let go!" he pleaded. 'Please.'
"You have to know that I'd do anything for you, Arthur Pendragon…anything it takes to protect you. To save you," he pressed, inwardly begging for future acceptance. 'Please understand-it's the only way.'
With a deep trembling breath, he reached out for his instinctive magic. "With a deep necessity, he clawed at the power he had been born with. No words were needed.
He watched as Arthur's eyes reflected like mirrors, showing his own depths as they swirled into pools of gold. Almost instantly the prince's expression morphed into alarm, and Merlin had to quickly look away. 'Focus,' he told himself. 'Focus on what you have to do.' Gathering his will, the warlock pulled with a forceful tug. He growled as he lifted himself up, pulling the prince up with him.
He could hear the shouts of the knights above them, they had never stopped their yelling, but they had yet to seem relevant to the situation until now.
"Get him!" Merlin bellowed, following suit with a mighty roar as he heaved with his magic.
Arthur flew upwards and over his friend's head, a cry of torment tearing from Merlin as his shoulder cracked and popped in an unnatural way. He felt his burden lighten and looked up through blurry eyes, as several knights lead by Sir Leon pulled Arthur up and onto the safety of solid ground. 'I did it!' he thought relieved.
The prince immediately twisted in the knights' arms and watched as Merlin fell back and landed harshly against the tree. "Merlin!" he shouted with an outstretched hand.
The boy simply looked up at him, his eyes once again deep pools of blue, and lay there boneless, exhausted, and fully spent. A weak surrendering smile played on his lips, clearly directing it towards his master.
"Told you I'd do anything" he whispered, his small voice lost on the breezes as they drifted past.
When the cracks around him returned and multiplied, he knew that the branch that had been steadily weakening had finally given way.
He closed his eyes in resignation, and could hear the horrified shouts above him. His stomach quickly rose into his throat as gravity gathered him into its unrelenting embrace. The air whipped harshly around him in a loud roar, and Arthur's cries could no longer be heard over it.
It was then that he let the mercy of unconsciousness seize him from his pain. His last thoughts were of his mother, of Gaius, and of Avalon. He had done what was required of him. Arthur was safe.