Title: The Coming of Arthur Part 1.5, Or the One Where Merlin Drags Arthur Kicking and Screaming to His Destiny
Summary: To have the coming of Arthur, one must remember the shoving, pushing and dragging of Merlin.
A/N: This has been long in coming, but I've always been interested in that between time, in the middle of The Coming of Arthur parts 1 and 2. Merlin really had to step up, and do a lot, and he barely gets any credit at all. Even the flipping episode is called "The Coming of Arthur" as if he did all the work. I thought I'd write something that showed just how hard Merlin had it during that time. I tried to stick to canon as much as possible, and towards the end there are some lines from the episode. No slash, and rated T forwhump, and wound type stuff...you know me. :P
The proceedings down in the throne room went ignored by Merlin, as Arthur sagged against the railing they hid behind. He could tell that Morgana's betrayal, one that he'd had months to come to terms with and still sent him reeling if he thought about it for too long, was hitting Arthur hard. The prince's face was bowed, but Merlin could imagine the expression, after all, it was probably the same one he'd made, that day when the last immortal army had attacked Camelot. The betrayal and hurt was enough to send a man to the ground.
But Arthur had other things to worry about, not the least of which was the current immortal army squatting in his castle, not to mention the festering wound on his thigh.
Merlin put a hand on Arthur's shoulder, trying to lend some strength.
"Arthur," He whispered, trying to break the other man's gaze from the woman smirking on the throne. "We must go-" Arthur was already shaking his head, but Merlin persisted, tightening his grip.
"If they find us, we have no chance. We have to meet the others in the woods, and regroup."
Arthur turned, and met his eyes with a tortured gaze.
"How could she do this?" He gasped, ragged with pain and emotion. Merlin shook his head.
"I don't know, but we'll find out. First, we need to leave. Alright?"
Arthur swallowed, and nodded. Merlin sighed in relief, and started to crawl backwards from their hiding place. He'd gotten a few feet, when he realized that Arthur wasn't following. He growled in exasperation, and moved forwards again, gripping the prince's arm.
"Come on, Arthur. We have to move." He tugged, and slowly Arthur came with him, painfully crawling backwards until they were in no danger of being seen from below if they stood, not that Arthur took advantage of that. He was hunched on the ground, and Merlin laid a quick hand on his brow.
"You're burning up again." He murmured, more to himself than Arthur. Gaius' potion must be wearing off, leaving Arthur more drained than before. Wonderful.
Well, first off he had to get Arthur to his feet. They had to get out of the castle undetected if they wanted any chance of surviving to take back the kingdom. Merlin just prayed that Arthur would stay conscious; he couldn't drag him out by himself, not without Arthur's help or using magic (which he wanted to avoid for now, there was no telling if Morgause or Morgana would be able to sense it).
"Alright, come on you lazy idiot." Merlin mumbled, positioning himself underneath Arthur's arm, and grunting as he pushed upwards. "Up and at 'em, right? Just like every morning." Arthur seemed to gather himself, and then they were standing, Merlin taking much of Arthur's weight.
"Okay, great. We're standing. Now we just have to make it through the entire castle, undetected by the immortal army or by the two witches who want both our heads, and out into the forest to meet the others..." Merlin trailed off, and shrugged. "No problem, then."
"You do talk some rubbish, Merlin." Arthur murmured weakly, and Merlin gave a laugh, something lightening in his chest.
"Let's get moving, shall we, Sire?" Merlin whispered back, still smiling slightly. Arthur, face drawn and pale, nodded.
They made their way through the main areas of the castle, avoiding discovery, and hobbling as quickly as they could. Arthur's injury and subsequent fever and exhaustion slowed them, and Merlin was panting when they reach the passageway that would lead them to the underground tunnels, and out of the city. He almost didn't hear the clink of the chain mail of the guards. It would have been their lives.
He stopped, forcing Arthur to stop as well. Merlin clamped his mouth shut against his heavy breathing, and prayed that they didn't hear Arthur's gasps. He leaned the prince against the wall for a moment, immediately feeling his shoulder seize up in protest of the change in weight -he would be sore tomorrow- and peeked around the corner. There were two guards standing in the path of the tunnels, and Merlin cursed internally. He should have known that Morgana wouldn't leave her favorite castle escape unwatched. He quickly ran through ideas. Immortal guards, meaning they couldn't be killed or knocked out, so that left distraction and sneaking by.
Glancing around, Merlin peered up the way they'd come, and whispered a few words. Immediately, a storage door burst open, and a shower of extra helmets and armour poured out, making a great clattering. The two guards jumped, and looked at each other, before one ran off down the tunnel, passing by the two men in the shadows.
One down. Thinking quickly, Merlin extinguished the flames on all the lanterns, sending the tunnel into complete darkness. Ignoring the shouts of the guards, he dragged Arthur, who was barely upright at this point, forwards, towards the remembered path, and out through the tunnels. Dragging the prince with one arm round his waist, and sliding his other hand along the walls, he kept moving, even as his lungs burned, and sweat dripped down his face.
Finally, there was a glow of dusk from up ahead, coming through the grate that led to outside the walls of Camelot. Another blast of magic (Merlin prayed that Arthur would think all of this was a fever dream) and they were through.
Gasping, Arthur sank to his knees, and unable to support him any longer, Merlin fell with him. The rocky ground dug into his legs, and as the sun went down the sweat chilled on his body, making him shiver. Arthur beside him, was shaking too, and Merlin pushed away his own exhaustion to look to his friend. Arthur knelt, bowed and trembling, face damp and grimacing. The arrow wound had to be agony by now, Gaius' remedy long since worn off. He'd spent the day walking on it, and Merlin could see the tight lines of Arthur's face.
"How is your leg?" Merlin asked, finally catching his breath. Arthur didn't respond, stuck in his own inner world of hurt and betrayal. Merlin huffed out a final breath, steadying himself for more work. They couldn't stop yet, not until they found Gaius, Gwaine, and Elyan. Gaius would be able to help Arthur, and they had to heal and regroup in order to figure out a plan. Merlin also had a thought that maybe he should try to contact Lancelot as well. He needed all the allies he could gather, and his presence would be a mighty help.
Groaning, realizing that his legs were already stiffening, Merlin pushing himself to his feet, and then dragged Arthur up as well. They both swayed once there, and Merlin had an absurd feeling of accomplishment at their feat. Shaking his head, he mumbled to himself. "Not there yet, Merlin."
They needed to head west, and meet up with the rest of the group, so Merlin turning in the appropriate direction, and took a deep breath. The first step forward was almost too much to bear, but then they were moving, and even Arthur seemed to gather new strength, for a while. Unfortunately, it didn't last, and soon Merlin was gasping again, and Arthur was mostly unconscious. Merlin had his right arm firmly around Arthur's waist, Arthur's arm over his shoulders, and gripped tight by Merlin's left hand. But it wasn't enough, Merlin's strength was giving out, and soon he was simply glad of each step forward. It was one more step away from Morgana.
Then, wonder of all wonders, he heard Gwaine's low call, trying to get his attention. He'd been found!
Merlin felt the strength rush out of his limbs in relief, and he couldn't stop both him and Arthur from falling to the ground as his knees buckled. Only Gwaine's quick reflexes stopped the pair of them from slamming into the rocky ground.
"Whoa!" Gwaine said, gripping Merlin's shoulder, and Arthur's limp arm. He lowered them to the ground, peering closely to find any injuries.
"Merlin, are you hurt?" He asked urgently, running sure hands down Merlin's arms and legs, then Arthur's, avoiding the previous arrow wound. Merlin shook his head, vaguely.
"Arthur needs to lose some weight..." Merlin murmured. His arms flopped uselessly on the ground as he attempted to push himself up. He gave up and just lay there, blinking up at Gwaine, who had a grin on his face.
"So, you're alright then?" He asked, reaching out, and pulling Merlin up until he sat on the ground, cross legged next to Arthur's unconscious body.
"I'm fine, tired." Merlin murmured, looking Arthur over. He reached out to feel his head, but couldn't quite make his arms move where he wanted them to go. His hands were shaking. Gwaine placed a hand on Arthur's brow instead, frowning slightly.
"What is it?" Merlin asked. Gwaine didn't answer for a moment too long, and Merlin snapped. "Gwaine!" Gwaine clutched his shoulder, silencing him and consoling him.
"He has a fever, but that's nothing new. Calm down, Merlin."
Merlin breathed deeply, feeling new strength return to his limbs, though not nearly enough. His hand's tremors slowed enough that he could lay a hand on Arthur's overly warm forehead. Gwaine was right, bad, but not too bad yet.
"Sorry," Merlin said. "Where are the others?"
"They're around here somewhere, we split to look for you." Gwaine put two fingers in his mouth, whistling a call that sounded like birdsong. It was returned a moment later from somewhere to their right. "That was Elyan. Gaius was hopeless at whistling, but hopefully, he heard and is on his way."
"We need Gaius." Merlin said, panic beginning to rise up in his throat as his tiredness lessened. Was Arthur's fever getting worse against his fingers? Gwaine put his hand on Merlin's, pulling it off Arthur's brow and wrapping his fingers around it.
'I know, Merlin. He'll be here."
Merlin nodded jerkily, still staring at Arthur's overly pale face, flushed with two red spots high on his cheekbones. "I- I know. I know."
The tension of the last few hours...days..was rushing out of him, leaving his limbs even shakier than before. His breaths quickened, and Merlin was ashamed to feel tears prick at his eyes. Gwaine dropped his hand, and put his arms around Merlin, tugging him closer.
"Hey, hey. It's alright. It's just the shock. You'll be fine, Arthur will be fine." Gwaine murmured, and after a while it blended into a comforting litany, while Gwaine's slow breaths eased the pressure behind Merlin's own ribcage. He dropped his head onto the other man's shoulder, and sighed deeply. Gwaine pulled away, to look him in the eye.
"Better?" Merlin nodded, embarrassed, but calm. He was glad of it, for at that moment, Gaius and Elyan came into sight. Gaius went to Arthur, but not before giving Merlin a long look. Merlin was sure that his face was pale, eyes rimmed red, but Arthur was in much worse shape.
Gaius confirmed his thoughts with his grim face, the one that family members weren't supposed to be able to read on a physicians face, but that Merlin had always seen through. Arthur was not well.
"We need to get him back to the shelter." Gwaine and Elyan moved forward and lifted Arthur in a soldier's carry, settling him atop their shoulders, while being careful of his leg.
"Gaius, help him." Gwaine said then, nodding to Merlin, who still sat on the forest floor. He could barely find the energy to stay upright, let alone stand, but he did have enough to shrug at Gaius' questioning gaze when he knelt in front of him.
"Merlin? Are you alright?" Merlin nodded, and put his hand in Gaius' outreached one, and stood. He tried not to lean too heavily on the old man, but he was finding it hard to keep his eyes open. Gaius tutted, and stepped forwards, forcing Merlin to walk with him.
He wasn't sure where they were going, with Gwaine and Elyan (and Arthur) leading the way, and Gaius and him trailing along behind. He trusted them to lead him to a place where Gaius could take care of Arthur.
What seemed like seconds later he was eased down to the ground by a pair of strong hands.
"A'thur?" He murmured, and he heard a chuckle.
"Lay down, Merlin," He was pushed down on his side, something soft appearing under his cheek. "Arthur will be fine."
"Mmkay..." And Merlin was whisked off into sleep.
When he woke, it was to darkness and alarmed voices. Footsteps walked past him, and Merlin blinked enough see to Elyan's retreating back, heading to the mouth of the caves. Caves? He wondered for a second, but then turned his attention to the back of the caves, where Elyan was walking from. Gaius and Gwaine were leaning over a prone figure, one who was thrashing in his sleep.
Heart in his throat, Merlin leaped up from his bedroll, one he didn't remember getting into the evening before, and tore across the room to Arthur's side.
"What is it? What's happened?" He asked as he came up. Gaius glanced at him.
"Merlin, you should still be asleep."
Merlin ignored that, coming closer, and seeing Arthur clearly for the first time. His face was beaded with cold sweat, flushed and pained looking. They'd removed his armour, and mail, and his shirt was open, and soaked. Merlin put a hand out, and his forehead was burning.
"Gaius, what's happened?" Merlin asked harshly.
"The fever rose dramatically a little while ago. Elyan's gone to fetch more cold water, but I am without many of my supplies. There is little I can besides keep him cool." Merlin looked at Gaius, eyes wide.
"What of the wound?"
"Inflamed, but not too bad. I fear this is simply overwork and exhaustion. Yesterday was too much for his body to handle."
Merlin bit his lip, looking down at Arthur. "What supplies do you need?"
Gaius started. "No Merlin-
"I can get them! I know what herbs are in the forest, and I can sneak into the city if needed!"
"It's too dangerous." Gaius stressed. 'If you're caught, you'll be killed!"
Merlin looked pleadingly at Gwaine, who thus far had knelt on the far side of Arthur, keeping silent.
"Please, Gaius! I can't just sit here, and do nothing. Not when I can help."
Gwaine put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, but whether that was support or to calm him, Merlin did not know.
Gaius looked immovable. "I have some supplies still, Merlin. I will treat him the best we can, and go from there."
Merlin felt rage wash over him, at the inability to do something, at falling asleep before, and letting it get this bad. "Heal him, Gaius. I will not forgive you if something happens to him." Merlin seethed, letting his anger get the better of him. Gaius reared back, eyes hurt, and then he turned to focus on Arthur. Merlin felt ashamed, but did not take back his words.
Elyan returned that moment with a full skin of cool water, and Gaius set to work, bathing the wound, and forcing down what few herbs he had. Merlin bathed Arthur's face and neck in the cool water, and Gwaine sat by him, watching and supporting.
It was hours later that Arthur's fever broke. Merlin hadn't said a word since his threat to Gaius, and wouldn't make eye contact with anyone; he only focused on the feel of the cloth in his hands, and the coolness of the water against his fingers. The pattern that wet cloth made over Arthur's face calmed his mind, and stopped him from thinking of the hurtful words to Gaius, and the fact that he hadn't taken them back yet. They weren't true... he was tired, and he let anger get a hold of his tongue. At least, Merlin didn't think they were true...
When Arthur broke into a sweat, his skin much cooler, Merlin went limp with relief, putting a shaky hand to his head. Gwaine tugged him up from his seat, and Merlin had a mild curiosity whether Gwaine had gotten any sleep at all. It was the early morning hours now, and Merlin tried to tell Gwaine to go to bed while he still could sleep in relative darkness. But somewhere in his sleep deprived brain, the words got jumbled, and what came out was utter nonsense. Gwaine simply smiled, and pushed him down upon on a sleeping mat. Then Merlin remembered Gaius, and how awful he'd been to him.
"Wait..." Merlin muttered, and Gwaine paused.
"What is it?" Merlin shook his head, looking around.
"Gaius." Gwaine nodded, and looked off to the left. Then footsteps came closer, and Gwaine stepped back to make room for Gaius to kneel beside him. Merlin lunged upwards for a hug.
"'M sorry, Gaius." Merlin said into Gaius' rough clad shoulder. "Didn't mean it." Gaius hummed in acknowledgement, rubbing Merlin's back.
"I know, my boy." He said. "I know."
Gaius eased him out of the embrace, and down to lay flat. Once Merlin's head hit the softness of the bedroll, his eyes immediately felt as if there was a horse sitting on each of them. He fought for a moment, wanting one last glance at Arthur, fever free, before letting himself fall asleep again.
Arthur healed slowly, waking only in increments over the next day after his fever broke. Merlin watched over him, while also taking control of their little group, much to his surprise. Gwaine and Elyan looked to him for answers, and Gaius stood back and let him lead, while Arthur was ill. Not that he had answers, Merlin knew as little as the rest of them. But it was an odd feeling.
The prince rolled over sharply in his blankets on the cold ground, and then jolted awake, eyes flashing wide. Merlin pretended not to see the sheen in the blue eyes before being blinked away.
"Arthur, are you awake?"
Merlin knelt next to him. He'd been about to check the man's head, when Arthur had come awake, and Merlin was still a bit startled. Arthur blinked.
"Merlin...that really happened then?"
Arthur's voice was desolate, and Merlin lowered his head in sorrow.
"Yes. I'm sorry." Arthur closed his eyes, and rolled over, cutting off Merlin's attempt at comfort or any further conversation. His regular deep breathing showed that Arthur was not asleep, but the dismissal was clear as anything. Merlin nodded, and backed off, leaving Arthur to process.
A few times he approached Arthur, willing to talk, listen or anything else Arthur needed, but he was brushed off each and every time. He knew Arthur needed time to process, to think, but it was time they didn't have. Each day Morgana tightened her hold on Camelot, and Merlin was tense with anticipation as to what the future would bring. They could not let the city stay in her hands, that was for certain.
The caverns in the woods outside of Camelot had that damp, cold, echoing quality that most caves in the woods did. This wouldn't be so terrible if the group didn't have to live there for the better part of the week while Arthur's wound healed and Merlin tried his best to gather more men (at the very least Lancelot) via letters sent from a fairly nearby outpost, hold his master together and keep everyone alive and relatively comfortable. Gaius was a great help in the first item, having managed to gather a few of his medical supplies before fleeing Camelot, and Gwaine lifted nearly every one's spirits just by being himself. But Merlin still felt the stress of Arthur's despondency, of Morgana's treachery more than ever, and of everyone else's expectations, especially now that he seemed to have become the de facto leader of their little band.
After that first night, where exhaustion and stress had nearly caused him to have a breakdown, he'd worked extra hard at being the strong leader that the others needed him to be, with Arthur down. It tired him more than ever before, but he'd managed to keep it together since then.
Rubbing his forehead, Merlin worked on lighting the little fire, trying to chase away the chill of the cave for the night. Gwaine worked beside him, skinning a rabbit he and Elyan had caught for their dinner, and further off, Gaius tended to Arthur's leg. It had been bad for a while, the full day of walking and sneaking and fighting on the already poisoned arrow wound had aggravated it enough for a high fever to take hold, and much of their first night here was spent trying to douse the fire that raged through the prince's body. That was two days ago, and Arthur was well on his way to recovery...physically, at least. The revelation of Morgana's true self had hit him hard, very hard.
He had yet to say much, but Merlin could see the emotions raging in his eyes, and knew that Arthur's silences were a reflection of anything but calm inside.
Crackle. Finally, the fire caught, and Merlin sat back with a sigh. It would have been so much easier to light with his magic, but now more than ever, he wanted to keep his powers a secret. In these close quarters it was hard to keep even the smallest thing to himself, so he didn't want to risk being overheard, least of all by Arthur.
He glanced over that the prince. Merlin had seen how Morgana's betrayal had affected him, he could see now how the knowledge that she had hidden so much from him ate at his heart. Merlin could not help but see parallels between the now-queen, and himself, at least in keeping things from Arthur. He felt like he now had a vision of the future, right in front of him. Arthur would see his lies as another betrayal. If Merlin told Arthur, if Arthur found out, then this is how he would react. Before, the imagined conversations of the 'big reveal' had involved anger on Arthur's part, and explanations from his. If he were feeling secure in Arthur's friendship, he'd imagine that maybe maybe, the prince would understand. Mostly, he pictured waiting for some untold day, when Uther's presence didn't make telling Arthur either suicide or expecting him to betray his father in the worst way. He held on to the hope, that 'things would be different when Arthur was king.
But now, now Merlin could see that the longer he waited, the worse the betrayal would be. Likewise, if he told him now, he didn't know if Arthur could recover. Their friendship would never be the same, in any case. Merlin felt the strings of his heart stretched tight, and ever pulsing in the center was the feeling that he must do what is best for Arthur, and by extension Camelot, even if it destroyed him.
And so, he would wait, and lie and hide himself just as he had always done.
There was another reason, that only exhaustion and depression could even make him admit now. He was afraid. Merlin had had the thought that their friendship would never be the same, and that was entirely correct. And Merlin liked the way things were, for the most part, even if things sometimes were so hard. Because the alternative scared him even more. He was terrified. Telling Arthur would mean that Arthur would have to choose between him and his father, and he didn't want to do that to Arthur, true, but he also didn't think he could live with the hurt that would come if Arthur didn't choose him (not to mention the fact that he might be dead, in that case.) If Arthur choose to follow the laws, and turn him in or run him through, or even send him away, Merlin's heart and soul would shatter. His entire life was invested in Arthur, and if he didn't have that, he didn't know what he would do.
"Merlin? Merlin. Are you in there?" Merlin blinked suddenly, realizing he'd been staring off into the twilight, and that Gwaine was talking to him.
"There you are, mate. I was wondering when you'd join the realms of the living." Merlin breathed out, rubbing the back of his neck, which had gone stiff while he'd thought. Gwaine clapped him on the shoulder. "We've enough people sitting in silence for you to start too..." Gwaine then said, glancing over at Arthur. After Gaius had treated him, he'd gone back to his position against the wall, staring at nothing, like Merlin had been doing. Merlin wondered if their thoughts had been similar. Shaking his head, he gave Gwaine a small smile.
"Sorry, just...thinking." There was much of that going around. Gwaine seemed to read his unsaid thoughts, but changed the subject.
"I was going to say that you should get some rest. You've worked hard these last few days." Merlin felt warmed by the concern and acknowledgment in Gwaine's voice.
"I just did what anyone would have done, with Arthur not well." Gwaine chuckled.
Merlin smiled, and poked at the fire, letting the silence fall.
"You should get some sleep, though." Elyan said, coming up behind Merlin and making his ears prick. Merlin didn't take his eyes off the fire, shaking his head.
Elyan and Gwaine both subsided, though Merlin could feel their eyes on him afterwards. It made his skin crawl.
"I think I'll go find some firewood." Merlin stood, started towards the mouth of the cave. Elyan's eyebrow raised as he glanced to the tall stack that had already been collected.
"Merlin," Elyan called, but Gwaine cut him off, standing and drawing his sword.
"Take this with you." Gwaine said, handing it to Merlin hilt first. Merlin gripped it tightly and nodded, before turning to head out into the dark and chill night.
Merlin didn't walk far from the cave's mouth; simply wandering in the misty darkness, gripping the sword loosely at his side.
Then the crunch of leaves behind him made him stiffen: if it were Gwaine or Elyan come to see he hadn't been eaten yet, or impaled himself on his own sword, he'd find a use for the blade. However, he turned to see the shadowy form of Gaius making his way towards him.
"Gaius." Merlin said in greeting.
"Merlin, what are you doing wandering out here?" Gaius reached him, and peered at his face. "It's not safe."
"I'm fine. I've got a sword." Merlin waved the tip around slightly. "I'm just...thinking."
"That's what worries me." Gaius murmured. Merlin quirked the corner of his mouth. "Some say talking about your thoughts can help."
Merlin sighed, and smiled gratefully at his mentor. "It's just...Arthur, and this whole situation."
Gaius patted his shoulder. "You have been carrying the burden of leadership rather well these few days, Merlin."
Merlin turned to face the mouth of the cave, his face sobering at Gaius' praise.
"Do you think he'll be alright? He isn't taking this very well." That was an understatement.
Gaius nodded. "Arthur is a strong man. He'll pull through. You must remember that Arthur has known Morgana for his whole life, even before she came to live at Camelot. That not only is she his actual sister, but that she has magic and plots to kill him and take over Camelot, all in one fell swoop, is quite a lot to handle. Young Arthur has done well under the circumstances."
Merlin looked to the ground. "I suppose you're right. After all, I had months to come to terms with her turn to Morgause."
"But now you both know. Shared knowledge can accomplish a great deal, in my experience."
Merlin nodded absently, turning his head to Camelot.
"Do you think we can take it back, Gaius?"
"Yes." Gaius' voice was firm, and unyielding. Merlin turned to look at him.
"I believe in you, and what you and Arthur can accomplish together."
Merlin felt a little overwhelmed at the confidence, ducking his head.
A week had passed since the little band of stragglers had made their escape from the castle of Camelot. Morgana had been Queen, and no news filtered from the city. Arthur's wound healed without further mishap, and though Merlin knew it still pained him slightly, it wasn't enough to slow him down—that is, of course, if Arthur actually decided to move again.
The prince had spent the last few days since regaining consciousness brood as Merlin had never seen him do before. He only sat on the floor in the back of the cave, staring into space, and frankly, Merlin was tired of it.
He'd ignored his master most of the day, moving about, getting the fire lit (and magically keeping the smoke thin and light) preparing a light breakfast, before taking off into the woods, sword in hand, towards the outpost.
It could barely be called a village, but there was a tavern (a fact he conveniently forgot to tell Gwaine) an inn, and a few houses. There were also people willing to run messages, for a price. A few coins from Arthur's purse, and he'd sent letters to Lancelot, begging him to come help; they needed all the help they could get.
The outpost had no reply as of yet, and so with a heavy heart, Merlin turned back towards the caverns they were staying in.
He was walking back when he suddenly noticed the forest fall silent, the birds which had previously been singing grow still.
Merlin paused, looking around carefully. His fingers tightened around the blade in his hand, even as his magic rose up inside him, ready for anything. Then from behind him, a sudden roar made him whirl around, raising his blade. With a clash, the reflexes Arthur had pounded into him saved his life, as his sword blocked a fatal blow from one of Cenred's men. The two black surcoats swarmed him, and he realized that the only way to survive is to run. He blocked another sword swing, and then pushed with his magic, creating a wall of fire that crested like a wave towards the soldiers. They fell back, cries of alarm swiftly silenced as they forgot and then remembered their immortal state. Merlin rolled his eyes, but he was already running, dodging around trees, and desperately bringing to mind any hunting techniques Arthur had ever mentioned.
The soldiers gave chase as the flames dissipated. Merlin ran as fast as he could ever remember doing, glancing back once to twice to find the men falling behind. They lost sight of him as Merlin dived into a gully. Standing, panting, ready with his sword, he waited to see if they had seen where he went. Luck was on his side; they did not follow.
Breathing hard, he made his way through the rocky hills until he reach the cave the rest of his group were in. Gwaine came out to meet him, probably having heard his gasp for breath. They entered the cavern, and Merlin unslung his bag, and dropped the sword against the wall, wanting nothing more than to fall down flat on his bed in Camelot.
Elyan handed him a water flask, which he raised to his lips eagerly. To his utter disappointment, only a few drops fell to his lips.
"I'll get some more," Elyan said, taking it back.
"It's too dangerous." Merlin replied, remembering the soldiers following him just outside.
"What happened?" Gaius asked from further in the cave. Merlin shook his head, coming down the stone steps.
"Nothing." He said firmly. Merlin glanced over at Arthur, still leaning where he'd left him, sitting in the dark at the back of the cave. A quick sigh was lost amid his fading pants, then Merlin stepped up closer to Gaius.
"We need to do something, Morgana's men are everywhere." Merlin whispered.
Gaius looked over at the prince, and Merlin followed his gaze. Arthur was sitting, as he'd been when he first came in. His gaze was distant, and if Merlin hadn't checked his head that morning, he might have thought him sickening with a fever. But Arthur was only sick in the heart now, and Merlin felt a twinge of sympathy amidst his annoyance.
Yes it was inconvenient timing for Arthur to be processing all this right now, but Merlin could understand his upset. Morgana had, to Arthur's eyes, made a complete reversal of her character. One might almost have thought her enchanted, if Merlin had not seen the gradual descent with his own eyes. Arthur had been blinded by a past childhood with her, so the change must have seemed impossibly sudden.
But, be that as it may, now was not the time. Their little band needed a leader, and they needed a plan. Merlin would not do, they needed Arthur. Camelot needed Arthur.
Merlin looked heavenward, and breathed out.
"Has there been any change?" Merlin asked Gaius in a lower tone than before. Gaius shook his head.
"He barely responds, though I know the wound still pains him." Gaius murmured. Merlin looked over at him again.
"Perhaps I'll have better luck…" He muttered.
Gaius left him to his thoughts, and Merlin rose to prepare a bowl of food: at the very least he could keep Arthur nourished. Their meat supply was very low, and he didn't want to know what this last bit was that Gwaine had caught earlier. Once it was in the thin soup, it didn't matter much anyway. It would fill their bellies, and that was all Merlin could really ask for at this point.
He brought it over to Arthur, and knelt down beside the seated prince, holding the bowl out with a grim smile.
"It's rat." He said enticingly, remembering a time when that was a joke between them. Arthur was in no mood, however. He sighed and raised a hand to cover his face.
"Oh, believe me, you've eaten far worse. I mean, I've definitely served you things that I would never have touched, but you wolfed them down no problem—"
"Merlin, please," Arthur cut him off, his eyes closed. "For once, just leave me in peace. Please."
Merlin sighed, clenched his teeth, and placed the bowl down beside the prince. He stood to leave him, as he'd asked, but then Merlin could stay silent no longer.
"I understand. Your father lied to you about Morgana, I don't know why. I'm sure he had his reasons, but now is not the time for that." Merlin's voice was agitated, and he spoke quickly, getting it out. "He's still your father, he needs you. Camelot needs you."
Arthur was still looking away, and he spoke roughly.
"I've known her all my life. How could she do this to us?" He spoke of Morgana, and Merlin felt another flare of annoyance, this time at her. This was her doing, and all that they had gone through these past few days could be traced back to her in fat lines.
"I can't answer that, but you have a duty to your father, to your people." Merlin pushed away his own feelings, appealing to Arthur's love of Camelot. Surely if anything could draw him out of this, it would be that tie, the one that had driven him to drink poison to pass the test, the one that had him riding out at the front lines every time. Arthur had to rise out of this funk, and start acting like the prince he was! "You can't abandon them now."
"We can't defeat an immortal army." Arthur met his eyes, voice was matter of fact, and Merlin was chilled to realize that he wasn't just processing; he'd actually given up. Arthur had conceded the throne to Morgana, if only in his mind. Anger more powerful rose up, and Merlin desperately ground out a final word.
"We don't know until we try."
Arthur turned away, and stared at whatever it was on the wall that was so interesting, and Merlin gave up. Disappointment clutched at his chest as he turned away, and knelt in front of the fire.
That tang of disappointment did not leave until after Arthur's jumbled thank you/apology the next day, after their cobbled together plans, and their unlikely success. Arthur stood up, and did what he had to, and Merlin's respect for him grew. But in the days that followed, Merlin realized something had changed during that time, when Arthur let him down, and Merlin had to rise up and lead. There was some difference in his and Arthur's interactions that he could not define.
However, it didn't really matter, for nothing had changed. Arthur was still that sometimes pratty prince, and Merlin his sort of, not really incompetent servant. And that was enough.