Journey Through a Broken Soul - Chapter 06
A/N: Because I couldn't update Beside Me, I bring you this instead.
As of now, this is an AU of Merlin. I imagine that it takes place post-S3, with the exception of changes to Episode 313. The change is basically just the very last scene. In canon, it's shown that though they are commoners the four new knights were accepted into the knighthood. Here, I'm imagining that Uther still didn't allow it, so the men left to wait for Arthur to become king.
Unbeta'd, due to extreme lack of patience. If you see any mistakes, feel free to tell me. :)
Merlin was tired.
Arthur could easily see his exhaustion, yet Merlin refused to stop at all. Even when Arthur and Lancelot did some strength training while they gave their horses a break, Merlin was too wired, keeping careful eyes on Arthur as he slowly fought towards his strength.
By nightfall, he was practically falling out of his saddle, and Lancelot had told Arthur to sit and shoved Merlin into his arms after the wizard nearly collapsed upon casting protective wards around their campsite.
Merlin slumped into his arms, eyelids dropping, before he looked up at Arthur.
"I can help," he insisted.
"Sleep, damn you," he murmured, pulling Merlin close to him like Merlin had done for him the night before.
Merlin...Merlin rescued him. Those men in the cart weren't Arthur, and it was still worrying that Merlin would have left them behind, but they weren't him. Merlin rescued him.
That was going to take some getting used to. With a sigh, Arthur pulled Merlin close. They could deal with this when they were well rested again.
Merlin dozed fitfully, somehow too tired to sleep.
The other two men noticed, if their worried glances were anything to go by, and Arthur insisted that Merlin bed with him.
"I'm not a baby," Merlin grumbled as Arthur pulled him down and tucked him inside the confines of the bedroll.
"Being taken care of does not mean being a baby," Lancelot said from where he was rested just to Merlin's other side, only a half-foot away.
"Please, Merlin," Arthur pleaded, pulling Merlin close to him, and how was Merlin supposed to resist that?
Merlin ended up only sleeping for a few hours, as Arthur shifted in his agitated sleep, and Merlin was a light sleeper, ever since he set out on this journey.
It was with an exhausted voice but alert hands that he soothed Arthur's sleep before Arthur relaxed into sleep again.
Merlin didn't sleep for the rest of the night, watching over Arthur, keeping vigil now for his failure to do so before. For allowing Arthur to be captured, and for allowing Arthur to be brought to this. For failing with that slave caravan in Thurso. For...
He felt hot tears trickle across his nose, face, and eyes as he cried while holding onto Arthur, laying down. But he didn't shut his eyes, just shifted to wipe at his face with the corner of his blanket.
He would not fail Arthur again.
"You didn't sleep," Arthur accused when Merlin woke up.
Merlin just sighed.
"You were having nightmares."
"All night?" he demanded.
"I made sure you didn't have any more," Merlin said.
Arthur looked about ready to burst out shouting in anger when Lancelot, looking between them apprehensively, cut in with. "I think we should deal with this a little later."
"When, then?" Arthur demanded.
Merlin sighed. "I'll be fine," he insisted, and started to push himself up.
Arthur pushed him down as he pushed his own body up.
"Stay," Arthur ordered, his voice so much like his old self that a flash of nostalgia made Merlin's eyes damp with fond memory. Arthur didn't notice this as he tugged on his cloak around him. "Sleep at least a little bit before we move on."
Merlin wanted to fight that, but the fact he had no energy to said enough to him, and so he leaned back and opted for the nap, instead.
He felt marginally refreshed when they finally left.
However, he still nearly fell out of his saddle, that afternoon, when they stopped, and completely dropped off to sleep as Arthur and Lancelot started training with each other. That night, after Merlin woke for dinner, Arthur refused to go to sleep until Merlin did, putting his bedroll on the other side of the fire and shoving Lancelot's between them.
"I won't be the reason you get no sleep," he said curtly, sitting up and watching Merlin.
Merlin, exhausted, just nodded, flopped over, and promptly fell asleep.
Merlin still woke up when Arthur had nightmares again. He used to wake up on the other side of a castle when Arthur had nightmares, a mere campfire was nothing. He crawled over to Arthur's side, the bedroll following him when he magicked it to, and pulled himself close to Arthur.
This time, though, when Arthur calmed, he went back to sleep, his arms wrapped around Arthur, his head pillowed on the prince's chest. Maybe now, at least, Arthur would feel Merlin's presence in his sleep and have no nightmares.
Merlin pressed a gentle kiss to Arthur's shoulder as he dozed off, tugging Arthur as close to him as possible, until he forgot where one of them ended and the other began.
"Wha...?" Arthur looked down himself, then turned over, confused to feel another body against his, but smiled wryly when he saw Merlin there.
He looked up to see Lancelot shaking his head in amusement as he also woke, and heard Lancelot say, "Sleep for a few more minutes, I'll make breakfast."
So Arthur turned around and wrapped his arms around Merlin, pulling him close, pressing Merlin's face against his throat, his hand cradling Merlin's head and neck - like old times again, when this wasn't just because Arthur wanted to protect Merlin, but because he could and did protect Merlin.
(Though in retrospect and in light of Merlin's magic - which they should probably talk about but Arthur really, really, really, really didn't want to - Merlin was probably protecting him a lot more than Arthur knew. And Arthur didn't want to know, except that he did.)
Merlin woke up slowly, shifting in Arthur's arms and look up to see him, smiling.
"You must've slept terribly without me for the last year," Arthur murmured, carding his fingers through Merlin's rough, familiar hair. He missed Merlin's hair over the ten months of his captivity. He missed Merlin over the last few days.
Merlin nodded, slowly pushing himself up to see Lancelot, making breakfast over the fire, watching them amusedly.
"I'm starting to see why Gwen has a bad habit of comparing you two to a large variety of cute, cuddly animals," Lancelot said.
"She does not!" Arthur said in mock-horror. Beside him, Merlin just laughed, oblivious to Arthur's glare.
Good, he was still his old Merlin, then. The one he knew and loved and hoped could make everything all right, again.
When Lancelot rode ahead and Merlin fell behind so he was right next to Arthur, he knew Merlin wanted to talk. Seriously, deeply, in a way they should have talked earlier but never managed to.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said. "About that cart of men, not freeing them."
Arthur's face fell from the somewhat-content expression he'd had, and he turned his gaze to the road.
"...Lancelot explained," Merlin said, hesitantly, like he was not sure how to say what he was saying. "That...it was like you were in the cart, again, and you might have felt I was rejecting you or something by not saving you, and you have to believe me, Arthur, I would never leave you behind-"
"It's not about me!"
How could Merlin be so wise half the time and so blind the other half?
As Merlin looked at him confusedly, he said, "Yes, fine, those men were me - men who had lied and stolen and killed to protect themselves and their homes and their families, not out of greed but desperation! Or men who did no crime at all, except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This isn't about me, at least not just me - this is about doing the right thing!"
Merlin fell silent, then, "I'm only interested in you-"
"Then you're of no use to me!"
Arthur wondered if he'd gone mad, saying that, especially to Merlin's face, but if what Merlin said was true, then what he had just said was true, as well.
Beneath him, Hengroen was getting agitated, and Arthur forcibly calmed himself, patting Hengroen's shoulder gently but firmly as he did so, resting his hand on Hengroen's warm shoulder for a moment before looking back at Merlin.
"If I am going to be king, one day-"
"When," Merlin said vehemently, with a force that appeared to startle Merlin as much as it startled Arthur. "When you are king, one day."
It was not as simple as this, it was much more debatable, but now was not the time.
"Fine, when I am king, one day - I am to look out for my people, care for my people...how can I do that if one of the most powerful friends I have has no interest except in me?"
"I care about you so you can care about everyone else," Merlin said. "I protect you so you can protect everyone else. I..." Here, Merlin looked down at his saddle, face drawn. "I love you so you can love everyone else."
I love you. I love you. ...so you can love everyone else.
I love you.
...so you can love everyone else.
"It doesn't work like that, Merlin,' he said softly. "I love you, too - and we both need to love the people who we protect."
Merlin's head snapped up, and Arthur asked, "Did you ever, ever, truly believe I didn't love you?"
"Then what made you think it could work like this?" he asked, feeling a bit closer to being a prince with every word. "What made you so dead set on this view of me?"
Merlin slowly looked away.
"I tried to protect everyone, Arthur," Merlin said. "I couldn't. People die, and if I'm the one that tried to help them, that makes them my responsibility, and my fault that they died. I can't do that - I have to focus on just you. So long as I focus on you, and protect you, I'm doing my job and I'm doing it right."
"Merlin, this is the real world," he said, spurring Hengroen on slightly when he realized they were falling well behind Lancelot. "Whatever you try to do, you will have some success, and some failure. Even if you devote your life to protecting me, one day, I will die."
Merlin shut his eyes momentarily, the thought apparently too hard for himself to bear, before focusing on Llamrei again, and his path.
"How do you do it?" he asked. "Watch people die as you were supposed to protect them?"
That stinging reminder of his own past failures as a prince bit hard, but Arthur had dealt with them long ago.
"By continuing on," Arthur said. "Their lives would have been lost in vain if I had not learned from it and used what I know to help others. I saved more lives to make up for the ones I lost - it is a debt that can never be filled, but I was worth nothing if I did not try."
Merlin was silent after that, and Arthur rode ahead to Lancelot's side.
"We will reach Wick by nightfall," Lancelot said quietly. "And Merlin - he tries."
"He needs to accept that he can and will fail in the process," Arthur said stiffly, a distant memory of his father echoing similar words rising to the surface of his thoughts. "If he devotes his life to me, that's...unnerving, and unhealthy, but fine. If he devotes his life to me to the exclusion of everyone else...then it's...he might as well be a - I might as well be a monster - because what would that mean for the people?"
Lancelot sighed. "Merlin just...he needs direction. He how to do things, but what to do doesn't always come to easily to him."
Arthur nodded, letting this sink in.
Merlin may be his, but in order for this to work, in order them to return to Camelot with their heads held high so Arthur could one day be king (if, if if if...), he would need to be Merlin's, as well. He would need to let Merlin protect him, and he would need to protect Merlin - including protect him from himself.
But first, he had to become something worthy of Merlin's protection. And that might just end up being the hard part.
Wick was a port town, and considering how late at night it was, they got rooms in an inn at the edge of the town with little fanfare, not even stopping to take a look around the town. Arthur got them a room with two beds, while Merlin got dinner and Lancelot took care of the horses and their things.
They took their bowls of stew - a little watery, but heavy on fish and vegetables - in their room. Arthur and Merlin were silent, letting Lancelot idly talk of his adventures from the last time they saw him, in Hengist's stronghold, to when Lancelot had met Merlin the first time on his journey, before he saw Arthur and sought out Merlin. Ranging from slaying small monsters to helping builds barns, Lancelot had certainly kept himself busy.
"You two need to talk," was all he said, before he collected a money pouch and stepped aside with half-arsed excuses about returning the bowls to the innkeeper and going out to replace whatever supplies needed replacing.
He left the awkward silence behind, Arthur and Merlin sitting side by side on their bed, close but not touching, both staring at the small table and the candle burning down upon it.
"You said I was no use to you if I only focused on you," Merlin said, looking at where their knees almost brushed. "But what use am I to you if you are dead?"
"Merlin," Arthur said, reaching out and grabbing Merlin's hand. "I don't want you to let me die - I just want you to care about others, too. I...once upon a time, you wouldn't have hesitated to free a cart of slaves, even on the chance they were criminals. I don't like where I'm seeing you go."
"I've had too many of those people I've helped turn on me," Merlin said. "Or I've had to turn on them to protect your life. I've seen...people change, Arthur."
"You weren't the jaded, bitter one - you were never meant to be," Arthur said. "That's supposed to be my job."
"Your job is to be idealistic and demanding and put that into action and make it come to life, for the sake of your people," Merlin said. "My job is to stand in the background and protect you while rolling my eyes at you and calling you a clotpoll and being secretly proud of everything you do. Like I've always done."
Arthur sighed, then leaned his head against Merlin's shoulder. Merlin switched hands holding Arthur's hand, so the now free one could creep up Arthur's back and curl around his head comfortingly, protectively. "Merlin," Arthur said, almost a mumble. "I don't...I don't want to lose you, I don't want to lose my Merlin, the one who cares about everyone and supports me as I help them."
"I do, Arthur," Merlin said. "But in Camelot, your rank protects you, your status as prince. You have resources and strength in weapons and men that is unparalleled in and often even out of the kingdom. Here...we are three lone, good-hearted men."
"You're a powerful sorcerer-"
"-and you're a powerful knight," Merlin said. "But it is your power as a prince, and a future king, that makes things possible, and it is my job protecting not just any good man, but the good man who runs the kingdom. I want to help everyone, Arthur, I want us to do that like we helped Ealdor and the city and...everyone."
"We took out an entire raiding party in Ealdor, just you, me, Morgana, and Gwen," Arthur said. "Just the four of us. Why couldn't we help the men in the cart?"
"Because it's more than just a raiding party. These slavers, they have strong and powerful networks and connections, and can quickly rise together - they know that all it takes is a little hope in their victims to become the spark for an uprising, and they will work together to stop anything from happening. They have the law on their side - the nobles up here, they see these slaves as chattel to be used for more money and more power. Maybe one day we can come back with dozens of knights or soldiers, standing under no banner or colors and riding on their own honor and respect for people as human beings...but not today, not now, not when these slavers not only outnumber us too much for us to handle, but have the power to make sure we can't ever come back and truly help them."
Arthur was trembling by the time Merlin finished.
"If I find a way to help them, I will - but out in the middle of a street where anyone can see us, freeing so many men all at once? That was suicide, Arthur, and I'm not going to risk you for that."
He pulled Arthur close and whispered, "You matter too much to me, Camelot, and Albion for that."
Arthur sobbed once against Merlin's neck where his face was buried, before saying hoarsely and thickly, "I need to be worth it, for you and Camelot and Albion...and you won't let me. I have to try, Merlin - if I pick and choose, I am no better than my father in his madness, or Cenred ignoring his people, or any other king who cares little for the people who depend on them."
Merlin shifted as Arthur did, bring his head up so his lips were close to Merlin's ear when he whispered, almost afraid, "I need to be a good man to be a good prince and a good king...and you need to let me."
Shutting his eyes tight, too many fatal situations they've barely escaped out of rushing through Merlin's mind's eye, he said, "I'll try."
"No!" Arthur said, almost pushing himself away, far enough to look earnestly into Merlin's eyes. "Not try, do - I would rather die than-"
"Don't say that!" Merlin cried out, pulling Arthur close again. "Don't you dare say that - I'm not letting you die, never."
"One day, it'll be beyond you, Merlin."
"And I intend for that day to be a long way off."
"Then what am I supposed to do in the mean time? I must help my people, Merlin. Whether in my kingdom or not, if I can help them, then they are my people and my responsibility. You said so, yourself - if you could help someone and they died, then they are your responsibility. The same goes true for me, Merlin, but it will not end with one person to whom I can devote my life - that is my father's domain, not mine. And I don't want it to be yours."
The implication of ending up like Uther punched hard, and Merlin sucked in a sharp breath.
"I won't let you go and I will make you a great man and king," Merlin said. "You'll see."
"You have to let me go, Merlin - how else am I supposed to come back to you?"
Merlin didn't know.
They spoke no more, souls too weary to go any further. Merlin tucked them both into bed, and they simply held onto each other's trembling forms, until eventually, they dropped off into exhausted sleep. Maybe the next morning or some other time, they could talk - but tonight, they would rest.
"Merlin...Merlin...Merlin! Wake up!"
Merlin frowned as someone shook his shoulder and hissed in his ear, and turned his head to see a frightened-looking Lancelot above him. Upon meeting his eyes, Lancelot brought a finger to his lips and a firm hand to Merlin's shoulder. "Don't let Arthur wake," he whispered.
Frown growing deeper, Merlin carefully disentangled himself and pushed himself up to face Lancelot.
And up enough to see that it was much, much later since he and Arthur had fallen asleep. The candle, which had been barely half-way burned through when they went to sleep, was now completely melted over, and...he frowned, noticing several packages dumped on Lancelot's bed.
"Did you...why did you already get the supplies we needed?" Merlin asked.
"Because we have to get out of Wick as fast as we can tomorrow morning," Lancelot said softly, crouching by the bed. "I was going through the town, Merlin, and...there are carts of men, women, even a few children, all over the place, in cages. Armed men everywhere guarding them carefully, torches, and what must be miles of chains."
Merlin sucked in a breath as Lancelot said, "This is a slavers' town, Merlin - this port town's biggest trade is in slaves. With the way Arthur was with one cart of men...we have to leave immediately in the morning, before he can get...before he sees too clearly, or tries to do anything. I've gotten everything we need, found a new map and a new route, everything - tomorrow we can just eat and leave before anything bad happens."
Merlin nodded. "Thank...thank you. I don't know what Arthur would have done if..." He shook his head. "See if you can ask the inn keeper to wake us early-"
"Already done - his daughter will fetch us before she goes out to milk the cows and collect eggs. By the time we are washed and ready, breakfast will be served downstairs - we can grab a quick meal and run."
"Good," Merlin said, shaking his head to himself. "Damnit - next time, we should find a way to ask about the town before we get there." He looked to Arthur. "I hate lying to him, but..."
"He will be rash and reckless, and hurt himself," Lancelot said, nodding in understanding. "He has improved quite a bit with his sword work and is much stronger than before, but that's not saying much - he is still very weak and very injured. I've packed up everything, the horses already have their blankets for the saddles tomorrow - we can be out of the town by just after dawn."
Merlin nodded once, and lay down, murmuring, "Goodnight, Lancelot," as he turned and pulled a sleeping Arthur into his arms.
He kissed the back of Arthur's head as he settled in, mostly for his own comfort than Arthur's, before settling in for an uneasy sleep.
He hoped tomorrow, they could leave early and prevent anything from happening - this was the last thing Arthur needed.
...which, of course, meant that this was the very thing Arthur ran headlong into. And they definitely did not leave early, not at all. Stupid, noble, honor-driven prat.
The man was going to be a great king, one day - assuming he didn't get himself killed by his own stupidity or his frustrated sorcerer, first. But Merlin could make no promises.
Especially when the prat insisted on starting a bloody rebellion and freeing all the slaves in the town and causing mayhem and-
They should have just taken breakfast in their room, that was for sure.
Reviews are loved!