Sighing in frustration, Merlin trudged through Faythall Forest. The prince, whose pace showed no signs of weariness, marched on ahead, treading the spongy pine covered ground with foolish certainty. He used his sword to push back the branches of the trees that barred his path. Occasionally, one or two of them would ping back and hit the disgruntled manservant in the face, leaving several cuts on his pale cheeks. But Merlin didn't even have the energy to complain anymore. They'd been wandering since shortly after noon, and it was almost sunset now. It had begun as many unfortunate events begin: hunting.
After catching a pheasant and two hares, Arthur had felt that he hadn't killed enough innocent creatures for the day and had set his sights on a nervous looking doe. Of course his stubbornness had resulted in them following the creature further and further into the depths of the forest. And before they knew it, the animal had vanished and neither of them had a clue whether they were and where they had left the horses. Feeling it his duty to make Arthur feel worse about the situation, Merlin made unhelpfully sarcastic comments whenever he saw fit. Eventually, the prince had lost his temper and snapped, leaving his manservant to follow him further through the forest, grumbling to himself continuously.
Merlin looked ahead, squinting as the setting sun burned his eyes, making it almost impossible to see where he was putting his feet.
"I thought Camelot was East." He shouted ahead, narrowly avoiding a large rabbit hole.
"That's from the Darkling Woods, Merlin. Faythall Forest is on the other side of Camelot; we need to be heading West." Arthur replied irritably. Merlin opened his mouth to make some form of comment but was cut short by the sight before him. The prince stopped, enabling Merlin to come up level to him. Together, the two men looked out from the ledge that they were now standing on.
They were only about ten metres above the pebbly banks of a vast lake. On the other side, the forest continued, breaking in places for collections of stones as the tall trees coated the side of the steep hill. Merlin looked to his friend who, surprisingly, was smiling.
"What?" Merlin asked, "Where are we now?"
"Camelot is on the other side of that fell." Arthur replied happily, letting a small laugh out, "I told you I know where we were going."
"How far?" the manservant said, ignoring the prince's last comment. Arthur shrugged.
"A days walk, maybe two depending on whether we can find a good path up that hill." He answered. Pointing down at the lake shore, he continued, "We'll set up here."
"I assume that means that I'll be setting up here." Merlin called after the prince as the young man bounded down the path to their right. After no reply was made, Merlin took it as a yes and set off after his friend.
Much to Merlin's surprise – and convenience – Arthur actually helped set up camp. The young prince, who seemed to have been given a fresh burst of energy, skipped off abruptly and returned ten minutes later, his strong arms cradling a large pile of wood. He sensibly left Merlin to cook one of the hares whilst he went paddling in the water. They ate together in relative silence. Any of Arthur's spirited comments were answered with a one or two word retort from a rather short-tempered Merlin. Eventually, the prince gave up and turned in for the night.
But the warlock was kept awake by his thoughts. He couldn't help but look willingly out at the lake and quietly wish that this were the lake of Avalon. It had been distracting him all night and, if he were being truthful, it was beginning to upset him. The silence and the stillness of the air were stifling and it was forcing him to think of what he had left there: Freya. When he retrieved Excalibur from he impossible grasp he had, to say the least, been rather disappointed when all he had seen was her arm.
But he hadn't had much of a chance to think it over at the time, or since then. There had been a huge clean up operation in Camelot which had consumed every single minute of Merlin's time, meaning that his thoughts were rarely his own. But now none of that mattered. They were miles from Camelot, alone by a lake that looked like the lake of Avalon and Merlin could finally think. He spent the hour or so before he fell asleep just sitting by the fire and thinking of the soul mate that he'd lost prematurely, of what they could have been if they'd been given the chance.
It was no surprise that he dreamt of her that night.
He was woken by the smell of burning and the sound of murmured cursing. The young manservant forced his eyes open. Blinking in the early morning light, Merlin found himself splayed awkwardly beside the burning fire. Still groggy, it took him a little longer than was sensible to realise that the heat of the flames was burning the right side of his face. Merlin mustered all the energy that he could find and pushed himself from the pebbly ground and slid onto the stump of wood he had been using the previous night as a chair. Arthur sat across from him with the hill behind his back and a rather crusty looking leg of hare in his hand.
"The concept was simple enough." The prince commented, waving the meat in the air, "But it seems looks can be deceiving." Merlin blinked at him, taking in his friend's failure with disdain. He watched as Arthur scraped the blackened edges from his food, whilst studying Merlin's face cautiously.
Once most of the meat was clean, the prince held it out to his friend, "Here." But Merlin only shook his head.
"Not hungry." He replied flatly. Now noticing the greyish hue to his manservant's face, Arthur frowned.
"You'll need to keep up your strength for the walk." He insisted, continuing when his friend didn't react, "Are you alright, Merlin?" Forcing a smile, the young man nodded his answer and, to avoid the prince's gaze, he picked up a stick and began poking at the rocks beneath his feet. The two men fell into familiar silence quickly, Arthur chewing at the overdone meat and Merlin doing anything to avoid looking into the eyes of his master.
"Who's Freya?" Arthur asked. Merlin's head snapped up and he promptly turned a deep shade of red.
"Freya?" he repeated disbelievingly. Arthur smirked, nodding his head. Merlin quickly shook his, "Nobody; I don't know anyone called Freya." The prince raised an eyebrow.
"Really?" he asked suspiciously. Merlin nodded and so Arthur continued, "Well that's a bit odd, seeing as you were saying her name in your sleep." By now, the warlock's heart was in his mouth and he could do no more than stutter.
"I – I was?" he asked. The young prince nodded as he laughed.
"Oh… Freya… Oh… Oh… Freya…" Arthur moaned, closing his eyes and panting melodramatically after each elongated sound.
Merlin scowled disapprovingly at his master, who reopened his eyes and gave a stupidly wide grin to the annoyed young man before him. The prince, seemingly loving his servant's reaction, continued, "Don't worry, Merlin. All men have feelings like these."
"You sound like my mother." Merlin snorted, deciding to ignore Arthur's sarcasm.
"Your mother?" Well, that must have been an awkward conversation." The prince commented.
"Is it ever not awkward?" Merlin retorted wittily.
"True." Arthur laughed, eliciting a forced smile from his friend. Shaking his head, the young man continued, "No, but really: who is she?"
"You've met her." Merlin replied simply, his face hardening.
"Not your mother; I mean Freya." Arthur corrected him.
"So do I." The manservant insisted. The prince frowned.
"I've met her?" he repeated, studying Merlin's expression as the young man looked to the ground.
"Well, met her, killed her; it's the same thing if you're an arrogant prince." The warlock snapped, forcefully ramming his stick into the pebbles.
Breezing over the young servant's insult with uncharacteristic ease, Arthur stuttered over his words.
"I did what?" he stammered. Merlin kept his head down, glaring at the ground with such intensity that it was surprising that it was still in tact. Arthur ran his fingers through his hair, "Merlin, I… I don't know what to say. If I'd know…"
"If you'd known it wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference." The warlock muttered bitterly.
"It would have made all the difference in the world." The prince argued sternly, "I would never have laid a finger on her if I'd known. It would be like… you killing Gwen; I know you could never do that." Merlin gave a single blunt head nod as his reply, but his jaw didn't unclench. Tentatively, Arthur continued, "Who was she?"
"The druid girl." Merlin answered. The prince's heart skipped a beat and he could only blink in shock.
"The… the bastet." He said. Merlin looked up into an appalled Arthur's eyes.
"She couldn't help it!" he protested. His head dropped back down as he continued with a heavy heart, "I loved her. I still do." Arthur regarded his friend with some form of guilty pity. It was heart-breaking to see him like this. He'd never thought of Merlin as the type to fall in love before, but now he couldn't see why he had ever assumed that in the first place.
As the prince's thoughts whirred around his head, he suddenly noticed that his friend was shuddering violently. At first, he thought that Merlin was having some kind of post-traumatic fit, but on closer inspection, he could see that the young man was actually crying. Unsure of what to do, Arthur swallowed loudly. But he didn't have to act before Merlin spoke.
"I took her to a lake. I put her in a boat and I…" Merlin's explanation was cut off as his words became stuck in his throat. He moaned quietly, attempting to regain some control over his own voice. Finally, taking a deep breath, he continued, "I burnt it." The young man furiously wiped the tears from his face and looked into the awe-filled eyes of his master. Arthur simply nodded, not entirely certain that he could muster the sensitivity to make a helpful or comforting comment. Merlin looked out at the lake, "This lake… it looks the same… I can't take it!" The manservant leapt up at his final words and, in a sudden rage, he kicked the stones on the ground into the water.
Although he could no longer see the young man's face, Arthur could tell that his very heart and soul were falling apart. He knew what it was to keep feelings from everyone, and he understood how hard that was. As though some greater being was taking over his body, Arthur stood up. Slowly, he made his way over to where Merlin was looking out over the still water. After a minute or so of silence, in which the prince tried to compose a vaguely reassuring sentence, he spoke.
"You did the right thing, burning her here." He said gently, "I'm sure she would've been grateful. It's really beautiful." Arthur looked to his friend, only to see Merlin shake his head as he bit his finger and let out a strangled whimper. The prince stretched out his arm and rubbed the warlock's shoulder. But that only made him cry more. Merlin's legs began to shake and his whole body was wracked with his heart-broken sobs.
And in one unforeseeable movement, the young prince engulfed his friend in what can only be described as Albion's most touching hug.