Author's Note - Hello guys. Yes, I'm semi-back. I had an idea that I couldn't shake so I've started a new long-ish fic. Unfortunately, this means that several of my other on hiatus and in progress fics will be left by the wayside so sorry to those reading them. However, I hope you all enjoy this new fic. And bear with me whilst I get my bearings in the world of Merlin again.
"Nothing is working," Morgana hissed through her teeth, glaring into the heat of the fire. "Arthur grows stronger by the day. His kingdom – my kingdom! – is becoming larger and more impenetrable. He is protected from every angle and every plan; every assassination I attempt is thwarted." She slammed her fist down on the hard wood of her table. "But I cannot allow this to continue. Arthur and Camelot must fall." Her keen eyes searched the dancing flames, their green depths shimmering in the firelight.
"But what must be done?" A dark, mahogany tone sliced through her trance like an oar through swirling water. Her gaze snapped from the hearth to the speaker. Agravaine stared back with those beetle black, unfeeling eyes.
"We must find a new method of felling Arthur Pendragon," Morgana replied, her voice husky and intense with growing excitement. "If we cannot slay him by strength and sinew or even by the darkest of arts then we must strike somewhere new."
A nasty smile curled Morgana's beautifully pale lips. "His heart, of course. His heart and his soul."
"But how, m'lady?" Agravaine too had grown excited, his own mouth twisting into an expectant smirk.
"They say that Arthur is the heart of his kingdom, the 'golden child' of Camelot, beloved by the people for his courage, his integrity, his unquestionable loyalty." Contempt dripped from Morgana's lips with each word she spoke. She may have grown up with Arthur Pendragon; even called him her brother, but she held no love for him now. He was the enemy; the one obstacle between her and the throne of Camelot. It was her unwritten destiny to bring about his downfall. "So…we destroy his heart and we destroy Camelot – for good."
Arthur let out a howl of pain as the mace connected with his hand, his sword clattering to the ground. In total agony, almost blinded by the pain, he managed to duck to the left just in time to avoid a second blow that would have collided with his skull. Instead he heard the heavy ball whistle past his ear and smash into a nearby tree trunk. However, he didn't have much time to consider quite how lucky he'd been because his opponent was far from giving up. Scrambling around on the floor, Arthur found the hilt of his sword and tried to grab hold of the leather grip. Immediately, white-hot pain lanced through his hand. He couldn't even pick up his own sword!
For the first time in a long time Arthur felt fear prickle inside him. Without his fighting arm he was quite useless. This opposing group of knights would kill him instantly. But he couldn't give in yet. Flinging his left arm out, he grabbed the sword and rolled to his feet, careful not to use his injured hand as leverage. Once upright, he was in a better position to assess the situation and his options. Around him Sir Leon and Sir Elyan were fighting fiercely against three other knights whilst Percival was grappling with another against a tree – both of them seemed to have lost their weapons. Sir Gwaine and Merlin, however, were nowhere to be seen. Swallowing his worry at the absence of his weakest friend, Arthur focused on the task at hand. His sword felt slightly heavier and more ungainly in his left hand but thankfully the young king was skilled enough to ignore those differences. With renewed vigour he threw himself into battle against his opponent and soon enough the other man caved, ending up dead on the floor.
Arthur then turned his attention to the other knights and helped them take down their respective attackers. Eventually, the last couple of men fled and the Knights of Camelot found they could breathe a well deserved sigh of relief.
"That was…unexpected," Sir Elyan panted, his eyes still wide and adrenalin filled.
"Yes," Sir Leon agreed, looking perturbed, "Usually parties from enemy kingdoms would never dare venture so close to Camelot Castle itself. My lord, what do you…?" He had started addressing his king but then realised that Arthur was paying him no attention whatsoever. He was too busy looking frantically around the body strewn woodland. "My lord?"
"Where are they?" Arthur demanded. "Where are Sir Gwaine and Merlin?"
"Oh," Leon replied, surprised. He hadn't even noticed they were down in numbers. The fight had been thick, fast and dirty. There hadn't been much time to consider where his comrades were. "I don't….I didn't see."
All four knights began searching the surrounding forest but there was no sign of either man. After awhile they regrouped.
"My lord, I think we should return to Camelot. It is growing dark and your hand…" Percival gestured to Arthur's horribly swollen appendage. "I think it's broken. You'll need Gaius to attend to it."
"I'm not leaving my men behind."
"No. I shall not return until they are both safe. You know what Merlin's like, he attracts trouble like a drunkard to a barmaid." Despite the gravity of the situation Arthur couldn't help but take a jibe at his ill-fated manservant.
"We know, sire. Though he does have Sir Gwaine with him," Leon pointed out.
Arthur frowned. "I wouldn't trust Gwaine to look after my coat for more than an hour let alone a human being. Come on. We will look some more. They must be nearby. Merlin! Gwaine!" He shouted into the rapidly dimming forest before marching onward. His knights had no choice but to follow.
Tired and hungry, the depleted band of knights came to a halt at the edge of the forest and stared out onto the open meadowland. A flock of sheep were grazing quietly on the hilly pasture, their white fluffy bodies illuminated by the brightly shining moon. The world was eerily silent. A barn owl drifted like a shadow through the dark sky.
"My lord, I think we should return…" Leon began.
"There!" Arthur hollered abruptly, kicking his horse forward.
For a moment none of the knights could see what he was so excited about but then they too noticed the lumpy shape revealed by the movement of some of the sheep. They all stormed after their king, hoping they wouldn't be too late.
Arthur pulled his horse to an abrupt halt and leapt off the animal's broad back. The thud of his boots and the snorting of his horse scared the sheep and they scattered. This left only the lumpy shape in the middle of the field. The young man hurried towards it – his hand was half on his scabbard, just in case – and hissed, "Merlin?"
Slowly a head rose out of the dark mass and Arthur immediately recognised the scruffy mop of his best friend. He felt his heart swell in relief.
"Merlin!" he exclaimed, "Merlin, where on earth have you been? And please don't tell me you were taking a nap."
The way Merlin looked at him with slightly unfocused eyes told Arthur there was something wrong so he stopped his banter and immediately became serious.
"Are you hurt?" His tone was sharp and concerned.
"I…" Merlin began, "Not really." However the rough edge to his voice told Arthur otherwise. "It's Gwaine who needs help." He gestured to the misshapen lump beside him. "He was stabbed."
"Stabbed? Where? What the hell happened, Merlin?"
"His shoulder. I…I don't remember much," the manservant whispered, feebly.
"How can you not remember?"
"I think maybe because of this," Sir Elyan had joined them and he caught Merlin's head gently in his hands and tilted the crown towards Arthur. His raven black hair was glistening in the moonlight and stuck together in clumps and Arthur could just about make out the jagged cut to his scalp. "I think it was made by an axe butt but I can't be sure. Let's just say Merlin's lucky to be alive, let alone remember anything."
"No," Merlin murmured, "I said I didn't remember much but I do remember something. I was with you when the knights attacked."
"And god knows why they did," Leon interrupted, still worried about that unanswered question.
"But then two of them grabbed me. Gwaine saw, I think. I struggled so I guess they must have knocked me out. And other than that I have no idea how I ended up here or what happened to Gwaine other than he's badly injured and he probably saved my life."
"Well, let's get you both back to Camelot and Gaius," Arthur decided. He knelt down and helped Percival lift Gwaine, who was barely conscious, onto his horse – they had brought Merlin and Gwaine's abandoned horses with them. He watched as Elyan helped Merlin stagger to his feet and wobble over to his horse. If Arthur didn't know better then he would say that Merlin looked like he'd stayed for one too many tumblers of ale at the tavern. "He can't be expected to ride like that," Arthur said as Merlin practically walked into his mount's side. "Here, Percival, you lead Gwaine's horse back and Leon ride behind. Elyan and I will keep an eye on Merlin."
Once he'd issued his instructions, Arthur turned back to Merlin who was still struggling to clamber into his saddle. Suddenly, he let out a great retch and vomited on the ground.
"Lovely, Merlin, just what I want after a long day saving your backside. Again."
"Dunderhead," Merlin muttered but his insult lacked any bite as he leant against his horse's rump for support.
"Come on, you," Arthur sighed, "You're not riding in that state. You can ride behind me like the girl you truly are. Elyan, can you help Merlin onto Passelande, please?"
"Certainly, sire. Are you sure you don't wish for Merlin to ride with me though? I mean you have your hand…"
"My hand is fine for now," Arthur replied, sharply. Seeing Elyan's expression, he softened his tone. "Besides, I need you to ride behind to see if he falls off and if he does then just lift him straight back on."
"Of course, my lord."
After Arthur had mounted Passelande – with a little difficultly due to his injury – he helped Elyan to heave Merlin onto the saddle behind him. Once they were all set they headed off after the rest of the knights. Initially Merlin didn't hold onto Arthur but after a time he grew too exhausted to hold himself straight and he found himself leaning on his master in order to stop himself falling off.
"You alright, Merlin?" Arthur said, not turning round.
"Yeah," the manservant muttered, "Just giving you a hug."
"Hmm…" Arthur harrumphed in a half irritated manner but really he was just glad his friend was alright. "Just make sure you don't go to sleep. You mightn't ever wake up again."
"You'd like that wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, then maybe I could finally get some peace and quiet."
They rode back to Camelot in relative silence with only the beating of Passelande's hooves disrupting the night. Occasionally Arthur would nudge Merlin in the ribs just to make sure he stayed awake and wasn't lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement of the horse's loping gait. He received several frustrated shoves back for his trouble and several loud – perhaps deliberate – yawns in his ear. Eventually though they spotted the beautiful castle rising in the distance, large fires burning on the battlements to lead the king home. As usual, Arthur felt his heart beat a little faster when he saw Camelot, his home, safe haven and the heart of his kingdom. He was very glad to return.
When they arrived in the castle courtyard, Arthur waited for Elyan to help Merlin down off the horse and then slipped off himself. By this time Percival and Leon had taken Gwaine off his horse and were carrying him up to the front doors. Gaius and several others had come to meet them. They were all holding flaming torches that illuminated their tired faces and looked rather relieved to see the king's party return.
"My lord," Gaius began, ducking his head in a sign of respect before continuing, "What in god's name happened?"
"We were attacked by a band of knights, Gaius, other than that I have no idea. Sir Gwaine is seriously wounded and Merlin isn't fairing too well either."
"I will treat them immediately," Gaius replied, sparing a glance at his ward, "But, sire, what about your hand?" He had just caught a glimpse of the grotesque fist that Arthur was trying to hide by his side. The physician reached for it but Arthur pulled away.
"Gaius, treat Merlin and Gwaine. I will come and see you as soon as I have sorted out several other matters."
Gaius frowned at him, looking like he wanted to say more but refraining. "As you wish, my lord." He then followed Percival and Leon into the castle.
"Where is my uncle?" Arthur asked one of the bystanders. "I must speak with him."
"I believe he is in the council chambers, sire, anxiously awaiting your return. He has been in there for hours."
"And where is Guinevere?"
"She was with Lord Agravaine. She made him his supper."
"Good," Arthur nodded, "At least I know she is safe."
Swiftly, he thanked all the loyal people who had waited up for him and bid them to bed. Once they had dispersed he headed for the council chambers, eager to seek advice from his uncle but even more eager to see Guinevere's beautiful face.
Pushing open the grand doors of the council chambers, he immediately saw Agravaine pacing by the window and then his gaze sought out Gwen. He spotted her standing awkwardly in the corner, head down, fiddling with the collar of her pretty blue dress. A smile instantly graced Arthur's face.
"So, Guinevere, have you given up on me yet?" His tone was playful but also caring.
Gwen's head shot up and her face shone with happiness.
"Arthur!" She ran towards him, hitching up her skirt and threw herself into his arms. "I've been worried sick." Arthur grunted in pain as she knocked his injured hand and Gwen looked down, gasping when she saw it. "Oh, Arthur, what happened?" she breathed, hastily pulling away from him.
"Its superficial, I'm sure," Arthur replied, gruffly.
Gwen glowered at him. "Don't lie to me, Arthur Pendragon. You need to get that seen to now."
"But I wanted to see you," the young man said, sincerely and Gwen couldn't help but smile. However, that didn't stop her from giving him a half annoyed, half affectionate hit on the shoulder.
"And for that, I do love you but-"
"Ahem," Agravaine made his presence known, loudly, reminding the two lovers that they were not alone. Immediately, they leapt apart. "As much as it's lovely to see this little…reunion." He spoke as if there was something vile tasting on his lips. "The king and I must speak alone about what has occurred tonight."
"You are right, of course, Uncle." Arthur looked abashed. "Guinevere, I will see you tomorrow."
"Yes, my lord," Gwen said, curtseying and looking embarrassed. A red flush splashed her neck and her cheeks with colour. "But make sure you see Gaius before you go to bed."
"I will," Arthur assured her.
Gwen then left quickly and Arthur couldn't help watch her go, wistfully. However, he was brought back to earth as Agravaine plunged into hurried questioning.
"Were there…any casualties tonight, sire? Any…abductions?"
"Abductions? No. Well, actually, funny you should say that as Merlin nearly got kidnapped by a couple of knights. But that's just his bad luck shining through as always, I guess. However, we did have injuries. Gwaine was stabbed in the shoulder, Merlin given a nasty head wound and I…well I have damaged my hand with a mace. No deaths though, thankfully."
If Arthur hadn't of known better he would have almost said that his uncle looked disappointed by the night's results. In Arthur's opinion they had been very, very lucky to come out of that ambush as unscathed as they had.
"And the men? Did you…question them about why they were…ahem…in Camelot?"
"Didn't get the chance," Arthur sighed, rubbing the back of his head, "Two of them we killed and the rest escaped. We were more concerned with finding our lost men, to be honest."
"Oh, that's…good. Very noble of you," Agravaine said, quickly. "Never leave a man behind."
"Especially that young servant of yours, what's his name…Merlin?"
"No, I would never leave Merlin behind," Arthur admitted, feeling tiredness creeping into his mind, "Though one of these days I swear he'll get me killed with one of his no-brain mishaps. But he's one of my truest friends so I'd do anything for him."
"Even though he's a servant?" Agravaine queried, curiously.
Arthur glanced at him, looking for a moment unsure of his confiding in his uncle who had already expressed distaste at his relationships with servants. However, he was his own king now and he could like and dislike and make friends with whom he wanted.
"Yes, even though he is my manservant. I'd trust him with my life, Uncle, perhaps even more so than my knights."
"Hmm…it's good to have friends that you care about so much and that care about you."
"Yes. I don't know what I would do without them," the king replied, earnestly.
"Precisely," Agravaine seemed to agree, though Arthur found it a strange use of the word. Still, he made no comment. "You must sort out your hand now, Arthur. I will see you in the morning. Good night, my lord."
"Good night, Uncle."