Title: To Serve and Protect
Author: Ultra-Geek
Summary: After something terrible happens, Arthur, Gwen, Gwaine, and Lancelot take their turns in protecting their protector, watching over their watcher. Merlin's the one in trouble, now, and it's up to them to save him.
Rating: T
Disclaimer: Merlin and all things associated with such is owned by BBC and Shine – I make nothing from this except for pure, fangirlish joy.
AN: This started out as a Gwen and Merlin friendship story, and suddenly it morphed into this big thing about everyone wanting to save Merlin.

"I'm off, for the night," Merlin said, blowing out a candle.

Arthur frowned. "Have you finished all your chores?"


"Cleaned my armor? Mucked the stables? Polished my goblets?"

"Yes, yes, and trick question, you haven't any goblets," Merlin said, "All dishes are sent to the kitchen staff."

Arthur frowned, clearly wracking his mind for any other question to fire at his manservant. Merlin waited, hands behind his back, fingers crossed. "Then you're free to go, Merlin."

"Thank you, sire," Merlin answered, "Sleep well."

"Oh, and before you leave," Arthur said as he lay down in the bed, "I'm at the training yards all day tomorrow with the knights."

Merlin fought back a groan, and cursed silently. He waited for the other shoe to fall, for Arthur to say, 'So be here early, Merlin' or 'Be sure to wear lots of padding, we're using the staffs, Merlin' or even 'Make your peace with God and say your farewells, because the swords are coming out and it's going to be a melee, and to win we have to stab a servant and, by the way, that servant will be you, Merlin'. Arthur said none of those things. In fact, what he said was, "So, I'm giving you the day off. Go…do whatever you do when you're not here."

Merlin frowned. He bit his cheek, just to check if he was actually dreaming. Then, he turned around, and said, "I've the day off?"

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur answered, "Unless, of course, you'd rather be our target –"

"Right, no work, got it," Merlin said, smiling, "Good night."

Arthur grunted in response, and Merlin scurried from the room. He all but bounced back to Gaius's.
They sat, quietly, eating their supper. Merlin couldn't quit grinning to himself.

Gaius finally put down his fork and stared across the table. "Merlin, are you alright?" he asked.

"What, me?" Merlin said, "I'm fine, why?"

"You just seem very…happy," Gaius said, "And it's worrying me."

"I'm not allowed to be in a good mood, is that it?" Merlin said in response, chewing a large piece of bread.

"When you're happy, it generally means you're up to something," Gaius said, "Things don't always go well when you're up to something."

"Gaius, I'm not up to anything," Merlin said, "Arthur's given me the day off tomorrow, is all, and I'm going to sleep until –"

"You'll be able to get some things for me, then?" Gaius said, neatly cutting him off nor waiting for an answer, "Good. I've run low on dittany, thyme, monkshood, and nettles. It all grows about two hours into the forest, so you'll have plenty of time and shouldn't be too hard to locate. You'll want to leave rather early."

"But it's my day off!"

Gaius paused, "I could go, I suppose," he said, sighing deeply, "After all, I only feed you, clothe you, keep you from getting killed by the king –"

"Fine, fine," Merlin said sullenly, "Dittany, thyme, monkshood, and what was the last one?"

So the next morning found Merlin rising significantly earlier than usual and pulling his boots on in a half awake daze. The names of the four plants were doing cartwheels in his head. He stumbled outside just to realize that he'd left his bag behind, and staggered back in. Out the door he went again, just to realize he'd left his belt behind.

It took four more trips before Merlin was satisfied that he had not, in fact, left anything behind. All the while, he muttered the names of the four plants beneath his breath. Down the stairs he went, and out the door, and had almost made it to the lower town when he ran into Gwen. Literally.

"Sorry, sorry!" he said, scrambling to help repack a basket that Gwen had been carrying, and thus, had spilled, "I didn't see you coming."

She waved away his apologies with a twitch of her hand. "I heard you'd the day off," she said.

"Yeah, I suppose. Gaius has me running around in the woods, though," Merlin said, and glanced down to see that the basket Gwen held was filled with bread, cheese, and fruit, "Gwen, if you're planning on surprising Arthur, he's training all –"

"I know," Gwen said, "It's not for Arthur and I. It's for us."

"Us?" Merlin said, frowning, and helping Gwen to her feet, "Us, as in, you and I?"

"Well," she amended, "You and I, plus Gwaine. He's meeting us at the gate. Said something about fetching water. We'll be gone most of the day, after all."

Merlin blinked, thinking it was far too early to be trying to fill in the gaps. Of course, those gaps may've existed simply because it was early. Merlin shook his head, forcing himself out of that train of thought. "We?" he said, and then, "Where are we going?"

Gwen hid a small smile. "Gaius said you were going into the woods," she answered, "And I need a break, I suppose, from here. I was hoping I could go with you."

When Arthur had knighted Elyan, it had come with a consequence that was, though not unwelcome, completely on accident. Knights were nobility, and thus their families were nobility by default. Gwen had suddenly found herself catapulted into the station of 'Lady', and Merlin knew that she was having trouble adjusting. "That would be excellent," he answered, but then another thought occurred to him, one that he blamed on the early hour once more, "Isn't Gwaine a knight?"

"Yes," answered said knight, who was walking towards them with three water flasks slung over his shoulder.

"But," Merlin said, "Arthur's training with all of you today."

"He's delegated me to keep you two safe on this outing of ours," Gwaine answered, flipping his hair from his face. The knight wasn't in his chainmail or red cape, instead in street clothes. He continued, "You know, in case of bandits. Or wolves."

Merlin pointedly ignored Gwen's questioning glance as Gwaine smirked. The three walked from the city, laughing and talking. It became clear that Arthur hadn't actually delegated Gwaine, but rather Gwaine had delegated himself, sending a message along to the prince through Percival.

"Arthur's not going to be pleased with you," Merlin said to Gwaine as they walked through the trees, "Skipping out on practice. Doesn't that go against the knight's code, or something?"

"All I know about the code is to stab the bad guys and not to spit in front of women. And of course Arthur won't be pleased – he's never pleased," Gwaine said, "Except for when my Lady Guinevere is present. And he knows where I am by now. Besides – the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I'm getting city itch."

Gwen cut in, asking before Merlin had a chance too, "City itch?"

"Everything's too loud, all close together," Gwaine explained, "It's good to leave the bustle for a bit, yeah?"

"Is this thyme?" Gwaine asked, offering up yet another green, leafy plant.

"No," Merlin answered, carefully setting some monkshood in his bag.

Gwaine tossed the offending plant over his shoulder, and wandered off. Gwen walked over and kneeled next to Merlin, sticking the dittany in to join the monkshood. Gwaine came bouncing back, a new plant clutched in his hand, and presented it like a small child who'd found a pretty stone. "Is this thyme?" he asked.

Both Merlin and Gwen glanced up, looked at the plant, and in unison, said, "No."

"I thought he said he doesn't spend time in the city," Gwen muttered to Merlin as Gwaine stared at the leaves in his hand mutinously, "If he's been in the country, he should know what thyme is."

"He's not been in the country," Merlin answered, smirking, "He's been in taverns.

Gwaine tossed the plant over to join the rapidly growing pile of greenery that was not thyme, and ignored them both. "Is there anything else I could be looking for besides this?" he asked.

"You could go and search for some nettles," Merlin said, "They shouldn't be –"

A twig snapped from within the trees. All three of their heads snapped up, staring in the direction of the sound. "What was that?" Gwen whispered.

"Probably nothing," Gwaine said, but he rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, "Just a squirrel."

"Is this like when there were pheasants," Merlin hissed, "But they were actually giant flying magical lizards who tried to eat us?"

"You are growing into a pessimist, Merlin," Gwaine answered, with a grin, "I can't say that I like it."

Gwen, confused though she looked, relaxed slightly. From the other side of the clearing they were in, some birds suddenly took to the air in flight. "Another squirrel?" Merlin said.

An arrow buried itself into the tree just next to Gwaine's head. "Run!" the knight said, and the three of them took off into the trees. Merlin's bag and Gwen's basket lay forgotten in the grass. They could hear the men swarming behind them, but then Gwaine reached out and grabbed Merlin's shirt, who in turn clutched Gwen's arm, and the three of them dove into a small gap that was in the forest floor. The bandits leapt over their heads.

"Squirrels with weapons," Gwaine said, eyes glittering, but then he grew serious. "How many, do you think?"

"Ten, eleven," Merlin said, "Probably more.

"Right, then," Gwaine said, nodding, "Time for you two to be off."

"We're not leaving you here," Gwen said. Gwaine frowned and drew his sword.

"It's only a matter of moments before they double back," Gwaine said, "I'll lead them off."

"Gwaine –" Gwen began again.

"Merlin, take her and go," Gwaine said, giving Merlin a shove, "Bring Gwen to safety, and run back to Camelot. Go, Merlin!"

Merlin hesitated. Every instinct was screaming at him to stay together, to not let Gwaine die to save him. But to stay with Gwaine meant risking Gwen. That was something they could not do. "Don't be a hero. I mean it," Merlin said finally, "You can't drink if you're dead."

"Wiser words haven't been spoken, my friend," Gwaine answered, and then levered himself out of the gap. Instantly, there were men shouting and the sounds of running footsteps.

Merlin waited a moment, until the sounds of the chase died slightly. Grabbing Gwen's arm again, he helped her from the gap. As soon as he clambered out as well, there was a loud shout. Merlin looked up to find at least five bandits heading straight for them.

"Run!" Merlin hissed, and let go of her arm, giving her a slight push to put her ahead of him. They sprinted through the trees, and another arrow buried itself in the tree just in front of Merlin. Twigs from the trees scratched at his face and arms, and he could hear Gwen's breath coming in short bursts. They were running blind – Merlin wasn't familiar with this area of the forest.

They emerged from the trees, only to find themselves at the top of a towering cliff face that, until about one second ago, Merlin hadn't known existed. "Merlin," Gwen whispered, grabbing his shirt sleeve with shaking hands, "What do we do?"

The yells of the bandits, the sound of cracking sticks and pounding feet, echoed from the trees behind them.

Merlin clenched his jaw slightly, and then looked down at Gwen. Her eyes were wide but her hands were steady, her mouth pressed into a hard line but ready to fight. Arthur would kill him if he let anything happen to her. Even if Arthur wasn't part of the equation, Merlin couldn't let anything happen to her. The bandits were getting closer. Merlin found himself quite out of options.

"Gwen," he said, "Please, please don't hate me."

"Merlin, what –"

He grasped her face with both hands, and felt the familiar heat of magic pressing against the back of his eyes. He focused on the one thought, protect Gwen, and pushed it forward. He knew the exact moment his eyes changed color, knew when Gwen suddenly realized. He watched as the emotions flew across her face, and her mouth dropped open into a circle.

"Merlin?" she whispered.

The bandits broke the treeline, and came straight for them, and Merlin counted seven of them. More than he was prepared to fight. Merlin swallowed thickly, and said, "As long as there is breath in my body, you will come to no harm. You will be protected. Now, run along the cliff line."

She backed away, and then, with a single tear running down her face, said, "What about you?

"Gwen," Merlin said, "Just…run."

As Gwen hitched up her skirts and ran, Merlin turned away. He raised a hand. He spat out the words, and sent the first man flying backwards. He managed to get the second, too, but then they were on him, hitting and beating with clubs and fists and feet. Merlin somehow managed to get to his feet again, sending a bandit flying, screetching, over the side of the cliff. Of course, then a club smashed into the side of his head.

Things got…fuzzy.

He could feel himself being dragged. Gwen was yelling, somewhere, yelling out his name. Merlin thought he should be worried about that. He wondered if Gwaine was still alive. Someone grabbed him by an arm, roughly hauling him to his feet. His head hit something again, which really didn't help matters. A bag was shoved over his head.