Author's note: Hey everyone! *sees angry mob* So. How's it going? Kids good? Hope so, I love kids… *stalls* errr, anyways, how's the weather? Sleep well last night? *Stalls some more* I hope so, I love sleep… okay, look, no reason to get violent! I tried to update, but life has kidnapped me! But never fear, the ransom note is on its way!
Okay, okay, I'm sorry. Happy now?
The man half limped, half ran through the semi-lit woods, stumbling over broken logs and ducking a second too late under overhanging branches.
Every cell in his body burned, sending red hot daggers into his skull.
He should be dead, but death refused him.
Just ahead, the man could make out the faintest of white lights through the trees, and hastily staggered towards it.
His breath was ragged and uneven, and a painful cramp was developing in his side. Just a little further… just a little longer…
Abruptly, the elm forest came to an end, sending the man stumbling forward.
He skidded to a halt, chest heaving, wrapping his arms around himself as he gasped for breath. Doubled over, his eyes flickered upward, quickly taking in his surroundings.
He was in a clearing.
A surreal, ghostly light danced eerily around him, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once, casting the forest in a dreamlike state… constantly shifting, changing, turning…
The man fought the desire the fall to the ground and retch.
"My Lady!" He gasped out, calling into the empty clearing, "My Lady, I have failed! Emrys is not the leader we thought he was, and is cowering behind his master's skirts. He refuses to join us, and is a traitor to our kind… My Lady? My Lady, can you hear me?"
"I am here," a soft voice answered from behind him.
The man weakly turned his head, catching a glimpse of the fair skinned beauty from the corner of his eye.
Bracing himself, the man straightened up, wincing in pain as he forced himself to turn around.
The sight that greeted him would have taken a lesser man's breath away.
A tall, heartrendingly beautiful lady stood proudly in the clearing, her elegant face cast in the pale light, her silver dress glimmering unnaturally.
It was rumored that all who looked upon her were cast under her spell, where they would do anything her heart desired to please her, even if meant them falling on their own swords.
He told himself he didn't believe it, but at times like this he wondered.
At the moment, that faultless face was forming a look of mild surprise.
"Maggot?" the smooth voice of Morgause asked, "for heaven's sake, what has happened to you?"
"Emrys," he ground out weakly, his hatred for the man pouring through into that one word, "As I said, he is not one of us. He is loyal to Camelot, and Camelot alone."
Morgause tilted her head slightly to the side.
"Loyal to Camelot?" the sorceress asked, frowning, "What are you talking about, Maggot? Morgana said the letter clearly stated that Emrys hates Uther as much as we ourselves do, if not more. She has never been mistaken before…"
Maggot hurriedly shook his head, pushing off a wave of nausea.
"He doesn't have to be loyal to Uther, he isn't his manservant, but Prince Arthur's!" Morgause's eyes snapped onto him sharply, but the man didn't seem to notice as he was overcome by a fit of coughing, the violent, racking coughs that shake your entire body.
"Prince Arthur's manser… Merlin? Maggot, I don't think you quite grasp what you are saying!"
Maggot's now irritable eyes looked up at her from where he was bent, doubled over.
"The boy is Emrys, My Lady," the man rasped out, "trust me, I have seen what he can do myself. He can call down fire from the sky without the lift of a finger!"
Morgause was shaking her head almost imperceptibly, her mind racing behind the cold mask of her face.
"It is not possible," The sorceress murmured to herself, her eyes leaving the shell of a man before her to roam in the fathomless distance.
Merlin… the stupid oaf that couldn't even walk in a straight line. The infuriating idiot who always seemed to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Morgause had always known that there was something not quite right about him, something off, and if she looked him directly in the face, as she had the day she had first met him, she could see something more, something hidden, something lurking right behind the eyes…
"Then again," The sorceress said softly to herself, "maybe it is."
Then her face cleared and her gaze snapped back to Maggot.
"Okay, maybe you are right," Morgause said evenly, hiding beautifully her irritation at having to admit it, "But in that case, what reason does he have to be loyal to a dead prince? Does he want revenge? Money? What can possibly be hindering him from joining us? We are his people, his kin."
Maggot dodged her gaze, finding something very interesting in the soil beneath him.
His time was out… He couldn't avoid the subject any longer.
"My Lady," the man began, nervously clearing his throat, "Prince Arthur… he isn't dead. I had thought he was, but apparently he escaped into the woods when the dragon attacked. I myself only found out last night, when I saw him for myself in Cenred's kingdom… please, I don't know what happened…"
Maggot inwardly braced himself, awaiting the both verbal and physical onslaught he knew he would be receiving at any moment now. One could not give Morgause bad news and expect to end the conversation unscathed… except perhaps Morgana, who could do no wrong in the sorceress's eyes.
So Maggot was surprised, to put things mildly, when Morgause smiled.
"Ahhh," the lady chuckled, "He isn't dead? I see. Well, I do think that we can work this to our advantage… go, inform Bayard that it is time."
'He could hear drums. They vibrated in the air, shaking his insides but doing nothing to loosen the knot of panicky fear in his stomach. He was being roughly forced onto a wooden platform from behind, and he barked his shins on the rough edge. He stifled a small noise, and clamped his jaw, not wanting to appear so vulnerable in his last moments.
Already on the platform, a man with large muscles and rough hands hauled him the rest of the way to the top, and deftly began tying him to a post, scarcely looking at him. Merlin leaned his head back against the brittle wood and closed his eyes, trying to shut out the crowd around him, trying to shut out his problems, telling himself that soon it would all be over. He just had to last a couple more minutes.
The drums quieted and Merlin heard a hard voice begin to list off the charges against him. His breathing quickened but he didn't look up, and tried not to listen. He knew what the king said by heart and he found no reason to torture himself.
The voice bled through his defenses, however, bringing the reality of what was about to happen descending upon him with a sickening clarity. He felt himself trembling, on the verge of tears .He was so, so scared.
The cold voice of Uther finished listing the charges, and confirmed, just in case someone may have forgotten, that magic was evil and not to be tolerated in his lovely civilization of murderers.
Everyone was so ignorant! So… lost.
The drums started up again at a faster pace, causing Merlin's heart to do a painful summersault and clutch with terror.
This was it. His time was up. He would never walk, or breathe, or smile, or laugh, or see his loved ones again.
Despite as much as he had told himself to keep his eyes closed, Merlin felt the urgent, desperate desire to see their faces.
He had to. Just one more time.
Knowing he would regret it, but the need to be comforted the most prevalent emotion, Merlin opened his eyes.
A silent, solemn crowd of grim faces and wide-eyed children met him.
The burly man beside him was handed the lit torch from an approaching guard, and Merlin's terror turned cold.
Insides going nuts, he desperately cast his eyes about for just one last glance at his friends, at the people he cared about.
His gaze alighted on Gaius, face older than Merlin had ever seen him, eyes sadder. He remained motionless in the crowd, refusing to go inside.
He wanted to be there for him, even if it meant all he could do was be the one caring face in a sea of indifference.
Gaius locked eyes with him, and Merlin felt a lump rise in his throat.
Gaius nodded his head once, slowly, firmly.
It was a nod of goodbye.
Tearing his eyes away, he quickly made sure Gwen wasn't watching.
It may push him beyond even his breaking point to know that she had to see this.
He scanned the growing crowd with hesitant relief, hoping against hope he wouldn't see her all-too-familiar brown complexion and yellow dress.
He refused to look at one particular spot in the crowd, however, a spot where a certain blonde headed prince stood.
He couldn't face him.
And in a moment he would never have to.
The drumbeat got even faster, and the crowd shifted in a wave of anticipation.
The torchbearer stepped off the platform and held the flame above the dry wood, taking a moment of silence for the accused.
Satisfied that Gwen wasn't looking, Merlin's eyes drifted of their own volition to the dancing flames, and locked on them, hypnotized.
Right as the arm fell, however, dropping the flame with a dramatic flair and sickening finality, Merlin's panicked eyes dashed towards his Prince's, unable to withhold his longing any longer.
He wanted to be forgiven, not saved, just forgiven.
Arthur was standing at the back of the crowd, head erect, jaw clenched.
As Merlin's gaze locked onto his Prince's for the last time, he saw the bitter, confused eyes narrow, and flinch away.
The flames were rising around him, eating away at the wood, and right before they engulfed him, Merlin finally let himself cry.
There was no forgiveness in Arthur's eyes.
Just biting sadness, and disappointment.'
Merlin's eyes snapped open and he yelped, skittering backward on the hard ground as a bearded face filled his vision.
Sir Allen jumped in surprise, looking almost as startled as the boy he had been leaning over to check on.
"Now now, lad," The knight rebuked the flustered warlock, standing up and dusting the dirt off his trousers, "None of that."
Merlin had the grace to look sheepish, and tried to calm his beating heart and deep breathing, shaking the nightmare from his vision. Merlin felt wetness in his eyes, and realized how much that dream had affected him.
It had felt so real.
His head slowly began to clear and to his bewilderment Merlin realized that he was in the woods.
Birds were chirping, and the sunlight, filtering down through the treetops high above, lighted on the dust motes drifting through the air.
Sir Allen watched him warily, weight on his toes.
Merlin hesitantly sat up and stared around the deserted clearing he was laying in, smoke stinging his eyes as the breeze blew it lazily towards him from the small campfire at the center of the camp.
It looked… peaceful.
The atmosphere so contradicted his emotions and frantic thoughts that Merlin vaguely wondered if it was mocking him.
The clearing was empty besides Sir Allen and himself, which he found he was grateful for, because Merlin didn't think he had it in him right now to face Arthur.
The hurt, almost sad look on the prince's face when he had realized the truth was still engraved in Merlin's memory, and it ached.
"Err, sorry," The raven headed sorcerer replied to Sir Allen uncomfortably, all too aware of the wary posture and careful movements the older knight was giving him.
"You just scared me is all," Merlin finished, sadness creeping into his voice now, as he knew how ridiculous that sentence would sound after what the man had witnessed.
The knight surveyed the boy's stricken face for a moment, making Merlin shift.
"Not a problem, boy," Sir Allen said gruffly and turned around, wandering towards the campfire.
"Hungry?" He asked conversationally, his gaze drifting casually back towards the dejected boy.
"Uhh, not really," Merlin answered uneasily, not trusting his stomach to be even a little reliable in its twisting, terrified state, "But thanks."
Sir Allen grumbled something under his breath, leaning over to spoon a ladle full of stew into a crude bowl, and glanced up at Merlin.
"Don't thank me, you are going to eat anyway," The knight replied unsympathetically.
Merlin wisely chose not to argue, and his fingers absently began plucking at the sparse grass growing in small clusters on the ground.
An uncomfortable knot of worry sat hard in his chest, causing Merlin to both dread, and wish for Arthur's return.
He needed to know where they stood, and he needed to know what Arthur was going to do with him.
He knew it may be a little too much to even hope for forgiveness.
The ladle clanged against the pot as Sir Allen finished serving the stew, and the knight straightened up and walked towards one of the provision bags, bowl in hand.
A stream gurgled not too far away, but its soft sounds did nothing to calm the sickened sorcerer.
"Where is he?" Merlin asked, his voice small.
The knight ruffled through the saddlebags, not bothering to turn around.
He didn't have to ask who Merlin meant.
"Who?" He asked anyway, his voice indifferent.
Merlin's head remained down, his fingers twisting the short blades of grass.
"Arth-," Merlin began, then cut himself off, remembering His Prince's biting demands.
"His- His highness," He said instead, the words weighing hard, and then he added with a jolt as a new thought occurred to him, eyes flying upward, "Is he hurt? It looked as if the sorcerer had almost killed him!"
Merlin knew that that may be an exaggeration, but as Sir Allen didn't answer immediately, worry spiked in his chest and he scuttled quickly to his feet, half formed terrors already forming in his mind.
"Oh no… Please tell me he is okay!"
Sir Allen glanced over his shoulder, looking at the already half frantic boy.
He knew the lad had every right to be on edge, and although almost every fiber of his being rebelled from the thought of comforting a sorcerer, his felt his face soften.
"He is safe, boy," the knight said simply, then after noticing that this answer didn't seem to satisfy the boy, added in a more reasonable tone, "His head took some damage, but overall he is perfectly alright."
Sir Allen gave Merlin a pointed look, "Nothing to worry about."
Merlin took a deep breath and nodded quickly, letting out the pent up emotions a small part of him had been harboring since he had awoken.
Arthur was safe. Like he was supposed to be.
"Thank you." Merlin said sincerely, looking the knight in the eye, for he knew Arthur wouldn't be alive if it hadn't been for his men, "Thank you very much."
Allen looked speculatively at the man before him. The man that before that awful day in the woods when he had taken an arrow for his prince, the knight had thought of as nothing more than a mere boy.
Sir Allen narrowed his eyes at the servant standing so rigidly, so uncomfortable, so scared. The man, the boy, the sorcerer.
Since when had any of them had the heart of a knight?
Sir Allen knew he could never personally trust Merlin, that it would be foolish to, but he also knew that this particular sorcerer seemed to have Arthur's back, and the knight had enough foresight to know not to jeopardize that.
He didn't even really want to.
Merlin was looking uncomfortable, and Sir Allen realized he was staring and quickly turned back to the saddlebags, not wanting to scare the poor lad off.
The boy had enough to deal with without adding a maudlin knight to his worries.
Merlin breathed in deeply and let the air out shakily, the peacefulness of the forest finally getting to him. He was by no means at ease, but the terror of that morning was beginning to fade away.
"So," Merlin began tentatively, "Really, where is he?"
The knight fished a loaf from the bag and turned around to answer, but stopped midway, staring at something over Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin waited, and then shifted uncertainly.
"Well…?" he asked.
Sir Allen's eyes flashed back to Merlin, then gave him a slightly pointed look. The raven headed boy lifted his hand and rubbed the back of his head, staring at the knight in confusion.
"What?" he asked, oblivious.
The knight coughed, and Merlin became suddenly aware of someone behind him.
His insides melted, and he winced.
"Well, at least I know that your all-around idiocy wasn't faked," A cold voice announced from behind.
Merlin's raised arm dropped lifelessly to his side and, almost limply, he turned around.
Arthur stood a few yards behind him, left hand dropped casually on his sword, his face guarded.
Merlin felt a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach at the remote, and very much reserved expression on his Prince's face. This didn't look good.
"After all," Arthur went on bitingly, "People need to be able to rely on something, and your instability seems to be the most stable thing about you."
The accusing venom in Arthur's voice felt like a slap in the face.
A venom Merlin had heard Arthur use before, but not towards him.
Never towards him.
"Sire…" Merlin stuttered, but didn't know how to continue. He wasn't prepared for this.
Arthur raised his eyebrows, inviting him to continue.
"Well?" Arthur asked, hiding behind a mocking demeanor.
The servant's heart twisted at how achingly normal Arthur looked- blonde hair ruffled, stance protective, but at the same time, just how wrong.
"I- I'm sorry," Merlin finally forced out, eyes wide and head shaking back and forth almost indiscernibly.
"You're sorry?" Arthur laughed out humorlessly, eyes incredulous, if a bit sad, "You have let me believe for four years that I actually had someone by my side that I could trust! But in truth you have been lying to me from the beginning, and have been forcing your way into my confidence for reasons I cannot even begin to imagine!"
Shocked, Merlin grasped for something to say, something to bring everything back to normal between them.
"What? No, no Arthur you don't understand!"
Arthur snorted soundlessly, and lifted the hand that wasn't lying on his sword expressively in the air.
"Don't I?" The Prince challenged, his blue eyes staring hard into Merlin's, "Then please, enlighten me."
From the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Sir Borch move. The Prince tore his gaze away from the desperate boy long enough to glance at the knight. As he had suspected, Borch was drawing his sword.
"Wait," Arthur said, raising his hand a fraction, "I want to hear what he has to say."
Sir Borch looked reluctant.
"Sire," the knight protested in a low voice, "That, thing," Borch waved a disgusted hand in Merlin's direction, "is a sorcerer! A murderer, a heartless evil, and the very one we are after to boot! Why, in the name of everything good and worthy, don't you want to kill it?"
Arthur's eyes flickered, and for the first time Merlin thought that he might be able to see the old Arthur, the protective friend, right behind the surface. But then the Prince's face morphed back into the bitter, somewhat cold expression he had harbored before, and Merlin was left to believe he had imagined it.
"He isn't just a sorcerer," Arthur replied to the knight, his voice careful, "He is a powerful one, so he may have valuable information for my father."
Sir Borch looked doubtful, "The King has never wished to question sorcerers before Milord, and he did give us orders to kill this one, so I don't see why…"
"You forget your place, Sir Borch!" Arthur snapped, causing the knight to stare at him, dumbfounded, "The King is not aware of the situation here, and would wish for me to deal with it as I see fit. I have my orders Borch, and you have yours."
Sulkily, the knight slammed his sword the rest of the way back into its sheath, angry, but sedated.
Arthur turned back on Merlin, eyes glinting a challenge.
"Well?" The Prince asked.
Merlin stared at his master in confusion.
"Sire?" he asked uncertainly.
Arthur grew impatient.
"I believe you were about to explain why you shoved your way into my court," Arthur demanded, his voice beginning to flare, "What possible reason could you have to want to hurt so many people? What could you possibly stand to gain?"
Merlin shook his head almost indiscernibly, lifting his hands in a helpless gesture.
"I was just trying to help you," He answered softly, hoping beyond hope that Arthur would understand.
"Help me?" Arthur asked disbelievingly, staring at Merlin like he'd never seen him before, "Why do you think I would ever want your help? You are everything we Pendragons hate!"
Merlin felt himself flinch, and the small part of him that recoiled from being exposed and vulnerable tried to cover it up, but nothing he could do would stop the irrepressible trembling that was beginning to take hold of him, and he knew Arthur saw it.
"Arthur…" Merlin said desperately, voice suspiciously wavering, "Please, just trust me."
At that, the prince's shoulders slumped ever so slightly, deflated. Arthur looked at Merlin with the sadness that he had been hiding so well, finally showing.
"I think we are a bit beyond that now, Merlin," Arthur said heavily, "Don't you?"
With that, Arthur strode past and marched wordlessly into the camp, his knights behind him.
Merlin watched him, numbly.
He had failed. He really had.
Arthur hadn't forgiven him, probably never would… Why should he?
He had failed his destiny, and it was all his fault.
Merlin's despondent thoughts were broken by a bowl being shoved into his vision.
He glanced up half heartedly, taking the smallest of steps backwards.
Sir Allen stood in front of him with the stew and bread he had been preparing.
He shoved the bowl into Merlin's disinterested hands.
"Eat," The knight said simply, his voice brooking no argument.
Merlin stared at the stew, and then looked back up at Sir Allen.
To his surprise, the boy actually saw something akin to sympathy in the knight's gaze.
No, not sympathy… an understanding.
It was so unexpected, so comforting, so needed, Merlin felt himself go slack. He was tired of fighting.
"We will be heading out of here soon," the knight said quietly, glancing up at the trees, "We need to inform the King that a war is coming, and soon."
Merlin looked up sharply.
"A war? What…?"
Sir Allen stared at him steadily.
"Cenred is launching an attack on Camelot," the knight said resignedly, looking at Merlin's slowly widening eyes, "It should reach us in only days, and we must prepare."
Merlin stared at the knight dumbfounded.
War was coming to Camelot… His stomach lurched.
The kingdom had barely recovered from the last attack Cenred had thrown at them, and Merlin didn't think they could withstand another.
Camelot was still in a healing stage, and to break it open with war and death now may well be the end of it.
With the feeling of approaching danger now forefront in his mind, Merlin's demeanor began to change.
Whether he knew it or not, the dull hopelessness that had shrouded him before began to fall away, and was being replaced by an urgency that came only from the thought of your loved ones in danger.
"When?" He asked simply, "Who told you?"
Sir Allen raised his eyebrows.
"Well," He said slowly, "No one told me precisely, as Sir Norum and I were fighting when it happened, but an officer of Escetia cornered Arthur in an alley and simply told him that Cenred was after Camelot's blood, and that the king plans to launch his attack within the week."
Merlin's eyes had widened, but he didn't look as surprised as Sir Allen had expected him too.
"An officer?" the boy asked carefully, knowing with a surprising certainty which one.
"Aye, a captain, the same one that attacked us in the woods to boot! What he is doing helping us, is anyone's guess."
Merlin shook his head, his suspicions confirmed. He would have smiled, but he found he really didn't have it in him. For reasons completely baffling to Merlin, Cal had decided that he was going to have his back- whether because Cal trusted him, or if it was simply for his own amusement remained a mystery.
"Sir Borch believes it's a trick, but in the end, it's the Prince's word he will follow," The knight added with a shrug of the shoulders.
"And, Arthur believes him?" Merlin asked, amazed that Arthur would trust someone who was for all apparent purposes their enemy.
Sir Allen stopped, contemplating the question.
"He seems to," The knight said slowly, then his face changed and he looked at Merlin carefully.
"And I trust in his judgment of character," He continued, giving Merlin a pointed look, "So I think you should too. He is a good prince, wise for his age, and I have faith in him to make the right decision."
With that the knight backed away, turning around to begin packing up camp.
Merlin watched the man leave, knowing what the knight had said was meant for him, but not daring to believe the hopeful words, for fear that they weren't true.
He didn't want to have to torture himself with false hopes and flitting desires.
It was so much easier to just let it all go. Less painful.
The feeling that he was being watched broke his train of thought.
It was like an itch in the back of his brain, and from the corner of his eye, Merlin noticed someone staring.
His eyes flickered towards the disturbance, his head turning just in time to see the hard face of Arthur hastily look away.
The Prince was leaning against a tree at the opposite end of the clearing, slightly away from the others.
His face now seemed to be deliberately turned away from him, but from what Merlin could see of it, it looked dark.
As the servant watched, he saw his master sigh, almost imperceptibly, then straighten up and walk with purposeful strides towards his knights.
"Men," Arthur began, a note in his voice that had the entire party's immediate attention. He stopped in the center of the clearing, his left hand resting easily on his sword as everyone but Merlin, who remained in the shadows, gathered around him.
"I just have a few last minute instructions before you start towards Camelot," The Prince began, his voice projecting clearly.
"Firstly, let me just say that I can't begin to tell you how important it is for you to get there in time. I cannot possibly impress the need for speed and diligence enough, so please, ride hard, and do not stop until you see the bright colors of Camelot flying in the sky," Arthur paused, ignoring the confused glances the knights were throwing each other, "When you arrive, go to my father immediately, and inform him of the risk Cenred is creating, and that we must fight."
"But Sire," Sir Kay interrupted hesitantly, and Arthur turned to him, knowing what was coming, "Will you not be accompanying us?"
Arthur shook his head once.
"I will not," The Prince said easily, "I do not trust the sorcerer to come with us, as he may hinder our journey, and this way I will have time to interrogate him properly."
"Sire!" Sir Borch protested, aghast, "You cannot possibly tell us that we are to leave you alone with this," he waved a disgusted hand in Merlin's direction, "thing! He is dangerous!"
Arthur turned on him, a false look of surprise on his face.
"I can't?" he asked conversationally, but with a hidden threat in his voice that made the knight firmly clamp his mouth.
"Forgive me Sire," Sir Borch mumbled through grit teeth, "I misspoke."
"Yes you did," The Prince agreed flippantly, tactfully ignoring the slight snort he heard from his servant in the trees, "I have every confidence that I can handle the sorcerer, and so should you."
Sir Borch frowned, and then tried to appeal to the Prince's common sense.
"Sire, you have no need to stay. If interrogation is all you are remaining for, trust me, I can handle that for you."
From the sidelines, Merlin's stomach fluttered.
"That will not be necessary," Arthur said tightly, "As I said, I can handle him myself."
Sir Borch dipped his head.
"Of course Sire," He said, all humility.
Arthur fought the urge to scowl, but managed to resume his speech seamlessly.
"Remember," The Prince said, beginning to pace, "Hard march. Only rest if it is absolutely necessary, and stay off the main roads. We never know what sort of people may be slinking about after nightfall, so for gods sake, keep an eye out."
Arthur paused, surveying the men around him.
They stared back.
"It is not possible to stress the importance of this mission enough," The Prince said quietly, "The fate of Camelot literally rides with you, so go, take only what you need, and do not look back."
The knights nodded solemnly, and waited to be dismissed.
Arthur looked at them all one second longer, then unsheathed his blade and lifted it high.
"For Camelot!" Arthur proclaimed loudly.
"For Camelot!" The knights echoed, then quickly moved away to begin packing up their belongings.
The knights moved swiftly, taking little, trying to travel as light as possible.
No one spoke much as they worked. They could all feel the tension building in the air between master and servant, and they all just wanted to leave.
Within the blink of an eye the horses were saddled, provisions stowed, and knights mounted.
Arthur was talking to Sir Kay in hushed tones, but nobody else in the clearing had the slightest desire to engage in conversation.
The horses nickered quietly to themselves, ready to be off.
From the sidelines, Merlin stared at the knights forlornly, now reluctant for them to leave.
Reluctant to be left with Arthur alone.
He knew the prince would want answers, answers he had a right to, and for the most part, Merlin would be happy to give them. Not just happy, he would be relieved. His secrets had been weighing him down for so long now, the lies sticking to his throat, and he was ready to let them go.
Most of them at least.
Merlin knew explaining his magic to Arthur would be hard, as so much hurt and pain surrounded that dreaded word, but he wasn't ashamed that he was Arthur's protector. He was terrified that Arthur would reject him, would send him to burn, but he didn't regret his actions.
But there were other things, things Merlin had done that he wasn't so proud of.
Things that were like a lump of grease in his chest, making him feel dirty, and Merlin couldn't bear the thought of bringing those into the open.
They belonged safely in the dark, where they couldn't hurt anyone.
It was just better that way, happier.
The problem was, Arthur had an uncanny ability of figuring things out for himself, and a small part of Merlin knew that he probably would and when that happened, the damage that would come from it would be irreparable.
But what could he do? All the things he had done… they were terrible! And so telling him now would be just as catastrophic… wouldn't it?
Merlin stuffed his hands into his trouser's pockets, his fingers subconsciously twisting the lumpy lining of the material nervously.
No, he could never let Arthur know the full truth.
Some secrets, some lies, were his burden to bear forever.
His eyes drifted unconsciously over the mounted knights, surveying one hard face after another unchecked, only to run right into the inquisitive gaze of Sir Norum.
The knight was staring at him oddly, and Merlin got the unnerving feeling that the man could read his thoughts as easily as if they were being laid out before him.
Merlin hastily looked away, fingers twisting in their pockets faster than ever.
His chest twittered nervously a couple of moments later, as Arthur nodded then slowly stepped back from Sir Kay, their discussion over.
"Very well," The Prince said with a sigh, glancing momentarily at Merlin, "If it makes you feel better, but I believe it unnecessary."
Sir Kay looked relieved.
"This is only for my peace of mind, Sire," The knight replied, getting off his horse and ruffling through his saddlebags, "Please, just humor me."
The knight revealed a coiled rope and quickly untangled it. Sir Kay turned his head warily in Merlin's direction.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably. He had a pretty good idea as to what was coming.
The knight held out one hand in front of him and slowly began walking forward, as if he were trying to catch a stray horse, not a boy.
Merlin unconsciously took a step backwards.
"Steady," Sir Kay said in a soft voice, "Don't do anything rash, or it will cost you dearly. For safety purposes, I am just going to tie you to the tree, nothing more."
Merlin quickly glanced at Arthur, who had conveniently turned his head away, an odd expression on his face.
"Steady," the Knight said again, "I am not going to hurt you."
"Which is a shame really," Borch mumbled moodily to himself, glaring daggers in Merlin's direction.
Sir Kay ignored him, and upon realizing that Merlin wasn't going to bolt or try to defend himself, quickly closed in the gap between them.
Grabbing Merlin's arm, the clean shaven knight daftly looped the rough rope around the boy's thin wrist, feeling the sorcerer flinch beneath him. He held out his hand for Merlin's other arm, and hesitantly, the boy slowly gave it to him.
Sir Kay's eyebrows rose slightly at the sorcerer's compliance, but he quickly looped the rope around Merlin's second wrist, tying the two together with a firm sailor's knot.
Satisfied with his handiwork, the knight nodded to himself, then grabbed Merlin by the upper forearm and quickly walked him backwards to the tree behind him.
He could feel Merlin tense at his touch.
"Easy," the knight mumbled.
Merlin relaxed slightly under his hand, and wordlessly the knight led him so his back was to the tree, and then deftly threw the rope around the rough trunk, securing him firmly, but not cruelly.
Sir Kay quickly double checked his handiwork, then stepped back, apparently content.
"Thank you, Sire," Sir Kay said, relieved that his prince would at least have this minor protection against the sorcerer.
Arthur nodded briefly. He seemed distracted.
"Yes, of course."
Sir Kay glanced behind him at the waiting knights, and sighed.
"We should be off, I suppose."
Arthur stepped forward and shook the man's arm firmly.
"Gods speed on your journey."
The knight gave an answering nod, and then lightly sprung onto his horse, flicking the reins for the animal to turn, in one smooth movement.
The other knights followed his example, and began to move their horses out of the clearing. When they hit the beginning of the shrubbery, however, Sir Kay stopped, and turned his head over his shoulder to address his Prince a final time.
"Watch your back, Milord," the knight advised solemnly, eyes flickering pointedly in Merlin's direction, "as we will not be here to watch it for you."
Arthur didn't respond, and with a nod of respect, the knight turned his head towards the forest and with a sharp kick, trotted in, the rest of the men moments behind him, breathing silent sighs of relief to finally be free of the uncomfortable clearing.
Arthur remained motionless as the sharp sounds of horses careening over broken logs and under swaying branches slowly faded away, and only the playful sounds of singing birds filled the tense atmosphere.
Merlin's heartbeat quickened, pounding hard and growing warm in his chest.
He only had view of the Prince's back, but even from this angle the servant could see the rigidness in Arthur's posture, but the well stifled sigh that escaped the man's weary form was lost on the boy.
The servant waited, a silence that never would have existed between them before almost growing painful.
Arthur still did not turn around.
Indecision tugged at Merlin, whose mind was racing, unsure how to begin.
"Sire?" The boy asked hesitantly, coming to a decision.
At first the Prince didn't respond, and Merlin would have been led to believe that he had not heard but for the fact that one of the more prominent muscles on his master's neck tightened, protruding from the normally smooth skin.
"Well?" Arthur finally asked, guardedly.
Merlin let out a shaky breath.
"Wh-what are you going to do with me?"
Another long silence in the clearing.
"According to my father, you are going to be executed," the Prince said tightly.
Merlin's stomach rolled sickeningly, but he stubbornly quenched the feeling, refusing to accept that answer.
"Sire, you," Merlin stumbled, his voice not entirely level, "you are going to kill me?"
Arthur let out a sharp, humorless laugh, making Merlin jump. Shaking his head, the prince aimlessly walked a couple paces to the side, still not looking in Merlin's direction as if his face would bring the plague.
"Kill you! Well, that's just the problem isn't it? You are someone I used to think I knew rather well, and we have spent almost every waking hour of four years together, so for the life of me, as much as I have reasoned to and argued with myself, I just don't think I have it in me to be your death! My father would call me cowardly, and for once I think I may agree with him."
Merlin slumped in his bonds, feeling almost dizzy with a mix of conflicting emotions. The relief he felt was very much real, but it paled in comparison with the aching sense of loss that bit so deeply.
"Thank you," the boy said quietly, looking at the ground.
Arthur shook his head, staring off into the trees.
"Don't thank me yet. In fact, don't thank me at all, because I am not doing this for you, I am doing this for someone who truly never existed at all. So really Merlin- or Emrys, or whatever else your name may be, don't thank me!"
The bitter grief in the words felt like a slap in the face.
What they had had, they no longer shared. Merlin knew that.
Arthur was merely acknowledging it, but it still hurt.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably against the ropes binding him, trying to gather his thoughts.
"Look I, I'm sorry. I never… I never meant for it to be like this. I wanted to tell you, I really did- you have no idea what it does to you to have to hide such a huge part of who you are… I hated every minute of it! I just didn't really have much choice in the matter-" Merlin faltered as Arthur angrily swung around, looking at him for the first time, a disbelieving expression on his face.
"Didn't have a choice in the matter?" the Prince asked mockingly, making Merlin want to kick himself for his poor choice of words, "Well in that case, I suppose all is forgiven! After all, it isn't your fault you have had to study the most malicious, harmful art known to man… you just couldn't help yourself, the desire for power was just too tempting! And it isn't your fault you are now going to severely hurt everyone who has ever cared for you with the knowledge that you are a fake and a fraud… because secretly you never really wanted to, it just happened that way and you knew they would deal with it… eventually. So naturally Merlin, how could I not understand?"
The accusations stung, and Merlin wasn't sure if he was more hurt or indignant.
"It wasn't like that," the boy said defensively, his voice low, "I never wanted to deceive them. Having to lie every moment of the day is a horrible, horrible fate, one that I wouldn't wish on anyone, but I had to! Don't you see? I never asked for magic Arthur! I was born with it and now I'm stuck with it! It is my gift, and I love it, but often I ask myself if it isn't a curse as well. I never wanted to lie, or commit treason, or hurt anyone. I was just born, and now my very existence is wrong!"
Arthur stared at him.
"Don't lie to me Merlin," Arthur said angrily, and then added in a softer tone, "We both know that's not possible."
Merlin shook his head. He was beginning to talk, beginning to get the things that had been plaguing him his entire life off his chest, and he didn't want to stop.
"Normally you would be correct, but the rules bent themselves in my case."
Arthur snorted soundlessly and looked away.
The scary thing was, Merlin didn't sound like he was lying.
Shaking his head the prince began to advance closer to his manservant.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Arthur demanded, staring hard at Merlin's face.
The boy shrugged, looking almost sad.
"I am different," He said simply, not sure how else to put it, "Special, I suppose you could say."
Arthur halted abruptly, standing only a little more than a meter away.
His eyes bored into Merlin's, and they wouldn't let him go.
"Is that true?" The prince asked probingly, staring Merlin down, "How can I be sure you are you telling the truth?"
Merlin shook his head, a sad, but resigned look on his face.
"You can't," he said quietly, then his eyes lowered, "You are just going to have to trust me."
Arthur shook his head slowly, once, but didn't respond.
Merlin's eyes flickered back upwards, and he shrugged in forced resolve.
"Then, I suppose, that's that…" Merlin said heavily, his eyes still uncertain.
Arthur remained silent, watching him guardedly.
Merlin looked away.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"Swear to me," Arthur ordered softly.
Merlin looked up.
Arthur took a step forward.
"Swear to me on any friendship we ever used to share," The prince demanded, eyes staring at Merlin hard, "Swear to me, that you have never tried to hurt anyone I love, that you have only ever used magic for good, and swear to me, that you are telling the truth!"
Merlin looked Arthur directly in the eye.
"I swear," he said softly, willing Arthur to trust him.
Arthur's eyes narrowed, looking at Merlin as if he were trying to read right into his heart.
Finally, his face cleared, and Arthur took a small step backwards.
"Then I believe you," he said quietly, then slowly turned around, and walked out of the clearing, leaving Merlin alone.
The weak form of Maggot shuffled after Bayard's sentries into the Mercian war camp, pausing to view the disciplined line of soldiers marching past to train.
The once peaceful forest was now filled with the ringing of hammers, and the shouts of captains berating their men.
The sentries brushed past a group of lounging men and marched through a logical cluster of small, but effective tents, not stopping until they reached the large command tent which held Bayard and his closest advisors.
Maggot slowly limped past the guards patrolling the tent's entrance, and ducked into the large interior.
As the tent flap fell behind him, Bayard glanced up from the men giving reports. As his gaze landed on Maggot, the King's shoulders seemed to slump almost imperceptibly.
However, his welcome didn't give the slightest hint as to his discomfort.
"Maggot," Bayard said pleasantly, "What a wonderful surprise. Do come in."
Maggot looked at the advisors distrustfully, and Bayard got the hint.
"You are dismissed," he told them with a wave of his hand, "We will resume this meeting later."
"Of course, Your Majesty," the men murmured, each giving a respectful bow as they left.
Bayard turned back to the man before him, schooling his features into a smile.
"So, tell me, what brings me the pleasure of your company?"
Maggot didn't return the smile.
"I bring word from the Lady Morgause," the man said flatly, "She commanded me to tell you that the time is ripe for war, and that the Red Swan soars."
Bayard nodded, sinking into his command chair wearily, "You may tell her that my men will march at sunrise."
Maggot smiled, bloodlust in his eyes, "As you wish, Milord."
The flames were licking hungrily at the platform, sizzling and throwing sparks into the air, getting closer and closer.
Merlin wanted to run, to flee, to escape it all, but he couldn't.
The ropes bit into him from all sides, holding him in place, squeezing tighter and tighter. He wanted to get out!
Merlin's eyes snapped open to a flash of blinding light, and a groaning crack hit his ears.
Above him, something big moved, and Merlin's groggy eyes looked up just in time to see the tree he had been tied to teeter uncertainly towards him.
Weariness falling away as if it had never existed, Merlin yelped and skittered to the side on his hands and knees, hearing the massive trunk give out behind him, and the tree crash onto the ground he had been restlessly sleeping on moments before, in an explosion of stray branches and sharp twigs.
Merlin pushed his face into the ground and covered his head, squeezing his eyes shut and only opening them when the last of the debris had settled.
The boy peeked one eye open, then the other.
Hesitantly sitting up, Merlin turned around to assess the damage, wide-eyed and confused.
The tree had fallen directly into the camp, narrowly missing the campfire, and officially dubbing bird-food a sack of stale provisions.
Dumbfounded, Merlin switched his gaze to the perfectly sliced stump that was all that was left of the once majestic tree.
Now Merlin knew he wasn't exactly a genius in botany, but he was sure it was safe to say that trees don't crack in a perfectly level line… at least not naturally anyway.
Not naturally… Merlin's eyes flew to his wrists.
They were raw and covered in rope burns, but they were free.
He had wanted to get out, and he had.
Groaning, Merlin rubbed his hands through his hair, understanding dawning on him.
He had been having a nightmare, and his magic had reacted instinctively, blowing away the tree that was holding him in place, and more than likely disintegrating the ropes.
He needed to get better control of himself, this flippant, raw display of power was getting dangerous…
But that was a problem for another day.
Rubbing his eyes to clear his head, Merlin looked about himself, half expecting to see an irate prince scowling down at him.
The clearing was deserted, however, and he was alone with only the birds for company.
Merlin sighed, and then shakily stood up, glancing at the woods around him for any sign of Arthur.
He hadn't spoken to him since the prince had walked off, and by the position of the sun in the sky, Merlin guessed that that had been hours ago.
He wanted to talk to him, wanted to put everything right.
But apparently, he would have to wait.
The servant yawned expressively and stretched, his muscles cramped from hours jammed in the same position.
His mouth felt uncomfortably dry, and Merlin realized that he hadn't had anything to drink since the night before.
His stomach felt tight from lack of water.
The boy wandered to the saddlebags thrown carelessly by the fire, ruffling through them in search of a canteen.
He found one, but to his dismay when he shook it, it was almost empty.
He could hear a stream gurgling not too far off, and with a shrug of the shoulders decided that since Arthur would probably not be back until later, it was okay to leave for at least a little while.
Straightening up, Merlin headed off in the direction of the stream, drinking greedily from what was left of the canteen's contents on the way.
As he had expected, the water wasn't far off, and when he spotted it, he was relieved to see a small brook gurgling at the bottom of the hill.
Practically stumbling towards it, now desperate for something to drink, Merlin unceremoniously plopped down on the bank and began scooping water greedily into his mouth, stubbornly ignoring the small bits of sand and dirt he drank accidentally in his haste.
It took thirty seconds for him to remember to breathe.
Maybe if he had been paying a bit more attention, he would have noticed the sound of footsteps approaching behind him.
And maybe, if he had been paying a bit more attention, he would have noticed the soft sound of a sword sliding from its well oiled sheath.
Yet as it was, he only noticed the existence of another as the sharp metal point was lightly placed on the back of his neck, causing him to freeze in mid-swallow.
"So I had a friend," the easy voice of Arthur began conversationally from behind him, causing Merlin's stomach to drop, "That was a general in Mercia's army, and whenever a prisoner of war escaped him only to be captured once more, he would offer them a choice."
The prince paused, going for theatrical effect.
Merlin's stiffened muscles slowly loosened as he sensed the ease in Arthur's tone.
Oddly enough, the prince seemed almost cheerful.
"They could either to agree to wait the however-many-years until they would be sold as slaves or ransomed, or they could face him in a duel. If they fought him and won, then they would earn freedom for themselves and their entire family, but if they fought and lost, they had to agree that they would, without argument or resistance, serve him and his family for what was left of their lives and vow to never again go home, even if the rest of their family was set free. They vowed, that they would be stuck with him forever."
Merlin's eyebrow quirked.
"Uh, okay," the boy said uncertainly. He was confused, but he was sure Arthur would tell him his point without having to be prompted.
"So it is fitting, don't you think, for me to do the same with you now, considering your obvious love for running away."
Startled, Merlin quickly turned his head to look over his shoulder, staring at Arthur disbelievingly.
"What…?" Merlin asked, knowing this couldn't possibly be good, "You can not be serious!"
Arthur bobbed his eyebrows, and stepped back, sheathing his sword.
Merlin found himself responding to the Prince's cheerfulness. He couldn't help but be infected by the Prince's good humor- as unexpected, and entirely confusing as it was.
"Oh, but I am! Catch!" Apparently out of nowhere, the Prince revealed a large, perfectly straight stick, and tossed it easily in Merlin's direction.
Not surprisingly, the boy's hand didn't make it to the stick in time, and the would-be-weapon clattered onto the ground beside him, half of it landing in the brook with a splash.
The prince picked up an almost perfectly identical one from the ground, twirling it in his hands experimentally.
"Well come on then," Arthur said happily, an almost evil glee in his eyes, "Don't you want to earn your freedom?"
Shaking his head, Merlin grabbed his weapon none too gently, and pushed himself with a sigh to his feet.
"Not really," the servant said, distrustfully eying Arthur's stick, "I don't stand a chance, so I really don't see why you even bother."
Nope, not a good sign.
"You are my prisoner," the prince said innocently, "and you escaped! You must admit, the circumstances fit. Besides, why miss out on a chance to thoroughly beat you into a pulp? I am an opportunist."
Merlin glared, but it didn't seem to have much effect on the laughing noble.
"Ready?" Arthur asked, getting into his normal fighting stance.
Merlin shook his head in disbelief.
He was actually serious.
What had caused Arthur's sudden change of heart, Merlin couldn't even begin to imagine, but a small part of him knew that when he had sworn his innocence, Arthur had begun to trust him, and maybe, just maybe, the prince was finally coming to terms with it all.
"No," Merlin said, but in spite of himself he felt his face begin to morph into a smile.
"Good," Arthur smiled brightly, then without warning, lunged forward.
Merlin yelped and dove to the side as the Prince swatted at him, covering his head more with his hands than with his stick.
Arthur snorted and thwacked him solidly on the arm.
"Come on Merlin, you're not even trying!"
Arthur flicked the stick quickly at the other arm, causing Merlin to hastily jump back, stumbling over stray twigs and larger rocks.
"Yes I am! I just don't like the idea of whacking people around the head with sticks as much as you obviously seem to," Merlin quipped, holding his weapon outstretched in front of him with both hands.
Arthur shook his head in mock sympathy, still advancing forward.
"That's okay, I have always known your taste isn't as impeccable as my own."
He dove forward once more, sending Merlin scampering backwards once again.
The prince rolled his eyes.
"And to think," He said conversationally to himself, "That this is the same man who regularly saves my life."
Merlin almost dropped his stick, surprise etched on his face.
"What did you say?" He asked uncertainly, holding up his weapon in an attempt to block a blow.
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"Well, am I not correct in believing that you are responsible for the many fortunate "coincidences" that have surrounded my life since the day you arrived?"
Merlin ducked a wild swing over his head.
"Uhh," He stuttered, not believing what he was hearing, "Well, yes, I- I suppose…"
Arthur smiled to himself.
"Thought so," He said between blows, enjoying the look on Merlin's face, "You see, recently, I have been thinking."
"Careful," Merlin muttered unthinkingly.
Arthur glared at him, but continued on seamlessly.
"And while I was walking in the woods, I realized that there have been a lot of would-be deadly situations that I have gotten out of entirely unharmed, with positively no explanation. I believe you know what I am talking about."
Merlin tripped, and Arthur gave him a solid whack to the head.
"Owwww! What was that for?" The boy groaned, bringing his pathetic stick up defensively.
Arthur didn't continue with his assault, however, but calmly waited for Merlin to straighten up and look at him again.
When he finally did, Arthur's face was serious.
"So that being said, there is only one thing I cannot understand," The Prince said quietly, looking Merlin straight in the face.
Arthur lifted his hands fractionally.
"Why did you come to Camelot?"
Wincing, Merlin massaged his head, but Arthur could see the smile that was starting to develop on his manservant's face.
In fact, if Arthur looked close enough, the weary sadness that had always rested right behind Merlin's eyes was beginning to fade, and slowly, ever so slowly, it was being replaced by some bright hope.
The boy shrugged.
"I don't know… destinies are troublesome things, and they can get you into confusing, maddening, and even deadly situations, but in the end, they always seem to plop you down right where you need to be, and somehow, you just know that everything is going to be alright."
Arthur raised an eyebrow, and then determined to get a real answer out of Merlin later. Yet somehow, he thought he understood.
Without warning, Arthur thwacked Merlin lightly in rapid succession on the arms, legs, and chest, causing the boy to yelp, and raise his hands up hopelessly.
With a flick of the wrist, Arthur sent Merlin's weapon flying then, placing his leg in a strategic place behind Merlin's feet, he knocked him solidly on the head once more.
Merlin bolted backwards, staggered, and fell groaning to the ground.
Arthur smiled and placed the point of his stick to Merlin's throat.
"Well then, I guess that settles it," the prince said flippantly, but his eyes were serious, "You are stuck with me forever."
With that, Arthur turned on his heel, and walked away, leaving a moaning, but strangely lighthearted Merlin lying on the bank behind him.
*violins squeal* That- that was just beautiful. Sorry, another late night.
Okay, you know what happens next! …. Are you at the edge of your seats? Are you just dying with anticipation? I hope not… 'cause then you may sue…
Anyways, thank you so very much: Notquitebezerk, Ebonyice, 1, Falling Down The Stairs, Ruby890, Eclipseoftheheart17, Wisegirl24256, Castwomanswrath, Cwam, Emachinescat, Suzie, Lilyplusjamesistotallove, Whirlwind421, llLethell, The 10-11 Doctors, Nykskyblue, Rawr52, Ariacle, Coby, Katherine Moonhawk, Micro Chibi Baka San, Ringo's imaginarycat, TaintedXIllusion, 104Arianna, Imperial Mint, Teenmuggle, Arbitrary9, Klester1987, Sydelle Rein, DragonGem777, SilverHeart09, DragonflyonBreak, BabyGlover, Kjate95, Hazelbunny, I Am Theta Sigma, Chibiotaku, Sesshouluver, Owl Watcher, HanaSolo, Jissai, CollinFan, Yabbit, Bookaddict27, Nekomata Hanyou, xLadyxAmbrosiusx, Moonchild08, Acklesaddict, Mel, NoReallyIDontCare, MissOrange8587, Kaykit, Jayley, CM, Ellie, Lindaaa, Kitty O, Noelle, Dor, WaffleDragon, Tagrea, 98Penguin, LikeIdTellU, Magicflower23684, and Highlord24, AzraelLilith,Sandfulla, ArodieltheelfofRohan, Jade W, Airdria, InjiEmrys, Ireland - hime, Android . Girl, Wildfire 2, Nitka, Laura, Shadowsonicstar, samwise o'Keefe, and Anonymous
Thanks again! You have no idea how much you guys mean to me! I know I have been terrible with my updates, so I just want to take my imaginary hat off to all of you, for staying with me for so long.