Last chapter, and now my mind is working again, I am going back to the longer stories, and will be able to get back to that.
The cart wasn't moving, they were resting for the moment. Arthur had felt the horse being unhitched from the cart. The track might have been a secret but it was harder going, pulling a cart as heavy as Halig's. They only had one animal to rely on. As far as Arthur could work out they would stay as long as it took for the horse to recover, then they would carry on.
Arthur tried to calm the rising panic, and he didn't bother trying to fight the drug in his system. He could still move, and it wasn't rendering him unconscious. There was just a powerful feeling of lethargy, when he tried to move his limbs were heavy and uncoordinated. Arthur guessed that if he tried to get up, he wouldn't get further than his knees. If he stood up, he'd fall. So he didn't attempt it.
When, and he used that word sternly, the others caught up with him, he would need what energy he had then. So he let the drug work its way into his system. Since he didn't know how long the affects would last, it might be possible that he would be better co-ordinated in an hour or so. He needed to be able to move. Most of the fight to free him would be down to the others, especially Merlin. He had released Freya from the cage, so Merlin would be able to handle it again. There was only three people guarding him, the four knights could handle that fight.
As long as they didn't make it to Camelot, and find a patrol, then Arthur knew he was fine. It was another day until they would reach the boarder, and they would be back on the main path by then. The knights would realise that they were ahead of them, and would realise that Halig had somehow avoided them. Merlin might even be able to track him, he could do so many other things it was hard to imagine Merlin not being able to perform any task he wanted. Except keeping a sword in his hand, Arthur thought to himself with amusement. But he now knew Merlin wasn't defenceless by a long shot.
He listened to the sounds of the three men moving around. They were feeding and watering the horse, as well as themselves. Tilted his head and watched them carefully. The three of them were sat together, clearly having some kind of intense conference. Halig was leading the discussion, issuing instructions. The two goons nodded, and commented on occasion. They were certainly planning something. Arthur didn't like the thought of that, he strained to listen to what was being said, but they were out of his hearing range.
Worry started to stir in the pit of his stomach. If they were planning something they didn't want him to hear, then it had to be bad, and probably involved the others. Arthur's first assumption, his gut instinct, was the correct one. Merlin.
Halig certainly didn't like him. Merlin had made a fool of him over the druid girl, and he had said to Arthur Merlin was worth just as much money as Arthur was. His father would be more than pleased if Halig returned him alive, and Merlin dead. Arthur's breath hitched, there was no way to warn Merlin that it was a trap.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur forced himself to move, worry fuelling his movements. If they were setting something up to trap Merlin, then Arthur couldn't wait. He had to act, he told himself resolutely, as he tried to sit up, and then slumped back down. His head felt like a ton weight, and he just couldn't co-ordinate his limbs. Halig heard the sounds of his movement and looked up.
"Get the horse hitched up again," he ordered the two men. They obeyed without question. Arthur's worry went up a notch as Halig moved over to him, gazing at him through the bars of the cage. He lent his forearm on one of the bars and smirked at Arthur.
"Won't be long until you're home again."
Arthur gave a heavy breath but he couldn't form any words. Halig chuckled and turned away. Arthur felt the slight movement as the horse was re-hitched and the animal stirred restlessly. The men were breaking camp quickly, Arthur listened to the sounds, but didn't lift his head to try and look. But his head rolled to the side as the heard the call from within the forest. The sharp bark of a fox rang out through the trees. Arthur knew it, he recognised the tone immediately. It was Gareth. The call rang out again, each yip echoing around the woods, Arthur blinked. They were moving into position around him. Their likely approach plan would be two each side, with Merlin taking position with one of the pairs.
From the other side, a reply came as the call of a cookoo filtered through. That was Robert, close enough that he probably had Arthur in his line of sight. Arthur again struggled to move, but didn't put too much effort in. If one of them could see him, probably all of them could by now, then he needed to convey the fact that he was unable to help. He wouldn't be quick enough to do anything of use.
He most certainly wasn't as a hand latched onto his hair. Pain ripped through his scalp as whoever had hold of him yanked him towards the side of the cage. Tears rushed his eyes, but he couldn't yelp; the best he managed was a moan. Halig's face came into view and Arthur felt the cold steel of a blade press against his neck. Arthur looked up, forcing himself to focus and Halig grinned down at him.
"Do you think I'm stupid?"
It was probably a good thing that Arthur couldn't answer that question, but he gave a slight snort that conveyed humour. Halig pressed the knife in harder. Arthur felt like pointing out that the bounty hunter wouldn't get anything if he was dead, but clearly the man had considered that point.
"I don't think it will do your case any good if I take his body home and tell Uther I couldn't save him from you."
"He won't believe that," Arthur struggled to say, and then he grunted as his hair was yanked again.
"Your little prince here, thinks Uther won't believe it. I don't think you can guarantee that. He thinks you're all traitors! And do you really want to take the risk."
No, they didn't, they wouldn't, Arthur thought. He remained unsurprised as Arthur saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Jonas and Gareth came from one side. Rupert and Robert walked out from the other direction. Merlin was with them, Arthur guessed, as he wasn't by Jonas. He discovered that he wasn't by the others either as Halig asked.
"And where's the little sorcerer?"
The four knights kept their eyes on the scene before them. The bars were wide enough that Halig had pulled Arthur's head through and keeping a tight grip of him, left the prince vulnerable. None of them gave away Merlin's presence. Halig smiled and looked around, he nodded at the nearest man, who took hold of Arthur's hair and gripped the knife. Arthur stayed still, he shifted, looking like he was putting up a weak fight. All the knights registered the signal to stay as they were, until Merlin did something. Halig stepped forward and scanned the area, heading decisively towards a large tree as there was a scuffle from behind it.
He hauled Merlin out, propping him up as the boy staggered. Halig dragged Merlin by the collar, with Merlin practically on all fours.
"Don't like my new security then?" Halig asked him, laughing. "The lock repels magic, I had some especially made."
Merlin shook his head and sagged against Halig's legs. His eyes seemed confused and disorientated. Arthur turned and looked at him, and again thought, that didn't seem like Merlin.
What the hell did they do now? Arthur thought. And then Merlin looked up, and just briefly met his eyes.
Merlin had felt the power recoil the moment he tried to blast the lock. He had thought it would be distraction enough, even with a knife at Arthur's throat. Halig wouldn't do that even as a very last resort. Arthur dead was worth nothing to him. Merlin knew that the rest of them would give in the moment Arthur seemed in danger. Protecting him was their job, and they were used to taking orders. Merlin was a little different.
He followed Arthur's commands, to wash clothes, muck out stables and many other things. When it came to the crunch, Merlin had a different view. Halig was bluffing. He would not dare to take Arthur's corpse back to Camelot, and he certainly couldn't spin any lie about the knights killing him.
Merlin knew the man wanted him. All four men that could fight were disarmed and he should have been felled by the lock. Merlin admitted if he had put his power to it, the strength of the backlash might have hurt a bit, but he had felt the power. He pushed against it, just to see what would happen and if Halig knew when he would strike he might have got him.
But he hadn't. Halig didn't know about magic. Not enough to protect himself from Merlin. Merlin did what was expected, he played almost dead, and slumped down against the tree, making noise. He wasn't surprised when Halig himself came and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him out. Merlin stayed limp, trying to keep to his hands and knees. Arthur still joked about Merlin being able to walk on his knees, now it proved useful. Merlin allowed himself to be dragged to the centre of the clearing, and he looked around carefully.
The sense of the magic had been strong, radiating out from the lock. It was so bad, and so badly performed, that Merlin hadn't been able to hone it down beyond the cage, until he got close enough. He allowed his natural senses to spread out, and really, really, tried not to smirk.
Then he was shaken violently.
"Thought you could get the better of me did you?"
"I think I did," Merlin said. Halig shook him again, but Merlin's eyes stayed level, meeting Arthur's and the message was conveyed, but it had to get to the others. Arthur took a breath, pulled as much of his strength together as he could and reached out. He grabbed the man holding him and yanked him. Arthur didn't have all his strength, but the man lurched forward and his head cracked against one of the heavy bars. Then Arthur grabbed for the man's wrist, trying to ease it away. It probably didn't matter if he couldn't by now, people were moving, and then all jumped as Merlin provided a distraction.
Halig had got someone to treat his locks with magic. The door was secure, if you looked at the lock. On closer inspection Merlin could narrow the source of the magic down. It was deeply concentrated on the lock that held the cage closed. The door could be opened that way, but Merlin went for the weak link.
He made everyone jump as the hinges blasted apart, and the whirlwind ripped the door away from the cage. Air swirled around the doorway, buffeting everyone in the clearing. Splinters few out, and sparks rippled from the cage as Merlin's magic clashed with another person's. He didn't know who they were, and he didn't care. They were an amateur compared to him.
The horse jumped and trotted forward and as Arthur felt that he held onto the goon's wrist, pushing it against the bar of the cage. He was dragged a few paces before the goon slumped down, knocked out by Gareth. Rupert took the other man. Halig flew across the clearing, crashing against a tree and slumping down to the floor, sprawling out on the ground.
Merlin was up on his feet, running towards the cage and Arthur. As Halig slowly stirred Jonas efficiently smacked him on the head and the bounty hunter dropped like a stone.
"Arthur, Arthur?" Merlin said. He took a grip of Arthur's shoulders pulling his head back through the cage and wincing as it bumped a little. He needn't have bothered worrying as Arthur looked up with bleary eyes and a cocky grin and said.
"Oh, I am so glad to see you."
"You too," Merlin said with relief. "Let's get out of here."
Arthur tried to sit up, wavering a little, so Merlin was forced to support him. Arthur's weight sagged against his, and they both collapsed in a heap.
"Merlin!" Arthur objected.
"Not my fault you're so heavy!" Merlin snapped.
"Don't you start implying I'm fat!"
"Jonas, you'll have to carry him. We can put him over his saddle."
"Oh no, you're not," Arthur protested, his words starting to slur a little as the drug in his system subdued the sudden rush of adrenaline the fight had caused. Jonas hesitated, glancing at Merlin, who looked back at him with an implacable expression.
"Just do it."
Jonas obeyed, between them they manhandled a complaining Arthur to the door and eased him into a sitting position, before tipping him over Jonas' shoulder.
"Hey!" Arthur mumbled in protest, huffing as Jonas shifted the prince's weight to steady himself. "This is undignified."
"Worse than being taken back to Camelot in chains?" Merlin snapped at him.
"Sorry, Sire," Jonas said.
"You're not putting me over my horse like this."
"Yes, we are, I've done it before," Merlin snapped.
Huh?" Arthur mumbled in confusion.
"What do we do with these three?" Gareth asked. The three men were slumped in various places in the clearing. Merlin glared at them without much concern, although his conscience would not allow him to do anything brutal to them.
"Just leave them, we'll be long gone by the time they rouse. Release the horse, let's leave them without any transport, just in case."
"I'll bring him with me. Malek might like him," Robert said, and the three of them went to do as Merlin asked, as he followed Jonas and the rather disgruntled prince.
"Shut up, Arthur!" Merlin snapped.
"If I were you," Jonas murmured to the man he was carrying. "I'd do as you were told."
He looked up at Arthur's voice, balancing the firewood he had collected in his arms, and scooping up a few more branches. Merlin did feel a flash of amusement as Arthur also scooped up a few branches.
"What?" Merlin asked, straightening up.
"Jonas sent me to help you, and said something about it being my turn to get yelled at."
It looked like Arthur was bracing himself for that, clearly having heard how angry Merlin had been that the entire situation had happened. Arthur wasn't, by the look of it, about to attempt to come up with any excuses or dismissals over Merlin's anger.
"What did you think you were doing?" Merlin snapped at him. "You are supposed to be being careful."
"It wasn't expected that we would find someone who would know me."
"For god's sake, Arthur! We have to expect it, which means you can't go randomly walking into places without making sure it is safe first, or keeping me with you when you do!"
"Gareth and Rupert were with me. And they didn't say anything."
"Of course they wouldn't. They are used to taking orders from you. To them you are still the Crown Prince of Camelot. You're not!"
"I am!" Arthur yelled back, his voice rising in stress. "Of course I am!"
"Well, maybe, but if someone captures you and takes you back in chains, how is that going to look? For heavens sake, think about it! You can't wander around doing what you like, we have to be careful!"
"I always had to be, Merlin!" Arthur yelled back.
"Not so I've noticed."
"You can't keep hold of a sword for more than thirty seconds. I can defend myself."
"I can do it better! I have been doing!" Merlin bellowed at him, he glared at Arthur, who suddenly looked a little timid. It was such an odd expression that Merlin couldn't help but notice it.
"I know," Arthur said. "But I can't not be capable of looking after myself. Why didn't they just say something?"
"Because they won't Arthur," Merlin said calmly, his temper deflating. "You're the one that gives them orders, they will follow whatever you say. They need to start saying things, like I do."
"No one says things like you do Merlin. You're the only one, I don't know why."
"I think that pattern was set the day we first met," Merlin said. "And I know you can't help it, but you bully people into what you want to do. Gwen said it."
"That you were a bully."
Arthur's face dropped, he looked horrified. "Gwen thinks that."
"Not now, obviously," Merlin said. "But before she got to know you. I don't suppose you can help it, but you have to listen when we tell you it's not safe. They have to start telling you."
Arthur nodded, looking miserable. "The best plan is to go further north, for a while at least, out of Camelot's range."
"You don't want to."
"Of course I don't want to. Without me there, Camelot is in danger. I need to be close by in case the kingdom, in case my father, needs me."
"Arthur, if we need to get there, we have good transport."
"Stories take time to travel Merlin, by the time we hear it could be too late."
Merlin stepped forward. He couldn't stay mad at Arthur, all he had been doing in the tavern was trying to get information. He needed to know about his kingdom, any stories, or rumours of what was happening. It was like an obsession, or a drug, and the withdrawl was hard on him. Merlin felt the same, Camelot had become his home, and he was worried about Gaius.
He didn't think that Uther would really hurt him, nor Morgana. They both had Gaius hostage, it would do neither of them any good to hurt the physician, and they could both use him against Merlin. Most of the time, Merlin tried not to think about it. He had committed himself to protecting Arthur, so he had better start doing that a little better.
"I know. I know we need to try and find out what is happening but we can't stay too close, we have to move further away, just for a while."
"How long is a while?" Arthur asked.
"I don't know, but I don't like the idea of going to far either. But my priority is you, so we have to do it."
That ended the conversation and they went back to camp, ate and then Robert finally asked.
"So, we're all okay now?"
"Yes," Merlin said. "Although, you lot have to start telling him, if you think something is not a good idea, and you need to listen."
Arthur nodded, Merlin sighed.
"We'll just put this down to being a bit of a close shave."
Robert groaned, most of them rolled their eyes and Arthur gave Merlin a light shove.
"What?" Merlin asked.
"That is not something you say to people who have spent the last two weeks shearing sheep," Robert announced.
"Oh no," Merlin said, and then he yelped as Arthur wrapped an arm around his neck, locking Merlin against his side and then proceeded to rub his knuckles on Merlin's head.
"Hey, no! Stop it! Aaahh!"
Merlin yelped as Jonas joined in, digging into Merlin's ribs and locating the point where he knew Merlin was ticklish.
"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" Merlin yelped, trying not to giggle as Jonas tickled him. Neither person relented and the other three laughed as they watched. Merlin eventually managed to kick Jonas, so he fell back, and he wriggled free of Arthur, probably because Arthur let him. Merlin glared at him, his face now flushed and hair ruffled. Arthur grinned, so did the knights.
"You are horrible people; I honestly don't know why I bother!"
"I don't know," Arthur drawled. "Is it something about destiny?"
"And honey cakes?" Robert asked, waving the batch he had just made.
Merlin sat down and pouted before answering.
"Yeah, okay, you got me there."
"Good," Arthur said, with a smirk and a ruffle of Merlin's hair.