Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin. All rights belong to the BBC.
There is a reason for the rating on this, you have been warned. Violence, sexual abuse, torture... It's dark. If you think that will disturb you, please, do not read.
It was extremely late by the time an exhausted Merlin stumbled into the physician's chambers. His face was drawn and pinched, huge dark circles shadowed his eyes. What little weight he had to lose was gone, and his whole posture seemed to scream defeat. It was more than apparent the events of the last eight months had caught up with him, his legs working on automatic as he pushed open the door and all but collapsed onto a stool.
How could it have been eight months already? How could Arthur have been gone for eight months? One glance over at his equally exhausted guardian, and Merlin could see the same tiredness reflected in Gaius' eyes. If he thought he was struggling to keep going, it must be nothing compared to the physician. Looking at him in the dim candle light, Merlin couldn't help but think of how old Gaius looked.
"I'll set out again at first light." He mumbled, dropping his head onto his folded arms and leaning on the table. Despite his mind yelling at him to get straight back out there, his body was screaming at him to rest. He knew he shouldn't have been using magic to the extent he had, not with how tired he was. But then again, he hadn't exactly meant to be discovered in the bandits' camp either, and it had been his only option.
"Merlin, when are you going to stop?"
"When I've found him." Pain immediately flitted over Gaius' face. He had heard those words before. Coming from a man who was nothing more than a broken shell these days. If they had thought Morgana's disappearance had driven the King to extremities, it was nothing compared to how broken he now was that his son had vanished. Of course, it didn't help that Morgana's betrayal had still been more than fresh in his mind when Arthur hadn't returned from a hunting trip. It was only because Merlin had been sick with the flu that he hadn't been out there with his master as normal; something Gaius knew his young ward was still beating himself up about. But both physician and prince had strictly forbidden him to even put so much as a toe on the floor.
But despite still being sick, Merlin had been one of the first out into the forest the next day when it was clear something had happened to the prince. According to what Lancelot had said, he had left the group behind as he had cantered into the woods, somehow knowing precisely where he needed to go. Gaius hadn't asked how, and Lancelot hadn't offered. They both knew. It had meant Merlin was the first to find what was left of Arthur's camp, his horse lying slaughtered over to one side. Even Gwaine had been pale and shaky when they had returned. There had been no sign of Arthur, and as a few days passed, it was clear this was no ransom. The prince had simply vanished.
Every day Merlin scoured the countryside looking for his master. Initially, groups of people – sometimes the Knights, sometimes mere commoners – had joined him, determined to find and bring home the much loved prince. But eventually, as the King slowly withdrew into himself more and more, Leon had been forced to make some rational decisions. The newly appointed Knights still took it in turns to accompany their friend, but they knew they were needed here. Word had spread of Arthur's disappearance and Uther's consequent lack of ruling, and it had come as no surprise when the attacks had started to flood in. The Knights were needed to do what they were supposed to do – defend the realm.
Still Merlin hadn't given up. His best friend was out there somewhere, he knew it. Despite the sympathetic looks he received from nearly everyone when he returned to Camelot, exhausted and spent, but alone, he would not give up. He knew that everyone believed Arthur to be dead, but the warlock knew that was not the case. He didn't know whether it was his magic, or the fact that Arthur was his destiny. All he knew was that the prince was still alive, and Merlin was not going to be giving up until he had found the man and brought him home. They had spent a year looking for Morgana when she had vanished. What was eight months in comparison?
"Merlin, you are going to kill yourself if you carry on like this." Despite the bluntness of his words, Gaius' tone was soft and gentle as he examined his ward with critical eyes. He had already had Gwaine turn up and demand answers for when Merlin was going to see sense with his never-ending desire to find Arthur, but the physician hadn't been able to give him any. All he could do was make sure he was waiting for the boy every time he returned, and try and mend some of the hurts he had received on his latest search. But what worried him more was the injuries he couldn't see. Every time Merlin returned alone, it was as if a little more of him had died.
"He's alive, Gaius, I know he is. I can't give up on him now."
"Don't you think he would want you to live your own life?"
"And abandon him?" Merlin's tone was harsh and dangerous, and for a moment, Gaius got a glimpse at what the numerous groups of bandits Merlin had encountered must have seen. He knew it was no coincidence that the number of attacks had dropped over the last few months. After all, Merlin had to start each search somewhere, and he wanted answers. With magic at his disposal and desperation running through his mind, it wasn't often he didn't get what he wanted. But none of them had the answers he was looking for. None of them were responsible for the prince's disappearance. In a way, Gaius dreaded the day Merlin found who was. If his magic was this lethal now, he didn't want to know what the once innocent boy would become when he found out who had taken his friend.
Merlin caught sight of the hurt and reproachful look on Gaius' face and suddenly realised what had come out of his mouth. He sighed heavily, sitting up a little and running his hand through his hair. For a brief moment, he shut his eyes, trying to regain control of himself. He was just so exhausted.
"I'm sorry, Gaius. I just...I can't leave him. Not now. Not after everything." Gaius looked at the young man for a long moment, sorrow in his eyes. He knew there was nothing he could say that was going to make Merlin stay in Camelot longer than he absolutely had to.
"I saw Gwen earlier." He took another stab at conversation, knowing that he couldn't let Merlin stay in the isolation he put himself in every time he left Camelot. "With Lancelot."
"Good." Merlin muttered, the slightest smile flickering momentarily onto his lips. It was gone so quickly that Gaius wasn't even sure whether he had seen it there. "She deserves to be happy. First Morgana and now Arthur? She needs someone she can rely on."
"And when Arthur returns..?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Merlin's tone was one that definitely put an end to the conversation, and Gaius couldn't help but wonder when the man who was like a son to him had suddenly become so certain, his voice echoing a new found authority. Whatever the end result of this was going to be, Merlin was not the same person as when Arthur had gone missing. For a long moment, silence reigned over the once carefree chambers. It was heavy and oppressing, and Gaius knew it was just getting worse each time Merlin returned. He sighed, standing up as he did so.
"I need to take the King a new draught. Get some sleep, Merlin." Merlin nodded, shutting his eyes to hide the tears pricking in the corners of his vision. How could he have come back empty handed once again? As Gaius began bustling around his chambers, Merlin watched him silently, feeling a wave of love for the old man. He would make it up to the physician one day, he swore to himself. But right now, Gaius was right. He needed sleep.
Dragging his feet up the stairs, Merlin crashed down onto his bed fully clothed. Within seconds, his exhausted mind had given into the welcoming pull of sleep.
Shackles bit into his wrists from where he was suspended from the ceiling. How long had he been here for now? Three days? Four? They had moved him not that long ago, but Arthur was finding it harder and harder to keep track of the days. He knew that he had been gone for a long time now. No doubt everyone had given up on him now, presumed him for dead. To be honest, Arthur wasn't sure whether he had given up on himself now. All that kept him sane was knowing that, despite the condition he was in, they still hadn't got what they wanted. They had certainly broken him, Arthur didn't so much as think about resisting any more. But somehow, even to this day, he had still managed to keep Camelot's closely guarded secrets just that, secret.
The burn on his shoulder pulsed and throbbed with every heartbeat, and from what their goading had implied, it would do forever. It would never fade, never ease. Instead just leaving the once confident prince branded a slave. He could feel it just as clearly as when they had first done it, and judging by the strange language that had poured from their mouths as one of the men had pressed the burning iron onto the previously undamaged skin, he knew that magic was involved somehow.
He wished he could at least reach the floor, let his feet take some of the weight his shoulders were screaming about. It would have been worse if they had done this from the beginning, because compared to then, Arthur was at least half of his previous size. He was bare-chested, the signs of abuse littered all over him. But even his breeches were practically hanging off him now, the rope being used to hold them on his waist getting tighter with each passing day. His face showed the signs of the torment that had been thrown on him since the first day of his capture, but very little could be seen of it. The room was too dark. So dark, in fact, Arthur couldn't even see his feet where they were dangling uselessly below him. One of his knees was swollen, and he knew that at least three toes on his left foot must be broken.
He heard the hiss in the air the second before he felt it. Immediately, his teeth gritted as he refused to make a sound. How long had it been since he had uttered any noise? Whether it was hurling abuse at his enemies or even a cry of pain as they continued to beat him, Arthur had not made a sound for what he reckoned he was at least two months now. He just had to keep focusing on that, not letting the slightest whimper cross his lips as the whip slashed across his exposed back, and it kept him sane.
He could feel the blood running down his back as he was flogged for at least the second time in the time he had been missing. They had obviously decided his previous wounds had closed up enough for them to risk it without killing him. That was something Arthur had noticed. No matter what they did, they were careful that he remained alive. To start with, Arthur couldn't work it out. But then he had realised it was never the same person beating him each day, and eventually, he had come to recognise some of them. Local bandits, outcast sorcerers, even mercenaries. All of those who had anything against Camelot had come to vent out their frustrations on the captured prince, and by the looks of it, a lot of gold was being exchanged in the process.
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, the whip stopped. There was the sound of light footsteps, a door opening, and then silence again. Arthur let his head hang, breathing erratically as he tried to control the pain lancing through him, his every nerve making it feel like he was on fire. Eventually he managed to control his frantic breathing and attempted to regain control of himself.
It was getting harder and harder though. The room was in complete darkness, and not a word had been spoken to him in three days. He knew it was magic being used to keep him alive, he could feel it spreading out from the burn. How else would he still be conscious after three days without food, water or sleep? The only contact he had was when someone decided to take out their anger on him. But they always used equipment of some sort, never once letting him feel human flesh. But they did it all in the darkness, never speaking a word.
Merlin woke with a gasp, a few hot tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes and rolling down his cheeks as he swung his legs out of bed. His back was tingling slightly, and he knew it was nothing to do with his constant excursions. When the dreams had started, he wasn't so sure. He still didn't know if they were just that, his own imagination becoming his own worst enemy as he slept, taunting him with what could possibly be happening to the prince whilst Merlin was sleeping. But there was something so vivid about them, Merlin couldn't help but think it was more than that, a sign of his link with the prince. He hoped not, for it meant he knew what Arthur was going through, and no one deserved that sort of pain.
Shakily standing up, Merlin yanked his shirt over his head, determined to push the dream from his mind. He threw the discarded shirt onto the floor before shrugging on a new one, making his way towards the door. He knew by the time he returned again, it would be clean and mended. He felt exceptionally guilty about the way he had treated his friends, and couldn't even express his gratitude towards them for putting up with him. They had stuck by him as he jeopardised not only his life, but theirs as well through his constant refusal to give up the search.
As the dream sprung back into his head, Merlin knew why he couldn't give up. If there was the slightest chance that the dreams were a reflection of what was happening to Arthur, he couldn't abandon him to it. He knew the prince would have never given up on anyone else, it was why they had spent an entire year looking for Morgana. Even thinking of her made Merlin feel sad. How had so much gone wrong in such a short space of time?
Making his way down the stairs, Merlin found Gaius waiting for him, breakfast on the table and the warlock's bag packed once again. Touched more than words, Merlin stopped still.
"You always forget something, Merlin, I had to make sure it wasn't food this time. Now come on, your porridge is getting cold." Lowering himself gingerly into the stool, Merlin began eating, not being sure what there was to say. Gaius had put up with him more than anyone, being on the receiving end of an angry outburst when Merlin considered how futile his quest was. Yet the physician never told him not to go, never said he was being foolish.
"How's the King?" Merlin eventually muttered around a mouthful. A genuine smile split his face when Gaius tutted at him in disapproval. For the first time, Merlin felt genuine sympathy for the man. He knew what the loss was doing to the once powerful monarch.
"He's sleeping again." Gaius responded dismissively, knowing that wasn't what Merlin meant. Merlin merely nodded, clearly understanding that Gaius was going to go no further than that. He finished his breakfast in silence, and stood up.
A look passed between physician and ward. Nothing was said, for words were not needed. They had said it all too many times before. As Merlin shouldered his bag, Gaius sighed.
"Be safe, my boy."
"Always," Merlin responded with a cheeky grin, and suddenly, the old Merlin was back for a split second. But then the smile faded and the haunted youth instead took back over. Gaius nodded and turned to his preparations. He couldn't face watching Merlin walk out of the door once more, knowing that he would be even more broken up the next time he returned. Despite not giving up, Gaius was a realist. Each day that passed he knew there was even less chance of finding Arthur alive.
There were very few people about as Merlin made his way to the stables. The stable master smiled sadly at him, but said not a word as he handed over a fresh mount. Merlin would want to cover a lot of ground, and the horse he had returned on the night before was certainly not up to it. The warlock was having to take a new one out each time, although everyone in the stables remarked on the fact that whilst they were tired, they were never exhausted. Despite his frantic searching, Merlin was making sure that whichever animal was bearing him at the time had the chance to recover from the ordeal. He could have so easily pushed them too far each time.
"Take care of her," the man said gruffly, opening the gate to let Merlin out. Merlin nodded his understanding as he swung himself into the saddle. He had just twisted around to make sure his bag was secure when something stopped him. Standing at the top of the steps, Uther Pendragon was watching him. Merlin swallowed slightly at the state of the king. He looked as exhausted as Merlin felt.
But as Merlin watched, he dipped his head in acknowledgement. Smiling, Merlin nodded back, taking the reins and trotting out of the gate. At least someone knew that he wasn't going to give up, and nor would Uther try and tell him too. If they were the only two left in the Kingdom who wouldn't give up on Arthur, then so be it. It was the only thing they had in common.
Merlin picked up speed as he left the city behind, breathing out and letting a spark of magic chose the direction for him today. He didn't know what it did, but without fail it led him to someone.
"Hang on, Arthur, I'm coming." His whisper was heard by no one but the horse as Merlin broke into a canter.
But far away, barely conscious, a pair of blue eyes blinked wearily, wondering whether he was imaging the voice. Even if he was, he was clinging onto the idea that someone was still looking for him.