I love a 'what if...' story. I don't want to give too much away but it takes on the premise that an event happened to change Merlin's fate, but not wanting to be cheated, destiny starts building another path. Obviously, all the usual characters will appear eventually.
Merlin ran. He didn't think about it, he just ran. He wasn't quite aware why the sudden impulse had hit him, but the men had left him alone, and Jarl had been gone. Merlin had been quietly setting up the camp and setting up the hearth to cook, like a good little slave. He had concentrated on the tasks he was given, but a sudden restlessness had come upon him. It felt familiar, as if it had happened to him before, but he couldn't locate from where. Merlin didn't remember things like that. Then he had heard them talking, about him, about others, and about what they might find on the trip.
From that point, Merlin had been unable to stand it no longer. He had backed up, looking busy around the packs before he had started to run. They were after him now, crashing through the forest behind him and Merlin rushed along ahead of them. His escape was blind. Merlin didn't know where he was going and he didn't know where he was. There was the castle, which he knew, and the outside, which he didn't. Merlin couldn't remember the last time he had been outside, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the sun warming him.
He stumbled, feet catching one over the other and striking a tree root. It sent him pitching forward and he landed on his hands and knees. Merlin yelped as something dragged against his arm. He saw the bright, glistening surge of blood. Merlin lifted his arm and looked at the gash that ran down one long, skinny forearm. The pain meant nothing to him, Merlin was used to pain, but the blood made him worry. Losing blood was a bad thing. Staggering up he pushed the branches aside, snapping some, other's whipped across his body, urging him on as they caught his flesh, pathetically covered by his thin clothing.
The sounds of the men chasing him echoed in the forest behind him. He had to keep running or they would find him. They knew where to look, Merlin had to be quick. He almost didn't see the bank as he crashed through the trees until he felt his feet lose balance and he dug his heels in, falling down onto his backside as he did so. Merlin looked around and saw the cave, the fissure in the stone looked inviting, the stream running from it, innocuous and unthreatening. It was quite pretty, Merlin told himself.
He could hide for a moment. Merlin slithered down the bank, ignoring the skin being roughly scraped off his arms and hands. He flopped to the floor, knees smacking against the stone on the edge of the bank. Merlin pushed himself up and ran for the cave entrance, holding his arms out to the sides for balance. He was starting to feel sick and dizzy from the exertion. The memory of when he had run so fast and for so long had been lost to his subconscious. Merlin only thought about the immediate moment, what was happening in each second as it passed.
Now he ran into the cave and paused. It was a fissure that ran deep into the rock and there were signs of habitation. A table with bottles on it, a bedroll on his left, with food stored nearby. Merlin blinked as he took in the signs of habitation, staggering as the exhaustion hit him and he wiped his forehead where it ran with sweat. He started to back up, it wasn't safe, he would have to keep running, or just stop and wait. They would catch him eventually.
Merlin gave a yelp as he backed up into something solid, and a hand latched tightly around his throat. He gasped with fear, tears flooding his eyes but he didn't fight the grip. It was hard, but not enough to hurt, or prevent him from breathing, even if every breath he took came as a ragged, frightened gasp.
"What are you doing here boy?" a gruff voice demanded of him.
For a moment Merlin couldn't speak, when his voice unlocked he simply stated the exact truth.
"From the men, I ran away," Merlin said in a high, whimpering tone. Black dots were starting to dance in front of his eyes, his body felt weak, legs almost giving out from under him. Unable to do anything else for a moment he leant back against the man holding him for support. He felt so tired, he was always tired.
Then he jerked forward as the man released him and pushed him away. Merlin staggered, turning to look at the person he presumed lived in the cave. He was tall, and broad. His dark hair long, strands trailed into his face, a dark beard hiding his jaw and in between a pair of hard eyes glared at him. Merlin shuffled backwards, dropping his head to avoid the harsh gaze. He stared at his ripped, ragged clothes, the colour of which was long ago lost, and the rough rags of material around his feet. He didn't have boots, Jarl laughed that he didn't need them since he spent most of his time on his back. Merlin cringed when he said that, not quite understanding the joke but knowing it meant the men, and the pain and the horrible things he had to do. Merlin flinched as the man in front of him turned away from him.
"Stay in here."
Merlin nodded in agreement. He always did as he was told, not that it often did him any good. Risking lifting his head he watched the man vanish from the cave. Merlin stood there, looking around, but not daring to move. He didn't want to do anything clumsy and knock something over. He blinked slowly as he wavered on his feet, and his eyes rested on the makeshift bed. Then he looked down at himself again. The Cave Man might not like it if he sat there, he was so filthy, but Merlin felt his stomach churn and the dizziness threatened to overwhelm him.
He squatted down where he was and slowly sat down on the floor of the cave, bringing his knees up to his chest and resting his head down on them, staying curled up tightly while he waited for the tiredness to pass.
Merlin wasn't quite sure how much time passed. He might have fallen asleep. He seemed to jerk out of the blackness of his mind and as his head shot up his neck started to throb from being in the same position for so long. Merlin rubbed it, and then rubbed both hands across his face to try and wake himself up a little. He felt thirsty and he looked at his arm, the gash was still bleeding a little and smears of blood marred his dirt covered skin. Merlin looked at it in concern and then dipped his hand into the puddle next to him wiping his arm with it. It wasn't particularly effective and the thought of water was just making him feel thirstier. Merlin scooped some of the water into his palm and bringing it to his mouth licked at it.
He didn't find it particularly appetising. It tasted bitter, and there was grit in it, sticking to his tongue as he licked.
"Urgh," Merlin announced to himself. Then he looked up to the entrance. There was water outside, he could clean his arm and get a drink from there. The water would be better out there. Merlin got to his feet, wobbling a little, still feeling tired and lethargic. It was an effort to move at all but the promise of water urged him on a little. Completely forgetting the order he had been given to stay inside Merlin shuffled carefully outdoors.
The sun was still bright, but the shadows were lengthening. Merlin screwed up his eyes as he stepped outside, the brightness making his head pound, and his eyes water. He staggered and keeping an arm over his eyes, looked down at the ground to totter carefully towards the stream. He stared at the clean, cool water that flowed past and he hunkered down and cupping his hands scooped out some water, drinking it greedily. Some of it spilled down his chin, splashing onto his shirt. Merlin brushed it down and only made the mess on it worse. After a split second's consideration he pulled the shirt up over his head, almost falling over as he struggled to pull it off.
Merlin dragged it over his head and shrugged it down his arms, draping the rough material over one thigh. He scooped a few more mouthfuls of water, it was crisp and cool in his mouth, calming his sickness and easing his empty belly. Then he started to splash it onto his arm, rubbing in places to try and remove the dried blood. He only seemed to be succeeding in spreading the mess further around, but he carried on splashing until a shout made him lift his head in shock.
"I told you to stay in the cave!"
Balinor had no difficulty finding the boy's clumsy trail. He had made no attempt to hide his route as he made his escape. Balinor had moved through the trees, following the sounds of the pursuers. Going ahead of them he broke through another trail, guiding them away from the cave. Not just because he had left the boy there, but because he was protective of his home. It was rare anyone passed through that way, and that was why Balinor liked it. He had lived a solitary life for so long, he couldn't contemplate anything else, and he didn't like the idea of people so close. Sometimes Cenred's men patrolled through, they either knew he was there and left alone, or were ignorant of his whereabouts. The local town knew of his existence, but they gained nothing by getting involved.
Now some silly little boy had come skittering right into his home. But he wasn't as heartless as many people would probably like to believe. The youth was obviously terrified of his pursuers and if anyone was daring to come this close to his home, Balinor wanted to know who they were. He set up a false trail, moving swiftly through the forest, snapping branches, and making sure there were enough tracks and disturbances on the trail to guide them the way he wanted.
Then carefully he had circled around and waited for whoever came past. When he saw them, it was easy to tell they were not soldiers. The lead man rode a horse, looking about angrily as they picked up the trail Balinor had left.
"Keep looking, but return to camp when it starts to darken, I haven't got time to be chasing after little dregs like that. I want to be past the town by tomorrow."
"He can't be that hard to find," one of the men commented, and was kicked in the head for his trouble.
"I told you to watch the damn brat!" the leader snapped. "He won't last long out here anyway. We can always pick up something else in the next village, Cenred needs men but he won't care about what else is there. I've got too much profit riding on that to worry about one little piece of meat."
Balinor narrowed his eyes as he listened. That told him all he needed to know. They were slavers, and if Cenred wanted more men, then he was planning something, probably directing his attention to Camelot. Balinor didn't concern himself with that. He had no love for Uther Pendragon. Still, it was good to know what might happen; he would need to be wary of groups passing through.
At least that short conversation left him with the impression that the boy was not of great concern. It was probably a true argument that they could take another slave on their next raid. By the state of him, the child was not something any of them cared about. It made Balinor wonder why he was with them in the first place. Perhaps that was something he didn't want to contemplate. Instead he headed back towards home, taking a longer route and moving through the forest silently, unnoticed, almost a part of the landscape, he had been there so long, hidden away.
He circled the group of men to check they were sticking to the false trail, and would probably give up soon enough, before he returned to his home. As he cleared the undergrowth and looked to the cave he felt his irritation rise. The boy was outside, splashing water about. It was a simple enough instruction and for his own damn safety the boy should have listened. As Balinor shouted the dark head jerked up in shock. Merlin looked around as if he just realised what he had done, and he fell backwards, landing on his rump with a thump.
Balinor watched the boy react. He struggled to his feet and ran to the cave, disappearing into the darkness. As he followed Balinor saw a subtle shift in the shadows near the entrance. The boy waited there, hands clinging onto the material of his shirt.
As Balinor came closer the boy turned his head, shuffling away slightly, and facing the wall. He hunched his shoulders and cowered as he felt Balinor move closer.
Merlin's head tilted a little, waiting for the Cave Man to do something. He hadn't done as he was told, and that was bad, but he didn't know what this man would do.
Balinor was, in actual fact, looking at the wounds that riddled Merlin's upper body. Lash marks coated his back, some of the welts raised and a deep painful red. The worst of them oozed with infection, Balinor put his hand on Merlin's shoulder, feeling the heat rising from his skin, and the bones that pressed out from underneath.
He watched with increasing sympathy as the boy huddled, just standing there, just waiting. Carefully Balinor took hold of his upper arm, pulling him away from the wall and into the light. The boy's head stayed down and his hands clenched on the material he was holding, screwing it into a tight ball.
"Come on, child. Come on."
Balinor coaxed Merlin out. Drawing the terrified, shivering boy into the sunlight. He didn't resist but his eyes shifted around nervously as Balinor lead him to the ledge where the stream ran past.
"Sit down now."
Merlin dropped himself down with a thump, willing to do whatever the Cave Man wanted of him. He shifted his feet a little and pulled at the material of his shirt which was still clenched in his hands. Again he hunched his shoulders as if expecting a physical blow. As Balinor carefully considered the damage, he didn't feel too surprised at his behaviour. He put a hand on Merlin's head, and he flinched.
"You just sit there now, it's okay, just wait there."
As he went into the cave, disappearing into the shadows he turned to glance at Merlin. The boy's eyes followed him, wide and frightened, but he didn't move. He looked down again, his hands clenching on the material he was holding. Balinor didn't think he would run, the boy was frightened and tired, hardly comprehending what had happened, but he had seen the child's fear as he had shouted, realising he had done something wrong.
Balinor dismissed that concern and went to collect the herbs he needed, his mind running over the various injuries and what he could use to treat them. When he came out carrying baskets and bowls he found the boy sat exactly where he had been put, and his head jerked up sharply, but he looked down again immediately after. Balinor came closer and slowly started to put things down and he saw Merlin's head follow him. It was a subtle movement, but he noted it.
Reaching down he scooped some water into a bowl and mashed up the root he had brought with him, putting it in the water and squeezing it between his fingers to let the pulp and sap distribute. Then taking a cloth he dipped it in and reaching up started to wash Merlin's shoulders.
He couldn't help but hunch, but again, he didn't move. Balinor started on Merlin's shoulders and moved down his back, carefully washing, cleaning off the caked on dirt, and breaking open some of the infected wounds to let the pus run out.
There was no other option but to work slowly. He went down Merlin's back, cleaning off the filth and infection and then took his arm rubbing the absorbent fur he was using into his armpit and then down his arm, looking at the raw skin on his wrists, where he had been restrained. Then he moved on to the boy's chest, bruised from collar bone to the base of his ribs. He had been kicked and punched, but none of his ribs were damaged. One good sign, Balinor thought.
"Stand up, child," he ordered. Once again Balinor watched the boy obey without hesitation, but still fearful of what might happen. Without comment Balinor unfastened the cord of his trousers he pulled them down to assess the rest of the damage.
The whip marks reached down past the small of Merlin's back over his backside, he had bruising on the white flesh of his inner thighs. One knee was painfully swollen and as Balinor sat him down again and took the crude wraps of material off his feet he saw the tears and grazes.
"Put your feet down there," Balinor said gently, easing Merlin's feet into the water. He splashed a little as he settled down, and then with one quick glance at Balinor he stopped what he was doing.
"Come on lad, give me that." Balinor pulled on the material that Merlin was still clenching in his hands. After a few seconds of his fingers frantically working the material Merlin gave it up to the man that asked for it. Merlin instead clasped his hands tightly together and waited, watching.
Balinor ignored the stare, and just concentrated on the poultice. He put a light, cleansing treatment over the lash marks, thickening the layer where there was the threat of infection. Then the salve covered the boy's chafed wrists and ankles, and he massaged some into the boy's feet to treat the scraps and cuts from where he had run so much. Balinor treated every part of his damaged body. He didn't rush, he worked slowly and carefully, not missing any of the extensive injuries.
By the time he had finished Merlin's head was dropping down. He blinked and jerked up as the sensations took his body. Merlin vaguely remembered that he had been running, and then he had stopped. He was tired again, but he jerked out of the doze as the Cave Man gently patted him on the shoulder.
"All done, you sit there for a minute, I won't be long."
It sounded like very good advice, Merlin thought. He let his head loll again and closed his eyes. It was nice sitting still, with the sun gently warming him and the sound of the water soothing his mind. He felt very tempted to lie down and just sleep. Quite regularly Merlin was capable of sleeping in any position, even standing up. His mind would just blank and there would be nothing. He could never be sure how long it really lasted, the awakenings could be abrupt and painful. Jarl might get cross with him if he slept. Merlin blinked with a whimper at the thought of his master, and he attempted to rouse himself from the dreamlike state that had drawn him in.
Then it slowly occurred to Merlin, he had run away. Jarl wasn't there, the Cave Man was. The pains in his body hadn't gone away, but they didn't seem as bad. Merlin was used to a lot of it now, but it all still hurt, and he felt so tired.
"Careful," the man warned as he sagged and almost pitched into the water. The man had wrapped an arm around him, to stop him falling forward. Merlin looked down at the restraining arm and gripped onto the material of the Cave Man's sleeve, feeling the strength of the man holding him.
Merlin did as he was told as Balinor put the cup to his lips. Merlin was in no state to be able to hold it to drink the soothing potion it contained. He could have gulped at it greedily, but he was offered it in sensible sips, his body slowly leaning over to rest against the stronger man. Merlin drank it all, the mixture soothing his throat, and warming him inside. Once the cup was drained Balinor put it aside and drew Merlin onto his feet, supporting him as he walked him to the cave.
It didn't seem quite as dark this time, as Merlin went inside, even though his eyes could hardly seem to stay open. He only hesitated as he was taken over to the bedding tucked up by one wall, a quiver of fear running through him about what might happen next. He gave no resistance as Balinor put him into the bed, laying him on his side to minimise the pressure on the worst of his wounds, and he carefully wrapped the rough sheets around Merlin's naked body to keep him warm. Merlin closed his eyes as he felt his hair being stroked.
"Sleep now, you need to rest," the Cave Man ordered him gently. His voice rumbled on, saying words that Merlin didn't understand, but they were soothing to listen to. It took mere seconds before Merlin sank into the merciful darkness.