Arthur had finally found a use for Merlin's fumbling, bumbling, noisy way. Although he'd never let on, Arthur was rather impressed with himself. Everything was downhill from there.
They'd only been out hunting rabbit.
Arthur had finally found a use for Merlin's fumbling, bumbling, noisy way. Although he'd never let on, Camelot's prince was rather impressed with himself.
He simply told Merlin that they were hunting deer and that he must be 'stone quiet and stalk still'. Merlin being Merlin, this fairly guaranteed a grunting, rustling, tripping, manservant dropping bits and bobs of hunting gear in his wake. Lovely small game animals were flushed left and right. Last time they were out, Arthur managed to take a pheasant and a fine fat hare with two rapid-fire shots from his bow. The prince had had no idea his errant manservant could be so useful! Of course, it wasn't on purpose, but beggars can't be choosers.
They'd wandered amicably quite a goodly distance by the time Arthur thought to turn back.
"We'd better head back. It's near sunset and even if we make good time—which with you Merlin is nearly always impossible—we are at least an hour out from the castle."
"You know, sire, if you'd like me to move more quickly, you could always help me carry some of this stuff of yours." Merlin bit out from behind an armload of gear topped by a rabbit…Arthur's dinner tomorrow most likely.
The prince smirked and poked his servant along, one gloved finger prodding annoyingly between Merlin's shoulder blades. "Me? Carry the gear? I'll be sure to take that under advisement. Now, hop to it."
The bandits had been cleverer than most, by half.
As the boys ambled along, annoying each other as only they could, there was an enormous rustling in the undergrowth behind them; in a great rush of panting breath and swirling, torn skirts, a thin and plain looking young woman burst onto the path just as the prince turned.
"Help! Oh, please, you must help me!" The woman panted—eyes begging Arthur "They will kill me!"
"What? Madam, please. What has happened?" The prince spoke in a voice honed especially for potentially hysterical noble-women. No sooner had the words passed his lips than Arthur drew his sword with the fluid grace of years of practice. He peered over this frightened woman's head, into the forest, the way she had come.
"There's no time sire! Please!"
"Not to fear, you are safe with us." Arthur's eyes found his servant's "Merlin?"
Merlin had already dropped his burden and had begun to feel about with his magic. He could detect no sorcery and allowed his guard down a hint. As Arthur faced the forest Merlin gamely herded the skittish other behind himself and, like Arthur, looked expectantly into the wood.
With a stealth that was surprising for such rag-tag looking men, two armed ruffians seemed to melt from the forest.
One look and it was clear these were desperate men seeming to have little to lose.
In stark contrast to the tattered brigands with their rusty weapons, Arthur nearly glowed. Without a moment's pause he strode into the melee, sword flashing. This was what he'd been born to do. To defend those who could not defend themselves, to hold his life out in front of that of his subjects.
Merlin understood in a way that most did not that the fairest of nobility—of which he knew Arthur to be a shining example—were responsible for all and would lay their lives down in an instant. Not for silver like a servant or glory like a knight—but for duty and the love of the people. People they'd often never met.
It came as no surprise to Merlin, although he could hear his ward gasp behind him, as Arthur quickly dispatched the larger attacker with one long slash. After the briefest parry he had the other down on one knee. Arthur's sword flashed downward, the killing stroke inevitable.
The maid gasped again, her delicate hand coming to rest tentatively on Merlin's shoulder. He turned quickly to her and was blinded by the blazing, setting sun.
As Merlin raised an arm to shade his eyes, his face was bathed in the orange light, a typical smile blooming as he turned to tell the damsel that she was indeed safe and that he was at her service.
"Madam." Merlin threw in a deferential nod. Not quite a bow, but really, he didn't even bow to the prince. "Although he's a bit high on himself, Arthur certainly can hold his own with a sword. Now…"
In the hot orange light, Merlin never saw the wrath flash across the woman's thin and dirty face as Arthur yanked his sword from a dying man. Never saw her hand dart to her sleeve.
For a moment, the most loyal servant's mind could not reconcile the slight woman in front of him with the stark blow he felt just above his belt. On the right.
As one, a breath burst loudly from Merlin's lips and he looked down, expecting to see a tiny, white-hot, fist sinking into his guts.
Merlin tore his eyes from the plain wooden hilt protruding from his side. Not good.
She was already gone, into the plummeting sun. The woman, the small bag of supplies, and what was to have been Arthur's rabbit-dinner. He was equal parts pained and surprised. Arthur'd have shared the supplies if she had just asked, Merlin thought. He would have.
Fear crossed his face as the boy steeled himself to look down again. Maybe he'd been mistaken.
to be continued…you know it
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