"C'mon, now, Harv," Odo called across the mill. He pitched his voice just so to be heard of the churning of the water through the leet below them and the steady rhythm of the wheels meeting perfectly and driving the two stones. "Hurry on now, lad. We've three sacks yet still and your sister'll be having supper on the table, I imagine."
The boy, Harvey, came hobbling forwards, bent nearly double with a bag of grain slung awkwardly over his bony shoulders. He was tired; the day had been hot and inside the mill it had been stifling, to where Harvey had torn off his tunic by the fourth hour and continued the work in his worn braies alone. Looking up at his father, though, Harvey thought it might not have been such a good idea. Odo was looking at him with that strange look of pity again, squinting at the bruises on his chest that he'd garnered from the accident. Harvey let the sack of grain drop to the ground next to the main stone with a loud, weighty thump!
"Is something wrong, Father?"
Odo seemed to rouse himself from some day dream. "Of course not, son," he said, smiling.
Harvey smiled back, but was not assured by his father's word. His father was often distant and at night Harvey would have to fetch him inside, pleading with him to come away from the burial mound, beneath which his mother was said to lay. Odo would look at him such sorrow in those moments that it made Harvey want to cry.
It was early spring and outside, along the banks of the rushing river, the apple trees blossomed in an array of soft pinks and riotous magentas. In a few months, the trees would be heavily laden with apples and the house would be full of the smell of baking.
Despite it being early in the year, the mill was thriving as people from the outlying villages drove their carts in, laden with sacks of grain they'd kept safe and dry in their storehouses over the winter. "We need it right-quick," the people would instruct Odo and Harvey would roll his eyes. Everyone always needed it done right-quick. Together, he and Odo set the grain to the stone, and Harvey watched the wheat spin, the miraculous mechanisms grinding the pieces into the fine flour that could be made into breads and cakes, or used to thicken stews in wintertime.
As a miller's son, he knew he should understand the way the wheels connected and turned, the way the stones worked to grind the grain, but he didn't. He would enter the tall, stone building every morning with Odo and would find himself awestruck all over again. It was like the magic that he could feel prickling beneath his skin-wonderful yet still a mysterious and something that scared him a little, if he was being honest with himself.
He'd slipped and used his magic once in front of his father since the man's original admonishment never to practice it. It had proved too much of a temptation and he liked showing his sister the little tricks he discovered he could do, like hovering things in the air with nothing but a thought. She would applaud and smile so widely that he imagined her face might crack. Of course, she never said a word, but she made a great many signs to Harvey, signs he imagined he should know, that suggested that his tricks pleased her. It was one of these tricks that Odo had walked in on. In his surprise, Harvey lost concentration and the ceramic saucer had fallen to the floor and cracked into a dozen or so peices. He barely had a moment to stutter out an apology before his father had him by the back of the collar. He had dragged him outside, breaking off a stick from a nearby apple tree and striking at where Harvey's bare legs stuck out of the ends of his braies. Harvey had tried to dance away from the blows, feeling cowed and ashamed, while at the same time he fought with the magic inside him that was eager to lash out and defend him.
It wasn't fair, he told himself. There was nothing bad about magic, was there?
Odo had dropped the stick, ending the beating just as Harvey could feel the tears prickling in the corner of his eyes, and thrown his arms around Harvey's shoulders, pulling his son into a fierce embrace. "I couldn't stand to lose you, boy," he'd huffed into Harvey's dark hair.
Harvey's anger had died, then, the magic dying along with it, but his legs still stung. "I know," he mumbled in reply. "I'm sorry."
"There we are, the last of it," Odo announced jovially, knotting the last sack of flour. His voice effectively pulled Harvey from his thoughts before the young man truly had time to begin to brood. "I'll deliver it all to Wilby myself in the morning before breakfast. I'll get that old goat to pay me if its the last thing I do. No more trades."
"I could take it," Harvey offered, eagerly. He knew that Wilby the Bodger lived in town, a place he had not been to since the accident, and he was eager to take in the sights. And there was something else, tugging at his chest, tingling with his magic. In his head, he almost imagined he heard a whisper, Find him, find him. "I could take the grain to Wilby Bodger tomorrow, Father. Then you could perhaps have time to sweep the chimney, like Aldith's been wanting."
"No, I think not, Harvey. You'd be hard-pressed to get him to pay you."
"I could do it," he insisted. "I can be very persuasive."
"No, Harv, I'll take it. People might see you."
Harvey bristled. Was his father ashamed of him now? Hiding him away from the town so they wouldn't know of his affliction? "What does it matter if people see me?" he snapped. "Won't they be glad to know I've regained my strength?"
"I said no, Harvey, and that's an end to it!"
With the stubborn setting his jaw, he dutifully replied, "Yes, Father. As you say, Father" and stormed from the mill building, stomping across the grass towards their home on the other side of the river. All the while, in the back of his mind, the voice continued whispering, Find him, find him.
It'd been almost three weeks since anyone in Camelot had seen Merlin and Arthur had never seen Gaius so despondent. The old man went about his rounds in silence, moving achingly slow through the castle corridors. Always, he would end his run by stopping at Arthur's chambers to inquire if there was any news of his ward.
There never was, but he persisted in hoping against hope.
If Arthur was honest with himself, he would have agreed with the whisperings of the belowstairs servants, and might have allowed himself to take comfort in the words of Lancelot and Gwaine as they sat together in Merlin's old room, sharing stories and laughing. If Arthur was sensible he would have agreed with them all, acknowledged that Merlin was not coming back to Camelot, but Arthur didn't want to be sensible. Merlin had been with him on a patrol of the border, riding his brown mare brazenly alongside Arthur, far ahead of the knights. Occasionally, he'd shout a joke back towards Gwaine-generally at Arthur's expense-and Arthur would histrionically complain about servants being seen and not heard. His manservant seemed unimpressed with the comments, though, and had called him a prat and childishly blew a raspberry in the prince's direction. "If you were worried about servitude, you'd have fired me years ago," he joked. Arthur stayed silent, not wanting to agree.
The border itself was quiet, despite rumors otherwise. Their ride through the woods quickly became a pleasant outing, rather than a chore, with the knights all laughing and shouting, singing bawdy songs and each trying to outdo each other in telling the dirtiest jokes, just to watch Merlin's ears grow increasingly red. It was Percival who won this contest, much to everyone's surprise and chagrin.
The trail followed the side of a deep ravine that dropped hundreds of feet to a rushing river below, swift-moving and frigid still from the spring thaw. On the other side of the path were the dark woods, somehow seeming far more menacing they had a moment ago and Arthur caught Merlin throwing glances into the shadows, following something moving inside the trees that only he seemed to see. Once, though, he caught Lancelot driving his mount suddenly forward to reach out and touch Merlin's arm. A look passed between the knight and servant before Lancelot fell back again. Every once in a while, Merlin's head would snap round to some point amongst the trees, like a hunting dog catching a scent, but rather then seek out whatever was drawing his attention, he would shy further away, moving steadily closer to the cliffside.
The joking stopped as Elyan called out, "Mind your step, Merlin!" before Arthur had a chance to.
"There's something wrong with this part of the forest," Merlin replied, sounding distant. "It's full of ghosts, mylings, and wights. I can see them. They're so angry."
Something in Merlin's eyes made Arthur want to shudder, but he brushed it off. "Aren't you too old for fairytales, Merlin?"
Merlin wasn't listening. He was cautiously moving away from the tree line, eyes wide and locked at some creature only he could see. Under his horse's back hoof, a few rocks dislodged from the cliff face, tumbling down the ravine, so that her back leg was suddenly kicking at the air. The mare threw itself back from the edge with a whinny of surprise and, for a moment, Merlin struggled to control the beast.
"I'm fine, we're fine," he assured them, though his heart was still pounding in his throat. He reached down to pat his horse's neck and whispered soothing, magic-laced words into her ear.
"Stay away from the edge," Arthur ordered, driving his mount forward again.
"Aye, sire," he replied, but his eyes never left the forest.
They carried on, following the trail until he began to narrow, so that they had to ride single-file. Arthur cast glances behind him and each time he did he could see that Merlin appeared even more tense. He sat straight as an arrow in the saddle, barely looking ahead at the path in front of him, his focus entirely on the twisting silhouettes of the trees.
It was for this reason that neither he nor Arthur noticed the woman standing in thier path until she suddenly began shrieking. "Traitorous snake!" she shouted, pointing a crooked finger at the group. She was dirty and bruised, her dress torn and head bleeding. A necklace of amber beads and what Arthur swore were human teeth hung loosely around her neck. "You allow the slaughter of your people by keeping the company of murderers!" The magic crackled in the air, causing the hairs on Arthur's neck to stand on end. "Stand up and be counted, you coward!"
Her hand shot out and for a moment Arthur thought that this would finally be the end of him, but then Merlin must have shifted on his mount, moved Arthur just so, because suddenly his manservant and his horse were both thrown off the path by a terrible blast of magic. Arthur shouted as he watched rider and mount seperate in the air, striking against the cliff face, before plunging into the freezing water below.
"Merlin!" called Gwaine and Lancelot, both already frantically seeking a way down to the water.
Arthur, though, could only think of his rage, bubbling inside his chest as he drew his blade, and turned to find-nothing. The witch was gone.
The knights all gathered at the edge of the path, squinting down at the frothy, white waters below them. "I see nothing," said Elyan.
"No one could survive that fall," Leon said, sensibly. Gwaine looked up murderously at his fellow knight, but Leon purposefully ignored him. "I'm sorry, sire. He was a friend to us all."
They searched the ravine anyway, finding the bloodied body of the mare washed up a mile downstream, but never did they find a single sign of Merlin. Defeated, they returned to Camelot. Arthur spent the night sitting across the table from Gaius as the old man wept for the loss of his ward.
Arthur didn't cry, though. He refused.