It was the largest boar Arthur had ever seen.
Arthur had hunted boar before. He had come out into the forest with the express purpose of hunting this boar, and he had come prepared. He and his men carried boar spears- enormous things, with a wide crosspiece at the base of the head. His men were scattered through the forest, and they and the hounds were chivvying the boar towards one of the several spearmen who stood waiting. Arthur had gotten lucky, apparently, and the boar broke in his direction.
He planted his spear, and waited for the boar to charge. The villagers had claimed that the beast was magic; that it was a god of boars sent to plague them. Arthur was beginning to understand why they might think that. Its tusks were enormous, and it was nearly as tall as a man. Arthur steeled himself. He seriously considered running, instead, but he doubted that he could make it. His best chance was to hold his ground, trap the beast on his spear, and hope that his men arrived to finish it off before it worked its way up the spear and finished him.
Arthur planted his feet. The boar charged. It slammed into the spear with the speed of a horse at full gallop. It was red-eyed and snarling, its tusks reaching for him. For a moment, Arthur thought that the crosspiece would hold it. With a squealing roar, though, the beast pushed past it, coming down the spear at him, wickedly sharp tusks swinging around to catch his body. In that moment, Arthur saw his death coming for him. I never thought it would be like this, he thought.
And then heard Merlin's voice. "Arthur!" he shouted. Somehow, Arthur was pulled aside, and he saw Merlin standing in his place. The tusks slammed into his manservant's body, and Merlin cried out. Wasting no time, Arthur drew his sword. He'd lost control of the spear when Merlin had pulled him away, but it was embedded deep in the boar's chest, the haft protruding out towards Arthur. He leaped on the spear haft, and ran up it, jumping over the tusks before the animal could register what he'd done. He jammed his sword down into the beast's eye. Then it threw him off, shaking its head violently. He slammed into a tree. Dazed, he managed to remain conscious. He pulled himself shakily up in time to see the boar wheel and ready to charge him again.
Just then, his knights emerged from the trees on horseback. They attacked the boar savagely. Twice-wounded, the beast fell quickly. For a moment, all was still.
"Merlin!" Arthur cried, and ran to his manservant. The boy lay on the ground, blood staining his blue shirt black. Even as Arthur approached him, he knew it was hopeless. Merlin's guts were clearly visible, so much meat. If Merlin were lucky, he'd bleed out soon. If he were unlucky, it would take him days to die, in excruciating pain and out of his head with fever.
"Arthur," the boy whispered. "I thought-" He gasped, and blood bubbled out of his mouth. "You have a destiny," he said, urgently. "You will be a great king some day. I'm sorry- I won't be there to protect you anymore. Watch your back, you great prat."
Arthur's breath hitched in his throat. "Don't talk like this, Merlin. We'll get you back to Gaius, and he'll fix you up."
Merlin laughed, soundlessly. "You are a terrible liar," he said. "Tell Gaius-" he broke off. "And Gwen." He started to convulse, blood pouring out of his mouth.
"Merlin!" Arthur cried. "Merlin, stop this! I order you to stop!" Merlin stilled, his eyes open, and unseeing. Merlin had, it seemed, been lucky. Arthur reached out a trembling hand, and shut his eyes.
"Sire?" Sir Leon put a hand on his shoulder. "Are you injured?" he asked.
Arthur shook his head. "I'm fine," he said. He stared for a long moment at Merlin's face. I'm happy to be your servant, till the day I die, he'd said, once. Merlin had gotten his wish. Arthur stood, ducking his head. He was a prince, and he would not let his men see him weep. Gritting his teeth, he turned to Leon. "Give me your cloak," he said, quietly.
Leon did not ask why. He simply pulled it off his shoulders and handed it over. Arthur knelt down and lifted Merlin's body up, wrapping it in the cloak. "Leave the beast," Arthur said. "Have one of the men tell the villagers where it is, and let them have the meat." He turned, and laid Merlin gently over the front of his saddle. "I should get him home to Gaius," he said.
The knights were silent as they rode through the gates. One of the servants must have called for Gaius. He was waiting in the courtyard when Arthur left the stables, Merlin's body cradled in his arms. There was a terrible fear in the old physician's face. Arthur had had to do this more times than he cared to think about. When a knight died in his service, he saw it as his responsibility to talk to the families. He supposed that he'd have to ride up to Ealdor to bring the news to Hunith. He'd have to wait until Merlin was in the ground, though. Merlin would never make the journey home, not in the summer heat.
"I'm sorry, Gaius," he said, his voice carefully even. "He's gone."
Gaius reached out, pulling the cloak away from Merlin's face. A terrible groaning sob forced its way out of his mouth. His hand on Arthur's arm, he fell to his knees, weeping openly. "Leon," Arthur said, "Help Gaius to his chambers, and make sure that he's not disturbed. I'll be by to speak with him later." His voice sounded cold, even to him. He didn't think he could get through this, otherwise. Time enough to break down later.
Leon helped Gaius up, and led him away. Gaius leaned on the knight, looking as old and bent as Arthur had ever seen him.
Bodies were taken to the catacombs to await burial. The cold stone preserved them for a time, even in summer. Arthur laid Merlin down. His blood had begun to seep through the red cloak, and it stained Arthur's tunic. He knelt for a moment by Merlin's body, but there was no point. His manservant- his friend- had gone. Wordlessly, he stood and walked away.
Gaius was calm when Arthur went to him. "How did it happen?" he asked, quietly.
"The boar," Arthur said. "I don't know why he was even there; he was supposed to be watching the spare horses. I told him to stay behind."
"He wouldn't have wanted you to go into that danger on your own," Gaius answered.
"I would have died," Arthur said, and his voice broke. He breathed carefully, for a moment, staring at a blank spot on the wall. "He pushed me back, and the boar got him instead of me. There was nothing I could do to stop it. It happened so fast..."
"I'm sure there wasn't," Gaius said, but he would not meet Arthur's eyes. "Is he... in the catacombs?"
"Then I should go to him. I can at least see to that." The physician began packing things into a bag.
"I should speak to my father," Arthur said. "Gaius... if you need anything," he finished, lamely. It wasn't enough. It could never be enough.
Uther was immensely relieved when he heard the story, of course. Arthur stood in front of him, let his father embrace him, and said nothing. He knew what Uther would say, if he let his true feelings show. He was your servant, Arthur. We can find you another servant. Never mind that Merlin had been loyal, loyal to the point of death, and that loyalty of that sort could not be easily replaced. Never mind that he was my friend, he thought. When he was done with Uther, he retreated to his chambers.
He stood at the window, his hands on either side of the stone frame. He'd thought that when he was alone the tears would finally burst through, but he found himself numb. He called Merlin's face to mind, daring himself to look into his memory of that pale, still bloodied face, daring himself to feel something. All he could think of, though, was Merlin laughing, or frowning, or smiling. Arthur couldn't believe him dead; it didn't seem real.
Behind him, he heard his door slam open. "What happened to him?" Morgana said, her voice on the edge of tears. "What happened, Arthur?"
Arthur turned, his face stony. "He was gored by a boar, Morgana. There was nothing I could do."
"Nothing you could do?" she cried. She slammed her fists into his chest. "Why was he facing a boar? He was just a servant, not a knight! This is your fault, Arthur Pendragon!"
She wasn't saying anything he wasn't already thinking. He caught her fists, holding them up. "There was nothing I could do, Morgana," he repeated. He pushed her back from him, and began walking away.
"Don't walk away from me, Arthur!" she shouted, crying. "Don't you feel anything? Don't you care?"
He wanted to stop, to tell her that he did care, that he cared more than he could say, that he wanted to break down weeping with his grief- but he couldn't. He couldn't.
He kept walking, and soon enough, he found himself out in front of a familiar house. No one was home, and so he let himself in. He sat down at the kitchen table; there were wildflowers in a cup. They were beautiful. He touched them gently, once, and marveled at the softness of the petals. And he waited.
It was dark, by the time Gwen came home. Arthur was still waiting, staring silently at the flowers on her table.
"Arthur?" she said. "Everyone's been looking for you!"
He didn't respond. He didn't even meet her eyes. "Arthur," she said, turning him to face her. She knelt in front of him, taking his face in her hands. "Arthur-"
It was then, that he finally began to cry. The tears started as a trickle, leaking from his eyes. Soon, his body was racked with great, heaving sobs. He found himself on the floor next to Gwen, curled over, his hands balled into fists.
"Arthur," she whispered, holding him. She stroked his hair, kissing his forehead gently. "I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry."
"That- that idiot," Arthur cried, his teeth clenched. "He was always doing things like that."
"He was very brave," Gwen said, kissing his tear-streaked cheeks. "He wanted you to be safe; it was what he cared about more than anything."
"He mentioned you, at the end," Arthur said, gasping for breath. His chest felt like it was on fire. "Gaius, and you."
And then Gwen was weeping, and it was Arthur who held her as she cried. "I'm sorry," he said, after a while. "I'm sorry, I should have kept him safe, I'm sorry I didn't bring him back, it was my fault-"
"Shhh," she said, a finger on his lips. "There was nothing you could have done," she said. She stroked his cheek, and kissed him, very gently. "They'll bury him tomorrow. You can stay here until then. I won't tell anyone."
"Gwen-" he said, and he began crying again. "I feel like part of me is missing. I keep turning, and expecting him to be underfoot, bumbling around like a moron." He laughed, or cried. Or both. "How can he be gone?"
"I'm sorry, Arthur," she said, and began crying again.
He held onto her like a drowning man clings to a raft.
A/N: Hello there. This is my first foray into Merlin; I mainly write Doctor Who. Sorry for the depressing. I was pondering how Arthur would actually react to Merlin's death, and this is what came out.